TRADE PIECE: ZACK WHEELER

As the 2011 trade deadline approached, the San Francisco Giants were leading the NL west with only the Diamondbacks close to them in the standings. The solid pitching that had led the Giants to the 2010  World Series victory was still in play, but a big bat was needed in the middle of the lineup.

On July 28, four games up on the D-Backs, GM Brian Sabean made a high-risk move when he acquired Carlos Beltran from the Mets for San Francisco’s top organizational prospect, single A RHP Zack Wheeler. When the dust settled on the 2011 regular season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were NL west champions, the Giants missed the playoffs and Beltran became a free agent, ultimately leaving San Francisco to join the Cardinals.

Almost a year later, Wheeler is a Binghamton Met and lighting up the AA Eastern League with a 6-2 record and excellent peripheral stats. Now the Mets top organization prospect, Wheeler has mowed down 70 hitters in 65 2/3 IP with only 27 walks and 39 hits allowed. Opponents are batting .174 against him.

The Giants’ major league pitching is a position of strength but Wheeler was the cream of a thin crop as far as minor league starters. Tim Lincecum’s struggles this season make for an unexpected flaw in an otherwise first-rate rotation. Sabean has locked up Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner for the next few years so the starting pitching will continue to be a cornerstone for the G-men.

But the idea of plugging Wheeler in when Barry Zito’s contract runs out or if Lincecum continues to struggle would be a natural fit a year or two down the road. To let him get away for a rental that didn’t pay off with a post-season berth will be a tough pill to swallow if Wheeler continues to develop and becomes a solid part of the Mets’ rotation.

Such is the plight of Sabean and his fellow GMs. He strikes paydirt with castoffs like Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell and takes it all the way to a 2010 World Series victory. But a proven commodity like Beltran isn’t enough to spur the offense to a spot in the 2011 post-season. And it cost him Wheeler.

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