Dan Wheeler was there at the beginning. But he fell out of touch and had to battle just to keep his career going. He persevered to reach the top of the game and eventually, the Rays wanted him back. He arrived at the beginning and returned in time for the franchise’s first great season. He has seen Rays baseball at every form and he might just be coming back.
In the very first draft in the history of the expansion Devil Rays franchise in 1996, they selected a right-handed pitcher named Daniel Wheeler in the 36th round out of Pilgrim High School in Rhode Island and managed to sign him. It didn’t take long for the D-Rays to see that Wheeler was far better than his draft slot. Wheeler made his pro debut in 1997 at Short Season-A Hudson Valley and absolutely dominated, going just 6-7 but with a 3.00 ERA, a 8.7 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 15 starts and 84 IP. He posted an incredible 2.30 FIP (not that anybody cared about that back then, but it shows just how well he pitched). The Rays then brought up Wheeler to Low-A Charleston for 1998 as a 20 year old, and the results were good, but not great. He went 12-14 with a 4.43 ERA in 29 starts, including 3 complete games and a shutout, and a crazy 181 IP for Charleston, but he struck out 6.8 batters per 9 innings, walked just 1.4, and allowed a 0.8 HR/9, leading to a 3.51 FIP. The D-Rays were impressed by Wheeler’s durability (he ranked second in the Sally League in innings pitched) and his arsenal, and they fast-tracked Wheeler to Double-A Orlando to begin 1999. Wheeler pitched well for Orlando to begin the season, going 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA and a 3.56 FIP in 9 starts and then he was promoted to Triple-A Durham, where he struggled mightily. He went 7-5 but with a 4.92 ERA, a 6.3 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a ghastly 1.7 HR/9 in 14 starts and 82.1 IP. His FIP was just 5.37. Nevertheless, the Rays brought up the 21 year old Wheeler to the big leagues at the end of the season and his terrible homer rate persisted as he went 0-4 with a 5.87 ERA in 6 starts, posting a 32-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 30.2 IP but a scary 2.1 HR/9. Wheeler’s confidence evaporated.
Wheeler could not recover in his return to Durham in 2000, going 5-11 with a 5.63 ERA and a horrific 5.97 FIP in 150.1 IP, allowing 35 home runs, a 2.1 HR/9 and tops in the International League by a wide margin. He also posted a 5.48 ERA in 11 big league appearances, 2 starts. Wheeler then posted a 4.76 ERA and a 4.72 FIP in 21 appearances, 13 starts, between Double-A and Triple-A in 2001, and he posted just an 8.66 ERA in 13 big league relief appearances. The D-Rays had seen enough, releasing Wheeler following the season. Wheeler was just 24 years old but his once-promising career had come to a screeching halt.
Wheeler spent all of 2002 at the Braves’ Triple-A Gwinnett, posting a 4.65 ERA and a 4.68 FIP in 25 starts and 2 relief appearances. He then caught on with the Mets for the 2003 season. Wheeler pitched mostly in a relief well for the Mets’ Triple-A Buffalo, and he pitched relatively well, posting a 3.94 ERA and 3.33 FIP in 45.2 IP. The Mets then decided to call him up to the big leagues in a relief role. And for the first time, he was finally saw some success, posting a 3.71 ERA, a 4.18 FIP, and 2 saves in 35 relief appearances and 51 IP. Wheeler began 2004 back in the Mets bullpen but struggled, posting a 4.80 ERA and a 4.58 FIP in 50.2 IP, and he was traded to the Houston Astros in August for outfielder Adam Suess. Suess would play just 2 games in the Mets organization before getting released. Wheeler, meanwhile, figured something out at the end of of the season, posting a 2.51 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 14 relief appearances spanning 14.1 IP. And in the playoffs, Wheeler was absolutely lights out. Wheeler tossed just 1 inning during the NLDS for the Astros, although it was a perfect inning. The Astros would fall in 7 games in the NLCS. That was not at all the fault of Dan Wheeler. Wheeler made 4 appearances spanning 7 IP, allowing just 4 hits and not a single walk while striking out 9. (That’s a 0.63 FIP, not too shabby.) His ERA in 8 playoff innings overall was a perfect 0.00. Just like the D-Rays realized that Wheeler was far better than his 36th round draft slot, the Astros discerned that Wheeler was a whole lot better than the organizational player they gave up to acquire him.
Wheeler transformed from a journeyman to a trusted setup man during his time in Houston. Wheeler went 2-3 in 2005 for the Astros with a 2.21 ERA, an 8.5 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, a 0.9 HR/9, 17 holds, and 3 saves in 71 appearances and 73.1 IP. His FIP was a nice 3.34. Wheeler once again pitched well in the first two rounds of the playoffs, posting a 1.29 ERA and a 7-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 6 appearances spanning 7 IP, but he struggled in the World Series, allowing 3 runs in 2 innings, although all 3 runners scored on a Paul Konerko grand slam against Chad Qualls in Game 3.
Wheeler continued his string of success with Houston in his age 28 season in 2006, going 3-5 with a 2.52 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 2.0 unintentional BB/9 (uIBB/9), a 0.6 HR/9, 24 holds, and 9 saves in 75 appearances spanning 71.1 IP. But after posting a 0.7 HR/9 previously with the Astros, Wheeler’s past tendency towards allowing homers sprang up again in 2007. Wheeler saw time as Astros closer, but he struggled to begin 2007, going 1-4 with a 5.07 ERA, a 10.1 K/9, a 2.4 BB/9, but a 1.4 HR/9 in 45 appearances and 49.2 IP. He was 11 of 15 in save chances. At the 2007 trade deadline, the Astros traded Wheeler to the Rays for Ty Wigginton.
Wheeler floundered initially with the Rays, posting a 5.76 ERA although a 3.76 FIP in 25 appearances and the same amount of innings through the rest of 2007. But his rebound in 2008 was one of the many things that needed to go right for the Rays to go on their incredible run. Wheeler went 5-6 on the year with a 3.12 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 2.4 uIBB/9, a 1.4 HR/9, 26 holds, and 13 saves in 70 relief appearances and 66.1 IP. His FIP wasn’t so sparkly (4.38), but he gave the Rays the type of performance they needed, especially when Troy Percival went down. Wheeler was unable to replicate his past playoff success, posting a 6.23 ERA with 1 save but two blown saves.
Wheeler put up another nice ERA in 2009 with the Rays, going 4-5 with a 3.28 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 1.1 uIBB/9, a 1.7 HR/9, 16 holds, and 2 saves in 69 appearances and 57.2 IP. His defied his FIP once again, which came in at 4.48. Then he went 2-4 with a 3.35 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 2.6 uIBB/9, a 1.3 HR/9, 9 holds, and 3 saves in 64 relief appearances spanning 48.1 IP for the Rays in 2010. His FIP was 4.11. In his final appearance as a Ray in Game 2 of the Rays’ 4 game loss to the Texas Rangers, Wheeler tossed a perfect inning with 2 strikeouts. Following the season, Wheeler signed a one year, 3 million dollar contract with the Boston Red Sox.
In 2011 for the Red Sox, Wheeler had a decent year, going 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA and a 3.89 FIP. Wheeler began 2012 with the Cleveland Indians, but after posting a 8.76 ERA in 12 appearances spanning 12.1 IP, striking out just 2, walking 7, and allowing 3 home runs.
Dan Wheeler has seemingly been around forever. After making the big leagues as a 21 year old, he’s still just 34 years old, not young, but not done yet- right? Wheeler has reached rock bottom again. He’s been doubted everywhere he has gone. He has always thrown in just the high-80’s to low-90’s with his fastball with a couple of breaking balls and a splitter. He has the arsenal of a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, a constant reminder of everywhere he has been.
Could the Rays bring Wheeler back? He’s a veteran who has seen it all as a pro. He has pitched in the AL East and has pitched well, especially when the Rays defense behind him. They would get him for the minimum- money isn’t the question. The Rays always need bullpen arms and Wheeler certainly fits that profile. Maybe the Rays could get Wheeler right at Triple-A and get him back to the effective reliever he was for several years. And especially if no more lucrative deals are available and no other team gives Wheeler a call, the Rays should give Wheeler one last opportunity to prove himself again. He’s been around since the start of the Rays and has given his all to the team. Sentimentality doesn’t win ballgames and we’ve seen the Rays let free agent after free agent leave without blinking an eye. But the Rays should give Wheeler a shot- no guarantees other than a Triple-A roster spot, but the opportunity to put himself back together and return to the big leagues. Wheeler was a part of the genesis of this team and part of its beginning as a contending ballclub. And maybe he has something to contribute to this franchise moving forward.