Player: Dan Wheeler
Drafted, Path to the Majors
Dan Wheeler was drafted back on June 4th, 1996 in the 34th round of the annual draft out of a junior college in Central Arizona as a Draft-and-Follow selection. Wheeler finalized a contract on May 7th, 1997. Wheeler may have chosen to go back to college, but with Devil Rays being a new expansion team, Wheeler had a chance to reach the majors in a short time.
He reported to short-season ball in Hudson Valley, and was relatively successful considering he was two years younger than the average age of 21 at that level. In 1998, Wheeler spent the full season with Single-A Charleston, and didn't have quite as much success, but proved himself to be a workhorse as made 29 starts and registered 181 innings pitched, tossing thee complete games.
That off-season, Wheeler pitched for Team USA as they tried to gain entry to the 2000 Olympic Games. In 1999, Wheeler was assigned to Double-A Orlando, where he started nine games, and his performance made him worthy of a promotion to Triple-A Durham. While in Triple-A, Wheeler didn't dominate, but he wasn't terrible either. He was simply a decent pitcher, but when September hit and the major league rosters expanded to 40 men, the Devil Rays decided they wanted to see what Wheeler could do at the major league level.
Wheeler would make his first career start in the majors on September 1st, 1999 in Baltimore against the Orioles. When he was promoted, Wheeler became the youngest player to have appeared in a major league uniform for Tampa Bay. The first batter he faced was Baltimore's left fielder, Brady Anderson, who he started off by tossing three straight balls to. He'd eventually walk him, but Wheeler retired the next hitters quickly. Wheeler held the Orioles scoreless for the first three frames, before Albert Belle launched a two-run homer in the fourth. That's all Wheeler would allow though, as he finished his night the next inning, having given up two runs on the homer, and three hits, while walking two and striking out three in taking his first career loss.
Two weeks later, Wheeler, in his third career start, set a new team record that would stand for eight seasons as he proceeded to strike out 12 hitters in just six innings on the mound. Unfortunately, it again resulted in a loss for the 21 year old righty. He finished out the year having made six starts for Tampa Bay but failing to record his first win in the majors. He had allowed 20 runs in almost 31 innings pitched, struggling with the home run ball, having allowed seven of them.
Following the season, Baseball America ranked Wheeler as the sixth top prospect in Tampa Bay's system and had this to say of his strengths as a pitcher:
For his age, Wheeler pitches with excellent command and tempo. His best pitch is a hard slider with quick, late bite and good two-plane depth to its break. - David Rawnsley, Baseball America
In 2000, Wheeler made the opening-day starting rotation as the fourth starter on the strength of an excellent Spring. However, he struggled in two starts, allowing ten runs in ten innings, resulting in him being optioned down to Durham for the late Cory Lidle, whose career can be read about, here.
Wheeler would spend the majority of the season with Durham, and the results were poor. He posted a 5.63 ERA in 26 starts. So, when September rolled around, Tampa Bay management decided to move him to the bullpen in hopes of more success, which he found to an extent. In nine outings, he allowed four runs in just over 13 innings on the mound. He registered his first career win on the final day of the season as the team walked off a half-inning after Wheeler delivered a scoreless top half of the tenth.
The next season, Wheeler would have a make-or-beak year, and it shattered. He had a couple of stints in the majors and allowed a total of 17 runs in 17 innings. Durham wasn't better to him as he had a 5.23 ERA in 65 innings. In December, the team decided Wheeler was expendable and released him to clear a spot on the 40-man roster.
Wheeler was picked up by the Braves a month later on a minor-league contract and spent the entirety of the 2002 season with their Triple-A affiliate, the Richmond Braves. He was again converted back into a starter, but had limited success and was again let go following the season.
On January 27th, 2003, the New York Mets decided to take a flier on Wheeler, signing him to a minor league deal. After a making five starts over the first month of the season for Triple-A Norfolk, the Mets converted Wheeler back into a reliever. In mid-June, the Mets promoted Wheeler after Mike Stanton hit the 15-day DL. Wheeler made the most of it as he went on the best run of his career, allowing just seven runs over 23 innings. He warranted a spot on the roster, and outside a few rough blemishes, he delivered a solid season for New York.
The next season, Wheeler made his second opening day roster. Again, outside a few blemishes, he was decent bullpen arm for the Mets. Around late-August, in the post trade deadline period, the Mets made a waiver deal with the Houston Astros that landed them Adam Seuss who was having an excellent season in High-A.
Wheeler's transition with Houston was fantastic as he only allowed runs in 2 of his 14 outings. Once the season was over, Wheeler got his first taste of the postseason as the Astros won the National League wild card spot. Wheeler was phenomenal during the playoffs as he appeared in five games, with each outing being scoreless and he only allowed four hits over eight innings. He even earned the win in game four of the NLCS against St. Louis. He also didn't walk anyone during the postseason, while he struck out nine. Unfortunately for Wheeler and the Astros, they'd lose the series, ending their season.
In 2005, Wheeler established himself as one of the top set-up men in the league. Starting the season, Wheeler only allowed a run in three of his first 23 games, and only allowed a single run during those outings. Wheeler would continue to be excellent for the rest of the year, however he struggled in the postseason.
He lacked command during the Division Series, but avoided disaster. During the Championship Series, Wheeler was much better and even recorded the final out in game six, sending Houston to the World Series.
Unfortunately, Wheeler's first taste of the fall classic went poorly as he came on with a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh. He'd record two outs, but loaded the bases (amidst rain and controversy) and was removed from the game. His replacement, Chad Qualls, immediately gave up a grand slam to Paul Konerko. The Astros wound up getting swept by the White Sox in four games.
When 2006 came around, Wheeler was decent in the first half then dominated in the second half. There was span of time between July and September, where Wheeler delivered 24 innings and only allowed one run in 28 games.
Back to his Roots
After two and a half dominant years, Wheeler was back for his fourth season with Houston. He became a very valuable commodity to have. However, in 2007 he struggled quite a bit, causing his value to diminish. Nearing the trade deadline, Houston was in need of a solid infield bat, so they made a deadline deal with the Devil Rays that netted them Ty Wigginton for Wheeler.
Wheeler was decent in his first year back with the Rays, but in front of a historically bad defense, the rough outing was always inevitable and skewed his numbers. At one point from mid-August to early-September he only allowed two runs over 10 innings, but then he was awful in the final week of the season, as he allowed six runs in four innings.
During the off-season, Tampa Bay underwent a transformation that changed the look of the franchise. In 2008, everything came together for the franchise as they finally found the right parts to form a winning ball club, with Dan Wheeler helping to solidify one of the league's best bullpens.
He had an excellent start to the year, as he only allowed three runs over his first 22 innings on the mound. Around late May, the team's closer Troy Percival hit the DL, so Joe Maddon decided to go with a closer-by-committee with Dan Wheeler usually bridging the eighth inning. Wheeler pretty much had the same success of his 2004 & 2005 seasons, as he had excellent stretches with a rough outing about once a month.
For the first time in franchise history, the Rays reached the playoffs thanks to their timely hitting, excellent defense and starting pitching. Meanwhile they had one of the best bullpens in the league. They played their first ever playoff game on October 2nd, 2008 against the White Sox at Tropicana Field. Wheeler was called upon to close that game out, and did so, but not before allowing a solo-homer to Paul Konerko.
The Rays took the series, eliminating the team that dashed Wheeler's world series hopes in 2005. During the ALCS, Wheeler suffered two blown saves. During game two, Wheeler was called upon to preserve an 8-7 lead in the eighth inning, but couldn't as he lobbed a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score. With the bullpen depleted, Wheeler held the game there for two more innings, until Fernando Perez made a mad-dash and won the game in the eleventh.
A few nights later as the team was on the verge of taking the series, Wheeler would be part of the one of the greatest playoff game collapses in history. The Rays were up 7-0 nothing in the seventh, then Grant Balfour gave up four runs and only recorded two outs. Wheeler was brought in and closed out the inning, but in the eighth, he gave up three runs that tied the game. An inning later, Boston walked off.
The Rays took the series in seven games, then moved on to play a pitiful World Series against the Phillies. Wheeler pitched in three of the five games, sandwiching a poor outing between two scoreless ones as Tampa Bay was defeated four games to one.
In 2009, Wheeler started the year poorly allowing seven runs in his first five innings. But, he followed that by going on a fantastic run from April 22nd to July 9th, as he appeared in 31 games and only allowed four earned runs over 27 innings pitched. He had a rough ending to July, but finished out the season on a nice run as well. From August 2nd to October 1st, he only allowed five runs over 20 innings, with each run coming via a solo home run.
Wheeler had an excellent beginning to 2010, allowing just four runs over his first 17 innings. Then another rough stretch, followed by another excellent stretch where he allowed just two earned runs over 16 innings. Finally, he finished the season on another rough stretch. The Rays made it to the postseason once again, and Wheeler only pitched in one game, tossing a scoreless inning against Texas.
Unfortunately, the Rays lost the series and with their season over, Dan Wheeler had his option declined and he became a free agent for the first time in his career. On December 18th, the Boston Red Sox signed Wheeler allowing him to come play for his home town team on a two year deal with an option for the second season.
Wheeler's stint with the Red Sox went awfully at first, and finally culminated in his first-ever disabled list stint due to a calf strain. From April 1st to May 4th, he had a 11.32 ERA thanks to allowing 13 runs in 10 innings, including four homers. However, when he returned, he turned into one of the best relievers in the game and possibly had the best stretch of his career.
From May 21st to September 1st, he only allowed six runs in 33 games, good for a 1.53 ERA. Also, he only allowed two homers which had been his Achilles heel throughout his career. However, when he entered games, it usually wasn't in high leverage situations. In September, his struggles returned then he suffered right forearm stiffness so he was shutdown for the season on September eighth.
Following the season, dissatisfied with Wheeler's performance and the risk of his forearm stiffness turning into something more serious, they declined their 2012 option on him.
In January, Wheeler signed a minor league deal with the Indians in hopes of reestablishing himself. He started the year decently enough, but on May 13th, 2012 he suffered possibly the worst outing of his career. In just one inning, he allowed six runs, including a homer. Sadly, that was how Wheeler's final outing in the major leagues went as the Indians designated him for assignment the next day. Wheeler was outrighted to Triple-A and spent the rest of the season in the minors.
The following offseason he signed with the Royals on a minor league deal, but got off to a disastrous start and was released in mid-May and that's how Wheeler's career as a professional baseball player came to an end.