All eyes are going to be on New York Mets starter Zack Wheeler when he makes his return from the injured list against the Pirates tonight. The right-hander has been on the IL since July 15th with a shoulder impingement, but it’s still widely believed he’ll be dealt before the July 31st trade deadline. The Yankees have been linked to Wheeler for years now, and it’s highly likely they’ll have their own scouts in attendance on Friday.
If the Yankees decide to make a deal for Wheeler, it will be on the strength of his upside, and not necessarily his performance so far this season. Wheeler is currently 6-6 with a 4.69 ERA in 19 starts for the Mets this season, after posting a 12-7 record and a 3.31 ERA over 182.1 innings last season.
Wheeler represents a short-term rental. The 29-year-old will enter free agency after this season, so his trade value won’t be quite as high as pitchers like Robbie Ray, Matthew Boyd, and Marcus Stroman, all of whom have at least one additional year of club control. While the Mets are typically weary of making trades with their New York rivals, some reports have indicated that the Mets have no problem dealing Wheeler to the Yankees if they make the best offer.
While Wheeler’s numbers don’t jump off the page this season, there’s a reason the Yankees have liked him for quite some time. Wheeler has the pure stuff of a legitimate front-line starter. In fact, Wheeler’s velocity and movement most closely compares to the Houston Astros’ Gerrit Cole, according to Statcast. The right-hander is also throwing as hard as ever this season. Wheeler’s average fastball velocity ranks in the 95th percentile of MLB pitchers at 96.9 mph. According to FanGraphs, only three starters with at least 50 innings under their belt have a better average fastball velocity; Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom. That’s elite company for a pitcher that might be available at a reasonable price.
The question becomes, what’s a reasonable price for the Yankees? Taking the shoulder impingement and impending free agency into consideration, Wheeler is a significant risk for any team who seeks to acquire him, but he’s talented enough that the Mets will undoubtedly ask for at least one quality prospect in return. The best version of Wheeler – the one that posted a 1.68 ERA and a 4.87 K/BB ratio in 75.0 second half innings last year – is worth the price of a top-tier prospect, but the injury riddled middle-of-the-road Wheeler we’ve seen for stretches this season doesn’t seem like he’s worth the Yankees’ troubles.
With his current production, Wheeler would not supplant James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, or Domingo German in the Yankees rotation. The Yankees decision making when it comes to Wheeler could hinge on Luis Severino’s injury outlook, or the possibility that Wheeler could even be suited for a bullpen role come playoff time. A pitcher like Wheeler with elite velocity and a significant injury history could thrive in a role similar to the one Chad Green has played in recent years.
Although the Yankees have been rumored to be fans of Wheeler for a while now, it would be surprising if he was their big trade deadline pickup to bolster the rotation. One thing is for sure, the Yankees, and a handful of other contenders, will be watching Wheeler closely on Friday to see if there are any signs of shoulder fatigue that could completely wipe out his trade market league wide.