Including the Mets, all major league ballplayers are conditioned to deliver specific “talking points” when asked a question by the media. Occasionally though, the human nature of the player breaks through the ice, and we get a glimpse at the genuine character of the player. This is what we saw yesterday at Mets camp.
Well, here we go. Only a few days into Mets training camp, newly appointed manager, Mickey Callaway, he of the much-heralded communication skills is about to receive his first test. Zack Wheeler is publicly pouting regarding the possibility he might be starting the season in the bullpen, or even worse at Triple-A Las Vegas.
We’ll get the reason why in a second, but this is what happens when a player lets his guard down, moving away from those talking points and what he’s supposed to say – to becoming – human! It’s the same as when Wilmer Flores was seen crying on the field when he thought he had been traded to the Brewers. Except for this time, Wheeler went entirely off the reservation.
It all stems from the Mets signing of Jason Vargas to a two-year $16 million deal with an option for a third season. Vargas earned that contract via the season he had last year with the Kansas City Royals when he went 18-11 with a 4.17 ERA and a WHIP of 1.3. His WAR was almost four wins above replacement. That’s quite a season and the reason the Mets consider themselves fortunate to have him on their staff.
In these situations when a player comes on board representing a threat to your job, Wheeler should have mouthed the words he is trained to utter. “Jason Vargas is one helluva pitcher, and we’re happy to have him here. The more, the merrier. All I can do and fully expect to do is go out there and pitch effectively when they call my name. Whether it’s out of the bullpen or as a starter, I’m just here to help the team. The rest is out of my hands.” Sound familiar? Instead, though, we get this.
“I’m just here to be a starting pitcher.” Really?
If I were a fly on the wall in Sandy Alderson’s office, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Wheeler is not held in very high esteem by the Mets, and that includes both his pitching and character. At the age of 28 now and in the middle of what should be his prime years, Wheeler is projected by Baseball Reference to finish the 2018 season at 5-7 with a 4.81 ERA, and managing only 103 innings pitched.
This is nothing to write home about and indeed no reason to say anything about your status with the Mets at this point in the season. Wheeler signed a contract with the team and will be paid almost two-million American dollars, whether he starts, pitches batting practice, mops up games out of the bullpen, or shines the shoes of Yoenis Cespedes.
Here’s another episode from the files on Zack Wheeler two years ago indicating he there’s an “edge” to his personality that rears it’s ugly head, maybe once to often.
Very quietly, Mickey Callaway needs to nip this one in the bud, and in doing so, he will set the parameters of behavior he expects not only from Wheeler but the entire team. You know the words to the song – “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play” – well, they’re all ready to play and to his credit so is Wheeler. But no player (we’ll see about Manny Machado and his insistence on playing shortstop) gets to tell his manager where and when he will play.
Wheeler, now a veteran by most standards, should have learned that long ago. And maybe emotions got the better part of him for a split second in that interview. Or maybe, we caught a glimpse beyond the facade, and the true nature of Zack Wheeler is revealed. We’ll never know, and we don’t need to know. Mickey Callaway, though, does need to find out what makes this guy tick and act on it accordingly.
Cancer can spread quickly in a clubhouse, and while I’m not trying to run the panic flag up, this is a test that Callaway needs to ace (now).