Wheeler or Beltran: A Giants Conundrum

Zach Wheeler in Spring Training - March 2013
Zach Wheeler in Spring Training – March 2013

In six innings tonight, Zach Wheeler threw 102 pitches, struck out seven and walked five while holding the Braves scoreless on just four hits.

At the same time, a few hundred miles away, Carlos Beltran is wearing a Cardinals jersey, batting second, and hitting .306 through more than two months of the season. Two years ago at this time, Beltran was playing through the last year of his contract with the Mets as the team limped through another disappointing season. On July 27 of that year, Beltran was traded to the World Series champion Giants. The player the Mets got in return was minor league pitcher Zach Wheeler.

The most infamous trade in baseball history is Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas comes close. As does the Lou Brock trade. But in the last 30 years, there are two  one-for-one deals that serve as warnings to general managers about flipping prospects for short term players who may help in the push for the playoffs, but will be free agents at the end of the season.

In 1987, the atrocious Atlanta Braves traded 36 year-old pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for pitching prospect John Smoltz. Alexander pitched brilliantly in the second half, but was out of baseball after two more years in Detroit. Smoltz, beside becoming a key cog in the Braves dominant 90’s pitching rotation, is the only pitcher to win more than 200 games and save more than 150.

The other trade occurred in 1990 when the Boston Red Sox flipped first base prospect Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for relief pitcher Larry Andersen. Andersen threw 22 innings for the Red Sox before leaving as a free agent at the end of the season. Bagwell was a force in the middle of the Astros lineup for more than a decade.

In spite of his impressive debut stats, Wheeler’s off-speed pitchers weren’t sharp. It’s clear that Wheeler is and will be a work in progress for the Mets, but along with Matt Harvey, the Mets have one guy who is a must watch pitcher and another guy who could become that very soon.

Carlos Beltran's First Moments as a Giant in 2011.
Carlos Beltran’s First Moments as a Giant in 2011.

For the Giants, the question is, how much do you value a highly touted prospect. Two years after being taken with the sixth overall pick, Giants G.M. Brian Sabean parted with Wheeler for two months of Beltran. And if Beltran’s agent is to believed the Giants never made an offer to Beltran.

A pitching prospect – for the Giants in 2011 – may have seemed a luxury given the strength of their rotation with Cain, Lincecum, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong, but two years is a long time. Cain is struggling, Lincecum has lost his Cy Young touch, Vogelsong’s improbable comeback has sputtered, and Barry Zito is still underwhelming every five days. Only Bumgarner remains on point.

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Giants had fallen into fourth place after an extra-inning loss to the Padres the night before. With question marks up and down their rotation, would Giants Manager Bruce Bochy rather run a Wheeler or Zito out every fifth day as the team’s starter in the back end of the rotation?

That’s just 2013’s rotation. In the years to come, Zito’s contract will come off the books. Lincecum is a free agent at the end of this season. Vogelsong doesn’t look like an answer. Will the Giants be forced to target a free agent or dig deeper into their farm system to trade for starting pitching? The big problem with the second option is that to trade for a top-flight starting pitcher, you need to give up a prospect on par with Wil Myers like the Royals did to get James Shields.

The Rays will probably trade David Price at some point, but if the Giants were to trade him, they would need to part with some of their top prospects for the type of pitcher – a front-line starter – that Wheeler could very become in short order.

Maybe the Giants and their fans won’t care. After all, in 2012, they won the World Series for the second time in three years. But, in a few years, if Harvey and Wheeler are the one-two combo that Mets fans are hoping they’ll be, fans by the Bay will be wishing Wheeler was wearing white, orange, and black, instead of white, orange, and blue.

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