- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Maybe, just maybe, Zack Wheeler will turn out to be a high-end starter for the New York Mets over a charmed 10 years or so.
Maybe, just maybe, Zack Wheeler will end up looking about as lost as a former phenom, Phil Hughes, is looking across the river five years into his Yankees career.
Sports executives forever call the amateur draft a crapshoot as a means of covering their rumps, but there's some truth to the claim in baseball. LeBron James might be drafted as an immediate franchise player in the NBA, but Bryce Harper needs to do some growing up in the Hagerstowns and Harrisburgs before being summoned to the show.
A lot can go wrong in baseball between the backwater bus rides and the bright lights of the big city, so nobody is sure whether Sandy Alderson moved the Mets closer to a parade to be named later by trading Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants for Wheeler, the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft.
But this much is already clear: Alderson knows what he is doing, and then some. He made Francisco Rodriguez's $17.5 million vesting option disappear, and then he acquired a promising 21-year-old pitcher for a two- or three-month rental who won't land the Giants any compensatory draft picks if he walks in free agency.
Yes, Alderson had to pay a reported $4 million of Beltran's wage to make it happen. But as a 6-foot-3 right-hander from Georgia who was everybody's all-American, Wheeler sounds like a $4 million gamble worth taking.
"In all my 28 years of coaching," said Tony Boyd, Wheeler's coach at East Paulding High in Dallas, Ga., "I've never seen anyone with his ability. Zack was a man against boys in high school. He just blew people away, and he did it with an effortless delivery."
Will Wheeler ever do the same for the Mets? The scouts Alderson dispatched to the high-A California League say yes, and so does Wheeler's older brother, Adam, a former prospect who pitched for the Staten Island Yankees and got himself suspended in a brawl with the Mets' affiliate in Brooklyn, the Cyclones, eight years back.
"Just like every kid dreams of being in the big leagues," Adam said by phone, "every kid dreams of being in a brawl like that. I'd been waiting for that day for a long time, so I wasn't about to stand back and watch. I got punched, and I definitely threw some punches, too."
Persistent shoulder problems unrelated to the brawl ended Adam's career. He said his kid brother has a smoother, more efficient delivery that matches up with an unflappable demeanor.
"I had to give up the game and count on Zack to make it," Adam said. "It's going to be a little weird for me to be a fan of the Mets after what happened, but I think the Mets can use him more than the Giants could."
They want Wheeler to be a prime piece of a renaissance in the not-too-distant future. Beltran had no place in that future, even if he was the only bat in the middle of the Mets' lineup that made an opposing ace sweat.
Alderson has to drastically reduce his payroll next season, and somehow has to come up with $140 million for Jose Reyes. So the GM was left to make an educated guess on the prospects being offered for Beltran, who greatly enhances the Giants' odds of a two-peat.
Wheeler was that educated guess.
"And Zack is going to handle New York just fine," his father Barry said by phone. "Adam lived with two roommates in a small one-bedroom apartment in Staten Island and he loved it and thrived in New York, and his personality is similar to his brother's.
"Zack is low key and laid back, but he's really looking forward to this. He's already packing his bags. He thought it would be cool to be in a rotation with Lincecum and Cain someday, but when I talked to him about the trade he said he thinks this could be a quicker path to the majors."
Barry Wheeler said his son's fastball topped out this year at 98 miles per hour. It's no mystery why the Mets wanted him, and why the Giants would've preferred to send a different prospect east.
But a lot can happen between now and a grand 2013 debut at Citi Field. Zack Wheeler could end up as the best sixth overall pick to hit New York since Derek Jeter, or he could end up making another former bonus baby, Phil Hughes, look like Cy Young.
Nothing is guaranteed in baseball except occasional heartbreak. Even if historians someday record Alderson's appointment of Zack Wheeler as a bad call, today it is a good gamble.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."
For now, the Mets' deal for Zack Wheeler looks like a good gamble.