Dan Wheeler won’t have long to wait regarding whether or not he fits into the Red Sox’s plans for the 2012 season. The veteran relief pitcher and Warwick native has a club option worth $3 million that Boston must render a decision on “within three to five days” upon completion of the World Series.
“They will have to notify me whether they’re picking it up or not,” said Wheeler earlier this week from his Florida homestead.
Originally the one-year deal at $3 million Wheeler signed last off-season included a vesting option for 2012 that would have automatically been triggered had the Pilgrim High School graduate been able to make 65 appearances. Had Wheeler pitched in 70 games, his salary would have jumped to $3.25 million.
Because Wheeler suffered through an injury-plagued 2011 campaign that saw him limited to 47 appearances, Boston is the one holding all the cards. Wheeler spent 2½ weeks on the disabled list in May, then didn’t pitch from Sept. 7 on after experiencing tightness in his right forearm.
“It could have been vesting but it never got to that point,” Wheeler said. “If they decide to pick me up and bring me back, I’d be ecstatic. We’ll see. The ball is in their court, but I loved playing for the Red Sox this year and I hope it continues.”
The injury that erased his availability at season’s end was one that Wheeler described as something that affected his release point more than anything. The time off benefited Wheeler and allowed him heal to the point that he was able to throw bullpen sessions the last week of the regular season, albeit minus testing out his breaking pitches.
The abrupt nature in which Boston’s season ended denied Wheeler a chance to take that next step, which would have been to see if he could return for the playoffs. Naturally there was also frustration stemming from his inability to contribute at a time when the BoSox were in complete freefall.
“I just didn’t have enough days,” said Wheeler matter-of-factly. “If it happened earlier in the year, then we might have gone about things a little differently. With it being September, we might have tried to push a little bit faster within reason.
“For me to sit there and watch the baseball that we were playing, to not be able to do anything or play my part, it just really stunk,” Wheeler went on. “I’m not saying that if I was healthy that we could have done better, but just to get out there and help in whatever capacity … it was frustrating not to be able to take the ball because that’s something I take pride in.”
Wheeler was able to rebound from a disastrous start to his season (11.32 ERA in 10 1/3 innings at the time of his first-ever trip to the DL) to allow five runs in the 30 innings he pitched between the start of June and the end of August. Despite the turnaround, Wheeler never seemed to gain the full trust of ex-manager Terry Francona, who continued to turn to Matt Albers in high-leverage situations that didn’t require the use of Daniel Bard or Jonathan Papelbon.
After serving as one of the surprises through the first four months, Albers bottomed out in August, where he posted an unsightly 12.33 ERA. Asked if he felt that he was properly deployed, Wheeler answered, “I don’t know. The only thing I did was when every time they called my name, I just got up and got ready. That’s the only thing I could have controlled and that’s the only thing I wanted. Whenever (Francona) called my name, I got ready.”
With Boston the 33-year-old Wheeler ended up with a 4.77 ERA in 49 1/3 innings, allowing 47 hits with 39 strikeouts and eight walks. Opponents hit .246 against him, the highest mark since 2007 (.256).
“The season started off rough and no one wants to begin like that,” Wheeler said. “Looking at the whole year, I was trying to battle back and put up some good numbers and gain confidence for myself and for the team and be able to put myself in some better situations. I felt I was able to rebound pretty well and with the exception of the injury at the end, I was able to finish on a higher note.”
The up-and-down nature of Wheeler’s season could perhaps be traced back to his workload prior to coming to Boston. From 2005-2010, Wheeler appeared in 419 regular-season games with another 16 games coming in the postseason. Given his dependability over that span – other than the 5.30 ERA Wheeler managed in 2007, the right-hander never posted a figure higher than 3.35 – it’s little wonder why his managers, Houston’s Phil Garner and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon, felt compelled to run him out there so often.
Given the theory that relief pitchers remain the game’s most tough-to-predict variable year-in and year-out, the Red Sox will have to decide whether Wheeler’s 2011 season was the exception to an otherwise steady track record before coming to a conclusion.
EXTRA BASES: One event that normally slides through the cracks at baseball’s annual Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 draft, which takes place Dec. 8 in Dallas. According to soxprospects.com, the Red Sox risk losing the following notable players if they are not added to the 40-man roster by Nov. 20: third-baseman-in-waiting Will Middlebrooks, defensive outfielder whiz Che-Hsuan Lin and onetime notable Daniel Nava. Some room to make the necessary adjustments/additions will open up once free agency commences.