Sandy Alderson was tasked with making a difficult decision last winter: Depart with the organization’s number one pitching prospect in Zack Wheeler or look to retain him to be part of the team’s long-term future. As Wheeler readies to make his major league debut next week in Atlanta against Justin Upton’s Braves, the question should be reevaluated more closely.
The 23-year-old Wheeler has been dubbed the right-handed Clayton Kershaw by some scouts, but to make the comparison between the two pitchers is unfair. Kershaw cracked the Los Angeles’ Dodgers during his age 20 season and won a Cy Young Award during his age 23 season, or precisely the same age Wheeler is set to debut. While both pitchers have electric arsenals with phenomenal secondaries, they both struggled to grip the strike zone early in their careers. Kershaw had the advantage of striking more batters out during his minor league tenure, but not by a great amount more.
The 25-year-old Justin Upton is now playing his seventh major league season and has a career .275/.357/.476 clip with 122 home runs. He’s controlled through his age 27 season in 2015 and being paid a fair amount to do so ($28.75M overall value).
The question remains: Why didn’t Alderson pull the trigger on trading Wheeler for Upton?
Hindsight may be 20-20, but this trade scenario was evident that it should have been completed during the winter. Despite the fact that Wheeler is now major league ready, the Mets are in the enviable position of boasting a wealth of pitching prospects that could potentially soften the blow of losing a player with the ceiling of Wheeler. Rafael Montero has thrown 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in Binghamton, Noah Syndergaard has done nothing but impress in the Florida State League, and Savannah’s entire rotation has been strong. When one can take a strength akin to the Mets’ minor league pitching depth and translate it to major league-proven talent that also addresses the club’s biggest offensive need, it must be done. The club wouldn’t be shipping a 20-year-old prospect for a 38-year-old veteran who is set to retire, but rather a player who could help contribute to the next five Mets playoff teams in the middle of the lineup alongside David Wright.
If money was to be a concern, it should it be noted that prior to arbitration hearings that the club has a grand total of $35M committed to next year’s payroll (and less if one accounts for Johan Santana’s buyout and commitments to Jason Bay and Bobby Bonilla). Even if the Mets weren’t set to contend in 2014, having Upton in 2015 would presumably be a very big upgrade to anything up-and-coming in the system. Barring Cesar Puello, the Mets are void of any real outfield prospects that could be a major league staple for the next decade. If and when the Mets were faced with extending Justin Upton, they’d have the payroll flexibility to retain him.
The final question remaining would involve the pieces to the trade: Would Upton-for-Wheeler been possible straight up? Not likely. Even if the deal meant that Ruben Tejada needed to be shipped to Arizona in the process, the deal still seems like it would have been fair. Both clubs would have filled voids.
The move wouldn’t have been to make the Mets a contending club in 2013. The move would have been adding a young outfielder to a club that doesn’t have solutions at the position in the pipeline for the foreseeable future.
Justin Upton is currently embattled in a slump but has posted a .247/.360/.484 clip during his tenure in Atlanta thus far with 14 home runs and eight doubles. His 1.6 bWAR is higher than the Mets’ entire outfield–combined.
Photo Credit: Michael Baron