Two Wheelers, One Dream
Pair of Wheelers have first-round hopes
As the June draft nears, finding out a team is interested in Wheeler in the first or second round won't be enough information. Because this year, there are a pair of Wheelers with first-round dreams.
Tim Wheeler, of
Tim Wheeler chose Sacramento State to follow in the footsteps of his brother James, a righthander who pitched for the Hornets from 2003-2006 and is now a high school coach in the Sacramento area.
After starting his career as a follower in that sense, Wheeler has become one of the leading position players available for the 2009 draft.
An athletic outfielder, Wheeler now looks like a solid mid-to-late first round pick and could go even higher. Scouts see a great deal of upside in the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder. He is a plus runner with 4.1-4.2 times to first base, and solid base-running skills. He has made the jump this season with his power, and projects as a potential 25-homer hitter.
Wheeler has been a starter since he arrived on campus at Sacramento State. As a sophomore he was as a first-team all-Western Athletic Conference performer, hitting .330 with 43 RBIs. Hornets head coach John Smith has been pleased with Wheeler's progression.
"As a freshman he was up and down, then as a sophomore he became one of our better players," Smith said. "Even with the three guys we had drafted, he stood out."
In 2009, Sacramento State needed Wheeler, now a junior, to lead a team that had won just 24 games in 2008, and had lost three players to the draft. That included Wheeler's roommate, first baseman Gabe Jacobo, the Angels' 10th-round pick. Seeing Jacobo up close helped Wheeler to understand what it was like to be a team leader on and off the field.
"I just really got an idea what it meant to be counted on by your teammates," he said.
Credit To The Cape
Wheeler put himself on the draft radar, like so many others, with a solid campaign in the Cape Cod League last summer. Wheeler hit .265 with four homers and 15 stolen bases for Orleans. He was the team's MVP and an all-star and ranked as BA's No. 22 Cape prospect.
The Cape proved to be a great learning experience for Wheeler and a springboard for success this year. "I learned to just relax and become more consistent," Wheeler said. "Getting to see great pitching every day makes you a better hitter."
Wheeler led the Cape in stolen bases, but scouts were looking for more power from him this season. He hit just nine home runs in his first two seasons at Sacramento State.
The Hornets' new hitting coach Reggie Christiansen, previously the head coach at South Dakota State for four seasons, has helped Wheeler unlock his power potential.
"Coach Christiansen helped him to grow as a hitter and just become more compact, patient, and quicker at the plate," coach Smith said. "Those changes allowed him to use his power and make adjustments."
Wheeler, who hit four home runs in a doubleheader against Utah Valley, entered the Hornets' home stretch with gaudy offensive numbers, batting .388/.497/.789 with 15 homers to go with 14 stolen bases in 16 tries. He ranked in the top 10 in the WAC in batting, home runs, RBIs, slugging, on-base percentage, runs, hits, total bases and stolen bases.
"He's a leader, our guys feed off of him, and he just makes everyone around him better," Smith said.
Wheeler is likely to benefit from a weak outfield draft class, especially collegiate outfielders. He vaulted from No. 88 on BA's preseason Top 100 draft prospects list to No. 21 at midseason.
"If I just go out there, play my game and do not get intimidated, there is nothing I cannot accomplish," Wheeler said.
Zach Wheeler, rhp
East Paulding Co. High, Georgia
DALLAS, Ga.—Zack Wheeler could easily be just another Georgia high schooler at East Paulding County High.
While he's a little bigger than average at 6-foot-4, 187-pounds, he enjoys fishing and spending time with his friends, and he has the superstitions of a typical high school athlete. Wheeler has worn the same socks in every game since the summer of 2007.
Then Wheeler takes the mound, and instantly he looks different.
Scouts like Wheeler's maturity and mental makeup, but what they really want is his body.
He has the ideal pitcher's build, complemented by effortless, polished mechanics, particularly for a prep pitcher. Scouts watching Wheeler throw in the bullpen in a mid-April game used words such as "effortless," "easy" and "wow."
They were impressed with his 94 mph four-seam fastball, which goes nicely with a two-seam sinker thrown in the 92 mph range. He has shown good control and future command potential of both fastballs.
A better breaking ball has helped Wheeler move up draft boards. He has switched between a curveball and slider over the past couple of years, but has now gone to just the curveball. As a result, he still struggles at times to command it and it can get slurvy. But, when it's on, it's 76-79 mph with tight spin and late break.
With plenty of area scouts, crosschecker and even Giants general manager Brian Sabean watching, Wheeler showed his maturity in this start, becoming more precise with his fastball when runners reached base, instead of rearing back and trying to throw harder. Errors made behind him in the field also didn't rattle him. His approach reveals his polish and confidence on the mound.
Some of that confidence stems from having had an older brother go through this before. Adam Wheeler was a 13th-round pick of the Yankees in 2001 out of nearby Campbell High and played four seasons in the minors before a torn labrum ended his career.
"It certainly helped me know what was going to happen," Zack said.
Wheeler's improvement this season coincided with his decision to sacrifice another sport he loves—basketball. He was a two-year letterman on the East Paulding basketball team, but after a strong summer in the East Cobb program last summer, where he was named the program's most valuable pitcher, Wheeler chose to sit out his senior year and focus only on baseball. He set goals to increase his strikeouts and lower his ERA from the 1.31 mark he posted in 2008.
Those goals appear to be in very much within reach, as he had 86 strikeouts in 45 innings and a microscopic 0.16 ERA.
His season also makes it hard to believe Wheeler will ever suit up for Kennesaw State, as he's now more likely to go in the top half of the first round of the draft. Sabean's Giants pick sixth overall, and the hometown Braves—who have loaded up on Georgia prep products over the years—pick seventh.
Despite its recent emergence as a draft hotbed, Georgia had not produced a prep first-round righthander since 2000 (Adam Wainwright) until last year (Ethan Martin). Now it looks like Wheeler will make it two in a row for the Peach State, and he's the best pitching prospect the East Cobb program has produced for the draft since Kyle Davies.