Wheeler seeks happier ending with Indians
Veteran vying for 'pen job after being part of Red Sox's collapse
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Being witness to Boston's collapse last summer was hard enough for Dan Wheeler as a member of the ballclub. Having it follow him throughout the winter months -- a time meant for rest and recuperation -- was salt on a slow-healing wound.
Wheeler grew up as a New England sports fan in Rhode Island, and his parents kept wallowing in the Red Sox's misfortunes during offseason conversations with the pitcher. At his home in the Tampa Bay area, Wheeler was constantly confronted with images of the Rays, the team that stole the American League Wild Card out from under Boston on the season's final day.
"It was tough," Wheeler said. "I didn't want to leave my house for like a month, because everywhere you go you'd see Tampa Bay hats. Whatever. It's in the past. As a bullpen guy, you have to have a short memory. As a baseball guy, you have to have a short memory.
"That's all over with. I'm excited about this year."
This season, Wheeler is hoping to work as a veteran reliever within Cleveland's bullpen, which has emerged as one of the better groups over the past two years. The right-hander is in camp this spring on a Minor League contract -- invited to join the Indians as a non-roster option -- and is competing for one of the two vacancies in the relief corps.
Looking around his new clubhouse, Wheeler sees some similarities to the 2008 Rays team he was on. They were a club loaded with young players and sprinkled with veterans to offer experience and leadership. That club did not have the highest payroll, but it was hungry and talented enough to piece together a surprising run to the World Series.
Wheeler believes the Indians have a similar formula at play heading into this season.
"Playing against them last year, I was absolutely very impressed," Wheeler said. "Over six months, anything can happen. I've been on teams like that. The Rays in '08. Who knows what's going to happen? We shocked the world that year.
"I'm not predicting anything for this team, but I feel like if everyone goes out there and does their job, who's to say we can't be competitive?"
That is a main reason why Wheeler -- despite his experience in the game -- decided to sign a lesser deal to join the fold in Cleveland.
Wheeler did not want to discuss the other contract offers that came his way, but he viewed the Indians as a team capable of making a run to the postseason. Cleveland began last year 30-15 and held on to first place for most of last season before stumbling to an 80-win finish. Wheeler feels contending for the playoffs this year is definitely possible.
"This was definitely the best opportunity for me to do that," Wheeler said.
First, however, Wheeler has to earn his way on the Opening Day roster.
As things stand right now, Wheeler is among a handful of bullpen hopefuls in camp with the Tribe this spring. Frank Herrmann and Nick Hagadone are two candidates who have a home on Cleveland's 40-man roster. Non-roster possibilities include Jeremy Accardo, Chris Ray, Robinson Tejeda and Wheeler.
Through his first three Cactus League appearances, the 34-year-old Wheeler has given up seven runs on eight hits in only three innings for the Indians. It has not been a strong start to the spring for the veteran, but it is a very small sample size. Wheeler also showed last season that he can overcome a substandard opening act.
Overall, Wheeler had a 4.38 ERA in 47 games last year, but that stat line does not tell the true story of his season.
On May 4, Wheeler had an 11.32 ERA (13 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings) through his first 11 games with the Red Sox. After a two-week stint on the disabled list to tend to a left calf strain, Wheeler bounced back nicely. Over his last 36 games, the right-hander gave up just 11 earned runs in 39 innings, fashioning a 2.54 ERA with a .203 opponents' batting average.
Wheeler's season ended prematurely on Sept. 8 due to right forearm stiffness.
"I wasn't making pitches," Wheeler said of his poor start last season. "That's what it really boiled down to. I was missing over the middle of the plate. When you do that, I don't care who you are, if you throw 105 mph or 85 mph, things aren't going to work out. I just started making better pitches toward the end of the year. When you go out there and do that, good things will happen."
Beyond his peformance, Wheeler's contract situation will likely play a role in the decision about whether to put him on the Opening Day roster.
Wheeler has more than six years of big league service time, and signed a Minor League deal after having his Major League contract expire at the end of last season, which fits the criteria for a part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Given his situation, Wheeler would net a $100,000 bonus and earn an automatic opt-out clause (effective June 1) if he is not put on the active roster five days prior to Opening Day.
If Wheeler does make the big league team out of camp, he would earn a salary of $900,000. His contract would also include performance bonuses based on appearances and games finished. Wheeler could earn $50,000 every five games from 40-70 appearances. He could also net $50,000 for 35 games finished, $75,000 for 40 games finished and $125,000 each for 45 and 50 games finished.
Wheeler knows that nothing is going to be handed to him, though.
"For me," Wheeler said, "this is just a situation for me to get back and hopefully earn a spot here, and earn a chance to go out there and pitch in some stuations to help us win some ballgames. Right now, that's what my focus is, to earn it. That's what I've done my whole career."
Wheeler's career has spanned 12 years, during which he has had stints with the Rays, Mets, Astros and Red Sox. The right-hander has compiled a 3.88 career ERA with 43 saves over 577 games. Over the last four seasons combined, Wheeler has posted a 3.49 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP across 250 appearances.
As for last season? That wound is still fresh.
Not only was Wheeler sidelined down the stretch with an arm injury, but he watched his Red Sox team squander a chance to win the AL East. Boston was in first place by two games on Aug. 27 before going into a tailspin, losing 21 of its final 29 games.
The Red Sox lost in walk-off fashion to the Orioles on the final day of season. Minutes later, Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria blasted a walk-off home run against the Yankees to claim the Wild Card that once seemed destined to land in Boston's hands.
"I never want to be on that side of it again," Wheeler said.
He is hoping for a more memorable this season with the Indians.