Wheeler attributes demotion to oblique injury

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler was back on the mound, throwing batting practice on Sunday, tossing about 25 pitches to Mets Minor Leaguers.

The right-hander, the Mets' No. 2 prospect -- behind catcher Travis d'Arnaud -- and No. 8 overall has been battling a right oblique injury, an injury that caused him to be scratched from a Feb. 27 start.

Wheeler was one of 10 players sent to Minor League camp on Sunday, and he figures the setback is a significant reason.

"I don't think the injury helped," Wheeler said. "I really didn't think about it all that much. My mind-set was coming in and making the team."

Instead he'll likely start the season with Triple-A Las Vegas. He's expected to be joined there by d'Arnaud, who should still have a few more weeks in big league camp.

Wheeler's lone Grapefruit League outing was in the Mets' spring opener, against the Nationals on Feb. 23. He gave up a hit and a walk while striking out two in two innings of work.

"I'm not happy, but the injury cut me back just a little bit," he said. "I only got out there one time, that's what I'm kind of mad about. I wanted to sort of get out there and prove myself. But hopefully, I'll be up here soon."

"He did a lot," said manager Terry Collins. "We saw a great arm out of him. We know he's got the great arm. I thought he handled his situation in the clubhouse, [with the media]. I know he's disappointed. He's got every right to be. But he's going to get his chance. Just like Matt Harvey. When he gets here, he'll never look back."

Sunday was Wheeler's first action against hitters since straining the oblique while swinging in the batting cage. He faced three hitters, drawing only limited contact despite admitting he wasn't in his finest rhythm due to the recent inactivity.

"It felt good," he said. "But the timing was off a little with everything, stuff like that, so my pitches weren't crisp. Other than that, the oblique felt good. Everything else felt good."

Wheeler expects to see game action soon, likely when Minor League games start, and to up his pitch count by about 10 each outing, leaving him at about 70 once the season starts. And if he does rejoin the Mets, he says, the experience spent with the big league club in Port St. Lucie will go a long way.

"You know everybody around the locker room and stuff like that, and that definitely helps, so when you get up there, you sort of aren't just a deer in the headlights," he said. "But I think it's helped me being up here, preparing for the season a little bit."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.