CLEVELAND -- The Red Sox are in the market for a starter, and the first name rolling off the assembly line is an intriguing one: Zack Wheeler.
The Mets right-hander would certainly represent an upgrade on the back of the Red Sox rotation, which has featured a rotating cast of mediocrity. With Red Sox fifth starters averaging fewer than three innings a start since Nathan Eovaldi hit the injured list in April, someone providing length would help an overtaxed bullpen.
Wheeler could be that man. The flamethrower with a 100-mph fastball has been sneakily consistent. Though he's only 6-6 with a 4.69 ERA, he has pitched into the seventh in 10 of his 19 starts, reaching the sixth 16 times.
Speaking at the All-Star Game, Mets teammates Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil raved about Wheeler, who sat out the 2015 and 2016 seasons following Tommy John surgery, but hasn't missed a start in two years. He is reportedly a target of the Red Sox, with the Yankees and Braves also among a handful of suitors for the 29-year-old, who will be a free agent this fall and is thus a rental.
"Zack has some of the most electric stuff in the game," Alonso said. "The trade talk, to me, I don't think anything of it because it hasn't happened. It's all speculation. It's not real until it happens. Zack is a real mellow guy, and I love watching him pitch. He's got some electric stuff. When he's on, he's almost unhittable. He's filthy."
Wheeler's stuff certainly plays. His fastball averages 97 mph, the hardest he has thrown since averaging 98 mph in 2012 before arm troubles. He has also topped 100 mph while striking out a career-high 9.8 batters per nine innings.
Secondarily, he features a power 92-mph slider that has been hit pretty hard (.437 slugging percentage against), as well as a curveball that one Mets observer believes the Red Sox would try to feature more under the tutelage of pitch doctor Brian Bannister, since Wheeler has only allowed 11 hits on it in 215 pitches -- 10 singles and one double.
"Playing behind him is awesome," McNeil said. "He mixes speed and pounds the strike zone. He's always around the zone. I'm glad I don't have to face him."
Wheeler has a reputation for being injury-prone, but he actually made 29 starts last season and is at 19 this year. Those 29 starts last season came between Games 11 and 150 without missing a turn.
Though he has a propensity to allow big innings because of troubles out of the stretch -- he has surrendered at least three runs in a frame eight times, partly because opponents are hitting .313 with runners in scoring position vs. only .221 with the bases empty -- he still manages to go six or seven in most starts.
"He's very consistent," McNeil said. "You know what you're going to get every single start, and I think that's what you want in a pitcher. It's what makes him so good."
The Red Sox don't boast that kind of consistency anywhere in their rotation. When it comes to reaching the seventh, Chris Sale (5 times), David Price (2), Rick Porcello (6), and Eduardo Rodriguez (6) pale in comparison to Wheeler. None has reached the sixth more than 13 times.
Whether the Red Sox have what it takes to acquire him remains to be seen, but they'd only owe him the prorated remainder of his $5.98 million salary this year, and he's only one year removed from going 12-7 with a 3.31 ERA.
"He'd make a great impact," McNeil said. "He's a big-time pitcher. He has pitched in some big games for us, and he's healthy, which is a big, big thing. I know he's had some health problems last in the past, but he's healthy now and he can really help a team."
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