Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Binghamton Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler, who is universally regarded as the New York Mets top prospect. He was a consensus Top 50 prospect in all of baseball in the 2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook as well, and was acquired by the Mets from San Francisco in the Carlos Beltran deal.
I managed to track him down during the B-Mets only visit of the season to Mercer County — one in which he didn’t pitch, sadly — and asked him whatever was on my mind. Here’s how it played out…
Mike Ashmore: What do you remember about the day of the 2009 draft…
Zack Wheeler: “It was a good time for me in my life. It was a big part of my baseball career, definitely. All my friends and family and all my old coaches, even my Little League coaches were there. It was a great memory. It was a lot of fun.”
Ashmore: The Giants threw quite a bit of money at you — a reported $3.3 million — what’s it like having that amount given to you at that age?
Wheeler: “It was pretty crazy to think about. I mean, I’m just a laid back guy, so it’s really whatever to me. I still have to go out there and play baseball and succeed. I’ve been doing an all right job at it.”
Ashmore: So when you see the kind of commitment that San Francisco made to you both in where you were drafted and the bonus you were given, you had to be thinking you were going to be there for if not your entire career, at least the vast majority of it, right?
Wheeler: “It’s baseball. Trades and stuff are going to be happening. I was thinking I was going to be there a little bit longer, to tell you the truth. But, it was kind of short. They treated me good when I was there. I was happy with the organization, but now I’m glad to be with the Mets.”
Ashmore: Before we get to the trade, I wanted to ask you about the 2010 Futures Game…what was it like being a part of that?
Wheeler: “It was a great experience, it’s right up there with the draft. It was a lot of fun. I was on the DL for a month and a half, and that was my first outing after. I threw a few bullpens, and they were like, ‘You’re going to the Futures Game,” and I was like, ‘Hmmm, all right.’ I hadn’t even pitched in a month and a half, but I figured I guess I’ll go. I went out there and pitched an inning and did well, so I was pretty excited. It was in L.A., in Anaheim’s field, so it was a lot of fun man.
Ashmore: That was a nationally televised game, and it had been a while since the draft…do you feel like that kind of showcased you to a national audience for the first time as a pro?
Wheeler: “I don’t know about nationally, but it sort of got me out there I guess.”
Ashmore: So I have to ask about the trade…how did you find out you got traded?
Wheeler: “A few weeks before, my name got brought up or whatever, but then it sort of died down. Then I woke up one morning, and Gary Brown, our first rounder in 2010 with the Giants, or me was going to be traded for Beltran. It was like ten o’clock, and I never wake up that early, but I did one morning for some reason. They said more than likely it was going to be Gary Brown. I texted him and I was like, “Man, have you been traded yet?’ And he was like, ‘No.’ Then I went downstairs and watched ESPN, and it said Zack Wheeler is about to be traded for Carlos Beltran. So, I was like all right, I guess I’ll call my agent and see what’s going on. So that’s really how it happened.”
Ashmore: Anytime you get traded, I’m sure there’s a pretty big (wow) factor there, but did get dealt one-for-one for a guy like that add to that (wow) factor for you?
Wheeler: “I mean, yeah, sort of. Like I said, I’m a laid back guy, so it’s baseball and trades will be happening. But he’s an All-Star player. One of the best power hitters. Great outfielder. He had a great career with the Mets, and he’s tearing it up this year in St. Louis. I guess it’s a privilege to be traded for him, and it’s great that the Mets looked at me that way. It’s a lot of fun going through that kind of stuff.”
Ashmore: It seems like it’s pretty easy for you to blow off any pressure that might come with being traded for someone of his stature given his demeanor…am I reading that right?
Wheeler: “Yeah, definitely. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure. I’m a laid back guy. It’s just baseball, man. Stuff’s going to happen. In life, stuff’s going to happen. You’ve just got to go with the flow and go out there and do your job, that’s basically it. You just have to go out there and pitch and perform for any team that you’re with. Just take it all in when you’re going down the road as it goes.”
Ashmore: Your stats this season are pretty ridiculous…have you at all exceeded your own expectations for what you wanted to do this year?
Wheeler: “Coming into the year, I didn’t really have expectations numbers-wise. Of course, I wanted to do well. But basically, I just wanted to sharpen up on my offspeed pitches and sharpen up my command with my fastball, and I think they’ve come a long way. I’m throwing all my offspeed pitches for strikes, and my changeup is coming along well. I’m starting to feel more comfortable throwing it. Now that I feel more comfortable throwing it, I’ve just got to throw it for strikes more often and get a little more movement it. But I feel comfortable throwing it, and that’s the best part. You can always just tweak a little something later and get that little movement that you need. Fastball command is coming along pretty well. I’m happy so far.
Ashmore: You throw a fastball, curveball, change and a slider…how’s the slider coming along?
Wheeler: “Good. It was working earlier in the year, but now the past two or three games that I’ve been doing well, it hasn’t even been working. It makes me feel comfortable that the past three games and I haven’t had what I think is my second best pitch, which is my slider. My other pitches came through for me, and it was a big part of coming into this season just to develop those. That’s helped me out in the past few games since I haven’t had my slider.”
Ashmore: So how important is the slider going forward then?
Wheeler: “Definitely a big plus. You’ve got stuff with loopyness in it, and then you have something that has an 8-10 MPH difference that’s straight, they’re going to be swinging through it or getting lazy pop flies and stuff like that. It’s a plus that you can toss it in there every once in a while and keep them guessing.”
Ashmore: You’ve been able to touch 100 MPH with the fastball…is it a nice feeling to be able to reach back and hit the kind of numbers you do with it?
Wheeler: “Yeah, definitely. It definitely helps out. You still try to hit corners and stuff, but you don’t necessarily have to hit the corner. You can hit that side of the plate, really. But I still need to be more precise with them, and that’s what I’m trying to do this year.”
Ashmore: Was there a point in your life or your career where you knew you could throw faster than the other guys?
Wheeler: “Really, going into my senior year. My junior year, my first two or three innings, I’d hit 93 every once in a while and then I put on 15 pounds of muscle going into my senior year and worked hard during the winter. I hit mid-90’s consistently and I was feeling good about it.”
Ashmore: I know it isn’t up to you, I know you’re going to tell me that…but, if a promotion to the next level did come for you, do you feel like you could handle it?
Wheeler: “Yeah. I guess so. You really can’t look forward to that, you have to stay down here and just do your job and pitch well every time out. Whatever happens is going to happen. You have stay down here and compete, and do well. When the time comes, be ready.”
Ashmore: Is it hard not getting antsy, knowing you’re getting closer?
Wheeler: “No, not really for me. You just have to go out there and pitch and perform.”
Ashmore: You had some issues with a cracked nail where you had to go on the disabled list…is that the same issue from a few years back?
Wheeler: “Yeah. I think there’s just so much pressure being put on that nail every time I pitch. I don’t know, nobody really knows. It’s fine, it’s allowing me to pitch now. You just have to file it down and keep it short. I put nail hardener on it to keep it from cracking.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com