The Tommy John surgery dragon just keeps blowing fire on the hopes of teams across the land. The New York Mets and Zack Wheeler are its latest victims. 

While the Mets and Wheeler downplayed his barking elbow over the last weekend, everyone involved kept their fingers crossed that it was nothing more than a spring training flare-up. But in all honesty, this is an era in which any elbow pain brings about the worst fear, one that used to be a rarity just a decade ago.

The Mets understood this throughout the offseason, as Wheeler had two MRIs and a PRP injection over the winter. Plus, he complained of elbow pain in January.

The Mets front office, led by general manager Sandy Alderson, shut its ears to all the hollering to trade for an established shortstop, another offensive threat or bullpen help. It adhered to the adage, “You Can Never Have Too Much Pitching,” because this is a time when Tommy John surgery snipes pitchers with unprecedented precision. The team refused to deal from its surplus, which will help absorb losing Wheeler, which the Mets realized was a possibility and part of the thought process all along.

Pitching was one of the team’s strengths coming into this season. A team doesn’t jump toward evaporating that prematurely even when it finds itself in the Mets’ situation of getting back its ace, Matt Harvey, from an injury.

That did not stop Dillon Gee from becoming a frequent flier in trade rumors. He was linked to several teams over the winter, but Alderson always understood how important it was to have pitching depth—not just with Gee, but also with guys like Bartolo Colon, who is in the final year of his contract, and Jon Niese.

“This possibility or a possibility of something like [Wheeler’s injury] is probably a reason we’ve been hesitant to trade pitching in general,” Alderson told Mike Vorkunov of “This is what happens with pitching. You see guys going down all over the place. I think it’s why we’ve been hesitant to trade any of our pitching depth.”

The Mets have one of the deepest pitching prospect pools in the game today and a group of major league pitchers still competing for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. Top-level depth with arms like Gee, Colon and Niese obviously becomes invaluable now, and the Mets will likely deploy that line of defense before dipping into their prospect bushel sooner than they might have wanted.

Baseball America ranks four pitchers in the team’s top 10 prospects—much of the big league depth is also homegrown—with right-hander Noah Syndergaard ranking No. 1 and lefty Steven Matz at No. 2.

Neither of those prospects has made his major league debut, but 2015 promotions were already on the table before Wheeler’s injury. Now, with pitching considered the team’s strength and with Harvey back in the fold after his own Tommy John procedure, those prospects are a bigger part of the grand picture and could take on a more prominent role when they arrive.

Their major league timetables probably won’t be dramatically pushed up because of Wheeler’s injury, but their time in spring training becomes even more valuable as the Mets evaluate their readiness.

Rafael Montero, 24, is rated eighth on that Baseball America top-10 list. The Mets debuted him last May, called him back in August and again in September. He pitched 44.1 innings, 43 of them as a starter. In his eight starts, he allowed 19 earned runs (3.98 ERA) and eight home runs. He is likely to start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas.

Marcos Molina, 20, is the No. 10 prospect but has yet to pitch above Low-A.

Wheeler’s loss hurts regardless of the major or minor league depth. The 24-year-old, who was the key piece of the blockbuster deadline trade that sent Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants in 2011, was part of a 1-2-3 combination the Mets felt could be one of the best in the National League, fronted by Harvey and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom.

Wheeler scuffled during the first three months of last season, but he turned it on midway through and went 8-3 with a 2.71 ERA in his final 16 starts. The Mets figured he would be a pillar of their rotation for years to come, starting with this one.

That plan will have to be pushed back now. Wheeler will miss all of 2015, and that is a gut shot to the team’s already slight playoff hopes. But the Mets can roll with it. 

Alderson elected all offseason to keep the team’s pitching depth, both in the minors and in the majors. That decision is already paying off before Opening Day and is the reason the Mets can still sell the possibility of meaningful October baseball.


All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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