2:15 pm Feb. 26, 2013
The New York Mets are busily preparing for the season, and they'd like you to know a couple of things.
Johan Santana is going to pitch on Opening Day, and be a vital part of this Mets team.
Also: Zack Wheeler won't be on the Opening Day roster, and will by plying his trade in Las Vegas.
The story has remained the same, even after the events of this past weekend would seem to throw both ideas into question.
First came news that Santana would have his spring debut delayed by as much as two weeks. The Mets were circumspect about why, with general manager Sandy Alderson taking pains above all to make it clear nothing bad had happened.
"Again, there's no structural issue," Alderson told reporters Friday. "It's a matter of just getting into a development progression. It's not a soreness thing. I wouldn't even call it a weakness. It's just where he is in his program is somewhat behind based on his winter and the injury from last year and his loss of the second half of the season. So he's just a little behind schedule."
Of course, one of the advantages touted by Alderson to shutting Santana down last August was that he'd properly rest and come into spring training with no restrictions. So getting up to two weeks lopped off of his preparation time right off the bat is an ominous sign for a pitcher with the recent health history Santana has.
Still, if Santana can begin to pitch within two weeks, and suffer no further setbacks, he can still pitch on Opening Day. The issue isn't so much that as what comes after: Santana pitched only 117 innings last season, and was completely ineffective in the weeks following his no-hitter on June 1, though some have attributed his downfall to pitching through an ankle injury, not throwing a career-high 134 pitches in one outing.
Either way, he didn't come close to pitching effectively for a full season, after missing the 2011 season entirely, and having his 2009 and 2010 seasons end early due to injury as well.
The Mets would love to see him pitch well for a half-season, allowing them to dump the remainder of his $25.5 million contract in 2013 (plus $5.5 million buyout of his 2014 option) and make a deal like the one that netted them Wheeler, for a soon-to-be free agent Carlos Beltran. It requires good health and effectiveness from Santana, though.
In the meantime, any absence from Santana will have Mets fans clamoring for Wheeler. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for the Mets not to add Wheeler to the initial roster that heads north: he's pitched a total of 33 innings above Double-A, by delaying his debut even by a few weeks, they can keep him under team control for an extra year, and by following a similar schedule for Wheeler to Matt Harvey in 2012, the Mets hope they can get Harvey's immediate success from Wheeler as well.
But Wheeler didn't look like a pitcher with much left to learn in his spring debut on Saturday. After walking the leadoff batter, catcher John Buck and third baseman David Wright came to the mound to remind Wheeler: no one can hit his combination mid-to-upper 90s fastball and high-80s slider when he throws them for strikes.
Thus reminded, Wheeler induced an out from Nationals' phenom Bryce Harper, then struck out Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy to end the inning. As a scout described Wheeler: "Same stuff as [Nationals ace Stephen] Strasburg. That will go down as best trade Sandy Alderson will make in his life."
When the alternatives to Santana, until Wheeler is ready, are Jeremy Hefner and Jenrry Mejia, the promotion of Wheeler isn't likely to take very long. Add in that the Mets' Triple-A farm team is in Las Vegas, a hitter paradise no pitcher ought to be subjected to, and Wheeler is a good bet to join the Mets even sooner than if the Triple-A team still played in Buffalo.
In a perfect world for the Mets, Santana would stay healthy, pitch until he impressed another team so much that the Mets could trade him for an elite prospect, then bring up Wheeler to begin the transition to a bright future.
In reality, the moving pieces aren't likely to work in such perfect harmony. The safe projection, though, has Zack Wheeler pitching more innings for the 2013 Mets than Johan Santana. And that should be just fine.