Mets have dilemma with Zack Wheeler: Can he be moved to the bullpen?

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Don't panic, but Zack Wheeler's elbow is already experiencing some "tenderness," according to Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen. Warthen said there's no cause for concern: He was checked out by doctors when all pitchers and...

Mets have dilemma with Zack Wheeler: Can he be moved to the bullpen?

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Don't panic, but Zack Wheeler's elbow is already experiencing some "tenderness," according to Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen.

Warthen said there's no cause for concern: He was checked out by doctors when all pitchers and catchers underwent medical exams on Monday, and everything came back clear. Wheeler, Warthen says, just isn't someone who bounces back from his outings quickly.

It's one of many reasons for the Mets to treat Wheeler with "kid gloves" this season. 

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"We'll give him whatever it takes, and we're not going to push it because we want to see this kid be healthy," Warthen said. "And once he gets healthy, we want to see him stay healthy." 

An exceptional, yet fragile talent, Wheeler had Tommy John surgery nearly two years ago and hasn't pitched since, save for one rehab outing last summer in Port St. Lucie that he failed to make it through. His big, looping arm action makes him prone to elbow soreness and he's approaching this spring training with extreme caution.

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"It's always been difficult for him to recover between starts," Warthen said. "It's tough for him to throw bullpens, ect. A lot of pitchers are like that. They just don't recover well and they make it to the fifth day and everything shows up. Generally, it's not as young as him but because of that long, loopy, low elbow flexion that he has, he has a lot of soreness after each start."

Which begs the question, why are the Mets thinking about putting Wheeler in the bullpen? Sure, it's a way to save him from reaching his innings limit, which Warthen said will most likely be in the low 100s, but could Wheeler's elbow hold up with the constant uncertainty of relief pitching?

"That's a good discussion," Warthen said. "That's part of the discussion, is he doesn't recover very well when he comes in and throws. At the major league level, you can't put a guy up there and tell him, 'You're throwing an inning and a third today, then you have three days off.' It just doesn't work like that. We are here to win."

A starting pitcher has a set routine, one that takes into account health and maintenance. It's predictable, and sensitive pitchers like predictability. The constant up-and-down nature of relief pitching doesn't bode well for a pitcher with an injury history like Wheeler's. 

Even Wheeler himself has expressed concern with pitching out of the bullpen. He said he's more than willing to do what he needs to in order to help the team, but he's never pitched in relief as a professional. With a long frame, a five-pitch mix and an overpowering fastball, he's built to be a starter. 

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The Mets have the option to use a six-man rotation. Manager Terry Collins said rookies Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo have proved that they can pitch at the big league level, so all of the concern could go for naught.

The Mets have a top talent in Wheeler, but the margin for error with him seems to be too thin to put him in the bullpen.

"He wants to be one of the five, and you can't blame him for that because he earned it a long time ago," Warthen said. "But we've got to be extremely careful of this kid, because it's a special arm and he needs to be healthy when he gets back."

Abbey Mastracco may be reached at amastracco@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbeymastracco. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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