PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A routine batting practice session Wednesday morning turned into something more troubling for Mets top prospect Zack Wheeler, who strained a right oblique muscle during hitting drills.
Wheeler began warming for his second Grapefruit League outing without much issue after suffering the injury, but the Mets scratched him anyway as a precaution. That spoiled a potential showdown between Wheeler and Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, for whom he was traded in July 2011.
"I don't want to risk anything," Wheeler said. "We've still got a month and a half left."
Neither he nor the Mets seemed overly concerned about the injury, which may not even prevent Wheeler from making his next start. But a sizeable crowd of reporters huddled around Wheeler and general manager Sandy Alderson as soon as the news went public, an indication of just how important the top prospect has become.
"We've got to be very, very careful," manager Terry Collins said, "because we're not going to do anything to hurt this guy."
Wheeler had been looking to build upon a strong first Grapefruit League outing, which saw him strike out two Nationals batters over two scoreless innings last weekend, his fastball registering as high as 96 miles per hour. Barring any setbacks, Wheeler's injury should not prevent him from taking the mound for Triple-A Las Vegas on Opening Day.
"It's mostly precautionary at this point," Alderson said. "He tried to throw and didn't experience any problem, but he was sore to the touch so we backed him off."
Left-hander Darin Gorski started Wednesday's game in place of Wheeler, giving up four runs in two innings as he battled for a spot in New York's bullpen.
Much of the damage against Gorski came courtesy of Beltran, who was slated to face Wheeler for the first time since the two players were traded for each other 19 months ago. Beltran and Wheeler met during batting practice Wednesday afternoon, joking about the deal in an exchange that Wheeler described as "just a little hello."
"It was kind of cool to meet the guy you were traded for," Wheeler said.
Beltran saw things from a wider lens. He described the 2011 Deadline deal as a win for the Mets, considering Wheeler's development into a blue-chip prospect and San Francisco's struggles down the stretch in 2011. The Giants missed the playoffs, then lost Beltran to free agency.
"It worked out better for [the Mets] because I thought I was going to go to the playoffs and it didn't happen," Beltran said. "I took the chance of going to a team that was fighting for a playoff spot, and it didn't work out for me, but it worked out for the Mets."
Beltran pointed to pitching coach Dan Warthen and bullpen coach Ricky Bones as positive mentors for Wheeler, who may boast plenty of talent, but only six career starts above Double-A.
"All I have heard is he's just a good prospect," Beltran said. "He has good stuff. He's a young guy. They've got the people here to mold him to be the pitcher that he can be for the organization. He's what they're looking for."
So it is imperative that Wheeler stays healthy, both now and for the long-term future. Though his current injury seems minor, it underscores how fragile young pitchers can be -- and how important a select number of them are to the Mets. The Mets are pinning so much of their future on Wheeler and Matt Harvey, whom they envision sitting at the top of their rotation for years to come.
They cannot afford to lose either of them, or any of their other bright young players, to the same types of injuries that have torn them apart in the past.
"One of the things in the big picture is the future of this organization and the big promise that we've got coming, and it's on the mound," Collins said. "You're certainly not going to take a chance."