Wheeler for Upton: Coulda. Shoulda?

Zack Wheeler or Justin Upton -- who would you rather have? USA TODAY Sports, Getty Images

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware that the Mets’ outfield is, um, underwhelming. And although their farm system is rich in some areas, such as right-handed pitching, it is bereft of outfield talent. In fact, Brandon Nimmo is the organization’s only outfield prospect who can reasonably project to becoming even an average big league regular, and he’s in low Class A.

Based on that evidence, it’s understandable why the club was interested in trading for Justin Upton over the winter when the Diamondbacks made him available. Of course, when push came to shove, word around the campfire was that the Mets refused to part with top prospect Zack Wheeler in a deal for Upton, and trade talks fell apart.

Assuming that's true, the Mets will have plenty of time to kick themselves for missing out on a golden opportunity, starting this weekend in Atlanta.

This isn’t to suggest that Wheeler is going to be a bust. Far from it. As he showed on Tuesday afternoon in Reno, when he fanned 8 while allowing 1 run in 6 2/3 innings, he’s got crazy potential. The problem is that pitching prospects break down all the time, while players like Upton, who are young, gifted and under team control for a few years at a reasonable price (a total of $38.25 million through 2015), rarely become available on the trade market. If you have the chance to grab a player like that, you don’t let a pitching prospect stand in your way. If anyone should know this, it’s the Mets.

Remember Jenrry Mejia? In 2010, Keith Law had him ranked as the No. 23 prospect in all of baseball, and three years later the best-case scenario is a mid-rotation starter or reliever. Then there was Mike Pelfrey, who was an acceptable major league pitcher, but whose trade value was probably at it’s apex the day before he was called up to the majors. And I won’t even bother getting into the whole Generation K debacle.

People get attached to prospects because of the possibility of what they might be. And sure, sometimes they become Matt Harvey, but far more often they become David West.

If the Mets had included Wheeler in a deal for Upton it’s hard to imagine a situation in which they would have regretted it. I don’t think he’ll maintain his 70-homer pace, but his 2011 season, when he finished fourth in the NL MVP voting with 31 homers and a .289/.369/.529 line, is a reasonable expectation given his age (25!) and track record. If the Mets had that kind of player in their lineup, they could be contending within a year, and they have a number of right-handed pitching prospects who could step up and fill the void left by Wheeler, such as Rafael Montero, Domingo Tapia and Luis Mateo.

The one black cloud that still hangs over every potential pitching prospect trade the Mets might make is the disastrous Scott Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano deal of 2004. The difference between that trade and a theoretical Wheeler-for-Upton swap is that the former was dumb the day it happened, because Zambrano was a lemon and everyone but the Mets knew it.

In fact, let’s imagine an alternative universe in which the Mets get the 2004 equivalent of Justin Upton. Just two years prior, a right fielder in his mid-20s had finished fourth in the NL MVP voting, and his name was Vladimir Guerrero. Had the Mets been shrewd enough to maximize the value of an elite prospect like Kazmir and get an All-Star in his prime, the deal wouldn’t still be a punchline almost a decade later.

Wheeler could turn out to be a star, and this will be moot. But Upton is a star, and the Mets were foolish to not go all-in if they had the chance. You have to give up something to get something, and it’s far better to give up potential stardom when the return is certain stardom that also happens to fill the organization’s most glaring need.