Based on the manner in which prospects are hyped and the number of those prospects that fail to immediately achieve expectations—or even competence—it’s wise to sit back and let Zack Wheeler get his feet on the ground before anointing him as part of the next great rotation with Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as a modern day “big three” to be compared with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels or Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It must be remembered that all of those pitchers struggled when they got to the big leagues.
Other hot prospects who were expected to dominate baseball like the Mets from the mid-1990s of Generation K with Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher flamed out as the only pitcher to achieve anything noteworthy was Isringhausen and he had to do it as a closer. The Yankees’ intention to have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy function as homegrown starters has degenerated into nothingness with Kennedy fulfilling his potential with the Diamondbacks and both Hughes and Chamberlain approaching their final days in pinstripes. The list of instnaces such as these is far more extensive than the would-be “stars” who either didn’t make it at all or had their careers derailed and delayed.
Given the Mets’ historic clumsiness in recent years, it was a surprise as to how good Harvey really was. The Mets didn’t treat him as a prodigy, nor did they overpromote his rise to the majors as anything more than a young pitcher who’d earned his chance. His maturity, style, intensity and preparedness has yielded one of the best pitchers in baseball whose leap inspires memories of Roger Clemens in 1986. They kept Wheeler in the minor leagues as well in part to make sure he was ready and in part to keep his arbitration clock from ticking so they’d have him for an extra year of team control. These were wise decisions.
As good as Wheeler is and as much as those who see him predict great things, he’s also a power pitcher who has had some issues with control and command. His motion is somewhat quirky with a high leg kick and a pronounced hip turn with his back toward the hitter. If he’s slightly off with his motion, he’ll open up too soon, his arm will drag behind his body and his pitches will be high and flat. In the minors a pitcher can get away with such issues because minor league hitters will miss hittable fastballs with far greater frequency than big league hitters. The biggest difference between minor league hitters and Major League hitters is patience and that big leaguers don’t miss pitches they should hammer.
Wheeler’s 23 and is as ready as he can be for a rookie. As for ready to be a marquee pitcher immediately, that might take some time just as it did with Lee, Halladay, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Saddling Wheeler with the demands of a star before he’s even thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues is a toxic recipe.