|Zack Wheeler appeared in the 2010 Futures Game as a Giants representative and the 2012 game for the Mets. (Getty Images)|
KANSAS CITY -- Had Zack Wheeler not been traded, he would still be one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, but he would have been a different pitcher than the one he is now. Last year, Wheeler was the high price the Giants paid to rent Carlos Beltran for two months at the end of the season.
Beltran wasn't able to help the Giants make the playoffs, but the Mets feel Wheeler could be an ace that helps them to several playoff appearances in the future. The 22-year-old right-hander is 9-4 with a 2.39 ERA at Double-A Binghamton, and at least one scout said he's the most impressive pitching prospect he's seen int he minors this year. And he's getting better.
At the Futures Game in Kansas City earlier this month, Wheeler said he's just now getting comfortable with his changeup, a pitch the Mets have put more emphasis on under first-year pitching coordinator Ron Romanick, who had been with Oakland.
"When I was with the Giants we play the Athletics all the time in instructs and all their pitches, their secondary pitch was the changeup. I remember thinking that was weird," Wheeler said. "It wasn't a slider or a curveball, it was a change up. HE came over and he's emphasized it. You watch more major league games and you have to throw it to be successful. I've been taking that in and trying to work on it a lot."
Not only has he worked more on the change up, he's changed up his changeup during the season, adjusting his grip over the last two months. Instead of the circle change grip with his index finger and thumb making a circle on the ball, he's pulled that finger up on the ball more, as well as putting his pinky finger on the seam of the ball on the other side.
"I'm still getting used to it," he said. "[In the July 5 start] it just started feeling comfortable. I've been throwing it in games but I haven't felt like I could throw it and could make a guy miss. Last game, I started feeling I could throw it and make it miss."
That game on July 5, against Richmond, he allowed just one run on six hits in 7 1/3 innings, with six strikeouts. He retired both batters he faced in the Futures Game and then in his next start, last Saturday against Erie, he threw a six-hit shutout, striking out seven.
It's not just his changeup that changed when he was traded, Wheeler also had to adjust to a new team, a new organization and a new philosophy. He made six starts at high-Class A St. Lucie, but it wasn't until he got to spring training that it really sank in that he was no longer a member of the Giants, an organization that took him sixth overall in the 2009 draft out of an Atlanta-area high school. One of the tenants the Mets emphasized was throwing fewer pitches, getting ahead of batters and working deeper into games. Before this season, he'd thrown seven innings just twice in his professional career, and never more than that. This season he's thrown at least seven innings in seven of his 16 starts and he's thrown at least six innings in each of his last 10 starts.
With a fastball in the upper 90s and a hammer curve, plus his developing change, Wheeler could be a fixture of the Mets rotation for years to come. In the end, it proved to be a great trade for the Mets, as Beltran left San Francisco as a free agent for St. Louis in the offseason. Still, Wheeler said he doesn't exactly keep an eye on Beltran, even though he doesn't really have to because Beltran's name is often brought up around him.
"He's having a great year. I'm happy for him. I'm glad it worked out for him," Wheeler said. "It's worked out for me."
And for the Mets.
• Indians lefty Giovanni Soto threw a no-hitter Sunday for Double-A Akron against Altoona. Soto struck out six and walked three -- but got two double plays to aid his bid for the no-no. The 21-year-old was part of the 2010 trade that sent Jhonny Peralta to Detroit. Soto is 6-6 with a 3.73 ERA on the season.
• Astros shortstop Jonathan Villar fractured his right hand last week when he punched a door. He finished the game, going 1 for 4 with a home run, but X-rays taken afterward showed the fracture. He was scheduled to have surgery this week and will miss approximately six weeks. Villar, 21, was named the team's No. 3 prospect by Baseball America before the season and was hitting .261/.336/.396 with Double-A Corpus Christi, leading the league with 39 stolen bases and had 11 home runs and 50 RBI in 86 games.
• The Reds' first-round pick from 2011, right-hander Robert Stephenson, didn't sign until the mid-August deadline last year and didn't make his pro debut until last month. While many of the other pitchers from the Class of 2011 have been putting up big numbers, Stephenson hasn't had the chance to pitch against competition until recently. In five starts in the short-season Pioneer League, he's 1-0 with a 2.10 ERA, striking out 33 in 25 2/3 innings. The 19-year-old has also hit 97 on the radar gun.
• Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in this year's draft, has started his pro career much like he finished his college career -- on fire. Zunino, winner of the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top college baseball player, is tearing up the Northwest League for the Mariners' short-season squad Everett. In his first five games, Zunino has seven hits in 17 at-bats, including three homers. After hitting his first pro homer on Tuesday, he had his first pro multi-homer game on Wednesday. After Wednesday's two-walk day, he's hitting .412/.500/1.000.
• The Mariners' Scott Savastano did something Wednesday that has to be pretty unusual -- the utility man not only hit a walk-off home run in the 18th inning for Triple-A Tacoma, but he also gave himself the win. A 28th-round pick out of New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce University in 2008, the 26-year-old appeared in three games last season as a pitcher and was making his first appearance on the mound this season in the top of the 18th in a game started by Danny Hultzen. After getting two ground outs and a fly out, he was the second batter in the bottom half of the inning. With Sacramento outfielder Shane Peterson on the mound (Peterson struck out the first batter he faced), Savastano hit his second home run of the season, ending the game that lasted five hours and 32 minutes. Savastano has played first base, second base, third base, left field, right field and pitcher this season. He's hitting .268/.338/.374.