As Zack Wheeler becomes the latest Mets pitcher to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery, is the team making a mistake by trying to put itself back into contention with young arms?
It was late morning on Tuesday, March 24, and 24-year-old Zack Wheeler was gingerly gesturing at the spring training lockers of several of his fellow pitchers with the New York Mets. “[Bobby] Parnell’s had it,” he said, pointing to his right. “[Josh] Edgin’s had it. [Jenrry] Mejia. [Jacob] DeGrom. [Matt] Harvey. It’s part of the game these days. I’m a little nervous, but there’s plenty of guys to talk about it, the process, how to go about it. It makes it a little bit more relaxing.”
“It” was Tommy John surgery, and it was why Wheeler was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt as the rest of his teammates were pulling on their uniforms for that day’s exhibition game against the Astros. Wheeler had dealt with tendinitis in his elbow for a long time, and had two platelet rich plasma injections over the off-season to address it, but during a bullpen session a few days after his first start of the spring, he felt a new type of pain. “I threw five pitches, and I was like: I’m done,” he said. He had completely torn his ulnar collateral ligament and now felt an uncomfortable sensation in his elbow—not all the time, but whenever he fully extended or bent his arm. “It’s not a sharp pain, but it’s not an ache,” he said. “Just this dull thing.”
The next morning, Wheeler—who had only once before in his life had surgery (and that on a fingernail, hence his nerves)—would have his elbow reconstructed by Dr. David Altchek at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. The procedure would be deemed a success, but that would mean that Wheeler, like so many of his young teammates before him, would then embark upon a grueling rehabilitation that could take up to 18 months.
Wheeler’s injury also meant that critics of the Mets’ rebuilding strategy, which has been largely centered upon the accumulation of elite young pitchers, were given another round of ammunition that has been steadily resupplied. If the players to whom you’ve pegged your franchise’s future keep getting hurt in the same way—the same way that seems to take out another of baseball’s bright young stars on a weekly basis—doesn’t that mean your strategy is flawed?
“I think that’s a fairly myopic view,” says Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager. “If the injury risk increases, or is at a very high level, I’m not sure why that suggests you should have less, rather than more, pitching. From our standpoint, I think it validates the notion that you can never have too much. It’s been true forever in baseball, and I think it’s probably more true today.”
Since late 2010, when Alderson took over a floundering franchise that was four years removed from its last playoff appearance, his signature has been his steady pursuit of, and then refusal to part with, young power arms. He inherited top prospects like DeGrom and Harvey, both of whom were drafted in '10, and then set about stockpiling more of them. Between '11 and '14, 52.4% of players picked in the draft were pitchers, but Alderson’s Mets chose them at a significantly higher rate, 57.6%. Last year’s draft was held 10 months after Harvey had suffered his own UCL tear, but New York devoted more picks than ever—23 of 39, or 59%—to hurlers. Alderson’s drafts follow a distinct pattern: Pick a position player first, if not second and third too—because their success is more predictable—and then load up on pitchers.
“No question, we’ve drafted a large number of pitchers, and you just never know where a quality one is going to arise,” says the 67-year-old Alderson. He had added even more of them by trades, which is how he acquired Wheeler from the Giants in exchange for Carlos Beltran in 2011, and via the international market.
Few question the Mets’ eye for pitching talent. Harvey was an All-Star and a Cy Young candidate in 2013. DeGrom won Rookie of the Year last season, during which Wheeler had a 3.54 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning. Their two best prospects, Noah Syndergaard (No. 11 on Baseball America’s recent Top 100 list) and Steven Matz (No. 33), are also highly regarded starters, but the question now is whether recurring health issues have made the strategy of assembling a young rotation featuring, perhaps, all five of them a quixotic pursuit.
Alderson has repeatedly rejected the notion that Wheeler’s workload last year led to this spring’s development: “He threw 185 innings, which is not a significant load for a major league pitcher.” In general, Alderson agrees with the prevailing wisdom that pro baseball’s current rash of UCL injuries stems from hyperspecialization among young athletes, in which kids are driven to throw more often and harder than ever, and to give up other sports at an early age. “The thing that we need to be able to do is manage the workload of pitchers when they’re young, so that we’re not creating problems for guys later in life, because of overuse early on,” he says. “I’m talking about periods of time when kids are still growing, when their bones are still enlarging, when the basic anatomy is still forming.”
In Wheeler’s specific case, however, that suspect is difficult to prosecute. “I really didn’t start full-time pitching until I was probably 17,” says the Dallas, Ga., native, who is now 6'4", 195 pounds. “I wasn’t one of those guys. I played short, first base, and I played basketball too, so I didn’t play baseball all year. I wanted to play football, but my mom wouldn’t let me. Probably a good thing.”
In fact, Wheeler attributes his injury to a more banal source: that, in order to do his job, he must command his body to perform an unnatural and violent motion again and again, for years on end, and that an injury to its most stressed part might have been all but inevitable. “People try to be doctors, all this kind of stuff,” he says. “But I think, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. No matter if you’ve begun pitching only recently, or you’ve been pitching all your life.”
It is indeed possible that as pitchers are trained to throw ever harder, very little can be done to help them avoid UCL tears, and that those who do manage to complete their careers without undergoing Tommy John surgery will prove simply lucky. At the least, that appears to be the current state of affairs, and one way to look at the Mets’ stockpiling of young pitching is not that they are denying baseball’s new reality, but confronting it head on. There is enormous upside in dominant pitching, but New York has not been rebuilt in such a way that all of its young pitchers must be healthy and prospering in order for the team to succeed—though the Mets and their fans would undoubtedly enjoy that perfect, and unlikely, scenario. The team has instead been rebuilt to allow for breakage, with enough pitching depth both young (add 24-year-old Rafael Montero is another potential star) and veteran (Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese) to make the loss of a talent like Wheeler damaging, but not devastating, either in 2015 or in the years to come.
“Zack was going to be a big part of our rotation, there’s no question about that,” Alderson says. “But fortunately we are deep in starting pitching. Doesn’t mean we will be able to equal the contributions Zack made. But we can approximate them. It was certainly a personal loss—we all like Zack—but at the same time, it’s something that we certainly need to overcome and are capable of overcoming.”
As Wheeler waited to leave for his flight to New York, and for the surgery that would follow, he took another look at the lockers of his fellow young Mets hurlers. “It’ll be fun once we all get together and be able to pitch all in the same rotation the whole year, and stay healthy,” he said. That won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest, if it ever does. The beauty of the Mets’ plan, though, is that in order to break a playoff drought that has now reached nine seasons, it won’t have to.