NEW YORK — The Mets are going to trade Zack Wheeler. You know this. I know it. And Zack Wheeler knows it, because the man who makes the decisions told him as much.
When New York opened the second half in Miami two weeks ago, manager Mickey Callaway called Wheeler into his office at Marlins Park. GM Brodie Van Wagenen was waiting. The team entered that series 40–50, 13½ games out of first place, seven out of the wild-card. They sat in fourth place in the NL East. They had a –46 run differential. FanGraphs gave them a 5.7% chance to make the playoffs, a 0.1% chance to win the World Series. If we don’t turn things around, Van Wagenen said, You’re probably one of the ones to go.
“I kind of already knew it,” Wheeler says now, in what will likely be one of his last conversations in front of his locker at Citi Field. “But hearing it from him helps.”
When he returned from Miami, Wheeler and his fiancée, Dominique Rizzo, began packing: a few changes of clothes, a pair or two of shoes. Rizzo does not work, so once the call comes, she will be able to bundle up the rest of their belongings, along with their toy poodle and miniature French bulldog, and head straight for their new home, wherever it is. But in the meantime they will need a few days’ worth of clothing. So the suitcase sits in their home, ready to go.
Since that conversation with Van Wagenen, the team is 6–4, good for an improvement of half a game in the division and nothing anywhere else. Its playoff odds are down to 5.3%. Wheeler, 29, will be a free agent after this season. He throws a 97-mph fastball and a devastating curveball. If he was a probable goner in mid-July, he knows, his chances of sticking around have not improved.
Wheeler is not the sentimental type. He loves it here and would prefer to stay, he insists, but he has no New York bucket list. He owns his home in Georgia, but even eight years into his Mets tenure, he and Rizzo rent here. He does not treasure every remaining moment in orange and blue or burst into tears at the sight of familiar Citi Field security guards. When teammates ask, as they do every day, “Are you gone?” Wheeler simply shrugs.
Callaway has been rooting for the Mets recently because he likes his players. “We don't want to lose some of our guys,” Callaway said on Monday. “So we're trying to do everything we can to get back into this thing and keep our team intact.”
Wheeler, on the injured list since July 12 with right-shoulder impingement, has been rooting for his team, too, but not as part of some plan to stick around. “I want to win games,” he says. This is the bizarre limbo in which he finds himself: totally invested in a team he will probably be trying to beat next week.
Wheeler has been the focus of trade rumors before: at last season’s July deadline, when he did not go anywhere, and in 2011, when the Giants sent him to New York in exchange for outfielder Carlos Beltrán. Before two weeks ago, Wheeler says, no front-office executive had ever reached out to him to clarify his standing. When Van Wagenen arrived in Queens this offseason, in a head-scratcher of a move from his previous job as the head of CAA’s baseball division, he vowed to make his players feel valued. So in Miami, he met with a handful of likely trade candidates and told them what to expect.
“He’s an agent turned into a GM,” Wheeler says. “It helps with communication. I don’t know if a lot of guys would actually care about that.”
Van Wagenen has said he does not intend to shed any of the players he controls beyond this year, which makes Wheeler easily the club’s most compelling trade chip. Third baseman Todd Frazier had a .931 OPS in June, but that number is .597 in July. Reliever Luis Avilán has a 6.91 ERA. Wheeler had the fifth-best FIP in the NL in 2018, at 3.25, and although that number has swelled to 3.67 this season, he is striking out more batters and walking fewer than he did a year ago. Until he hit the IL, he was reportedly one of the hottest commodities on the trade market.
Wheeler played catch last Thursday. He threw a bullpen session on Sunday. He tossed live batting practice on Tuesday. The team has said he will start Friday at Citi Field against the Pirates. That will likely be his last outing for the Mets. It will likely come in front of thousands of fans and a legion of scouts. His locker will be full. His suitcase will be packed. He will try to win the game.