Mets must scrap Wheeler bullpen plan after elbow 'tenderness'

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photo of Mets must scrap Wheeler bullpen plan after elbow 'tenderness'

Mets must scrap Wheeler bullpen plan after elbow 'tenderness' : Zack Wheeler will play catch Thursday and is expected to throw in the bullpen again on Friday, but the Mets will be watching carefully.

PORT ST. LUCIE — We should remember it all began with a blister. Even if the Mets say the tenderness in Zack Wheeler’s elbow is not really a concern, it raises some eyebrows. The righthander experienced “tenderness,” in his elbow after his first official bullpen session of spring training and was put on anti-inflammatory medication. He will play catch Thursday and is expected to throw in the bullpen again on Friday, but the Mets will be watching carefully.

There was no panic at Tradition Field Wednesday.

“He had a little bit of tenderness after his last bullpen,” Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re not going to push it. We want to see this kid get healthy and once he gets healthy, stay healthy.

“We will have kid gloves with him.”

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But the Mets were not panicking two years ago when Wheeler’s adventure began with what the Mets announced was a blister and soreness in his elbow.

So whether the Mets are downplaying this latest issue or not, it’s enough to squash the idea of even toying with putting Wheeler in the bullpen as part of his comeback.

Warthen has described Wheeler as “a special arm,” and the 26-year-old showed flashes of that when he last pitched in the majors in 2014. The Mets rotation is filled with “special arms,” like Matt Harvey, coming off surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Jacob deGrom, coming off surgery to move his ulnar nerve, and Steven Matz, who is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow.

They are fabulous talents who are also reminders of how careful you have to be with these pitchers.

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While the Mets are going to extremes to protect those arms — not allowing them to throw during pitchers fielding practice and having them throw every third day rather than the traditional two — they have continued to float the idea of using Wheeler as a reliever.

This latest incident makes it look even more ridiculous.

Wheeler is the rare pitcher who has taken two seasons to come back from Tommy John surgery, which has a recovery time usually between 12 and 18 months. He had the surgery in March 2015 and was expected back in the middle of the 2016 season. He suffered several setbacks, however, including a stitch from the surgery needing to be surgically removed and irritation of the nerve in his elbow. He was eventually shut down with a flexor muscle strain.

On the surface, the idea of using him in the bullpen could work mathematically. This winter Mets GM Sandy Alderson said that to capitalize on his live arm and maximize the limited innings Wheeler would have in his first season back from surgery, the Mets would consider using him out of the bullpen.

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While manager Terry Collins said the Mets had not decided on an innings limit for Wheeler, Warthen speculated Wednesday it would be in the low 100s. Wheeler’s starts would be extremely limited, so the Mets see putting him in the bullpen as a way to get more out of him.

But, that plan makes no sense when you look beyond the numbers and look at what has happened to the Mets’ pitching staff over the last three years.

Wheeler has always been a pitcher who takes longer to bounce back, Warthen said. Unlike the Mets’ other starters, Wheeler always throws his bullpen sessions three days after a start compared to the traditional two.

“It’s always been difficult for him to recover between starts. Tough for him to throw bullpens. A lot of pitchers are like that, they don't recover well maybe until the fifth day.

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“We have to be careful when he's throwing next to the rest of those guys, because he wants to be one of the (starting) five and you can’t blame him for that. He earned it a long time ago,” Warthen said. “We have to be extremely careful of this kid, because it’s a special arm and it needs to be healthy when he gets back.”

And putting him in the bullpen just isn’t a fit.

Warthen seemed to be making that case Wednesday, arguing instead to use Wheeler as a spot starter and occasional sixth man in the rotation to limit Wheeler's workload — and keep all their starters healthy.

This latest incident may not be a setback in Wheeler’s long and difficult comeback, but it should be a warning sign to the Mets. Listen to Warthen and Wheeler’s body and scrap this ridiculous idea of making Wheeler a reliever.  

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