April 8, 2008
By David Driver
Special to the Beacon, Used with permission
Dan Wheeler’s wife, Stephanie, was six months pregnant when he was traded from the New York Mets to the Houston Astros in 2004.
And she was six months pregnant with their second son, born in December, when the Warwick product was traded last July from the Astros to Tampa Bay.
That may be some sort of Major League record.
At least the second trade brought Wheeler back to familiar turf, since the big league pitcher was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1996 and made his debut in The Show with the team in 1999.
“It was great,” Wheeler said of last season’s trade. “I live in Tampa (area). This has the chance to be the beginning of a good team.”
The improving Rays, with a strong farm system, were 66-96 last season but several publications predict Tampa Bay will at least pass the Orioles this season in the tough American League East.
Wheeler, a right-hander reliever, made the Opening Day roster for the Rays and pitched a scoreless ninth inning on March 31 as Tampa Bay began the season with a 6-2 win over the Orioles. The next day he signed a three-year contract with the Rays through the 2010 season. He was eligible to become a free agent after this season.
“Dan’s a guy that immediately upon joining the group made an impact, on and off the field,” Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman said in a statement. “We’ve worked hard to address our bullpen situation and we feel like Dan will be an important part going forward, getting outs late in games. It was important for us to try and keep him.”
That came after a solid spring training by the 1995 Pilgrim High School graduate, who had an ERA of 1.23 in eight games while in Florida.
“I felt like I threw okay,” he said, standing in the clubhouse. “I made it through without any problems.”
Wheeler appeared in postseason play in 2004 and 2005 with Houston, who had a core of veteran players. Now the Rhode Island native is back with Tampa Bay, a club with several young everyday players and some veterans in the bullpen.
Those young, talented players include outfielder Carl Crawford, infielder B.J. Upton and outfielder Rocco Baldelli, a Woonsocket native who began this season on the disabled list.
“It is hard for me to (realize) the veteran thing,” Wheeler, 30, said. “Our bullpen is mostly veterans. I am trying to go about my business. We have a lot of arms. It is a luxury to have.”
Tom Foley, a veteran Tampa Bay third base coach, said some veteran pitchers approach spring training differently than younger hurlers. “He had a decent spring. He is kind of a stabilizer out there,” Foley said of Wheeler.
Wheeler was 1-4 with 11 saves an ERA of 5.07 in 45 games for Houston last season. After being traded he was 0-5 with an ERA of 5.76 in 25 games out of the pen for Tampa Bay in 2007.
He entered this season with a Major League record of 12-26 with an ERA of 4.09 in 327 games, with nine starts. His 25 saves all came in the National League with Houston and the Mets.
He made 70 appearances overall last season and his 216 games in the three previous seasons ranks eighth in the Major Leagues. He pitched a career-high 75 games in 2006. Wheeler’s 82 strikeouts in 2007 was 12th among Major League relievers.
Wheeler, the son-in-law of Ray TV broadcaster Dewayne Staats, came on to pitch on Opening Day with Tampa Bay leading 6-2 in the bottom of the ninth in Baltimore.
He retired the first hitter, lefty Nick Markakis, on a line drive down the left field line as Crawford made an acrobatic catch. Wheeler then retired Kevin Millar, who also swung at the first pitch, on a pop to first. Aubrey Huff, the third hitter, hit a hard shot to first baseman Carlos Pena.
Ramon Hernandez flied out to left field to end the game as Wheeler threw 12 pitches to retire the side.
Wheeler, who spent 10 days at home in Rhode Island last October to see his family, said he is used to any role in the bullpen. He has been a setup guy and also closed out games.
In four innings of work this season, Wheeler has not allowed a hit, a walk or a run and has recorded two strikeouts. He has also picked up two holds for the Rays.
“I am going to try and get as many outs as I can,” he said, regardless of what inning he pitches. “I just try to get three outs.”
And now it appears he will be doing that for several years with the team that signed him out of Central Arizona Junior College 12 years ago.