New Red Sox Dan Wheeler Struggled as Starter Early in Career Before Mets Made Him Full-Time Reliever

New Red Sox Dan Wheeler Struggled as Starter Early in Career Before Mets Made Him Full-Time Reliever Editor’s note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will be profiling Dan Wheeler each day this week. On Tuesday, Wheeler’s time in the minors was examined.

Dan Wheeler made his first foray into the major leagues in 1999. He didn’t necessarily stand out. That’s what happens when you go 0-4 with a 5.87 ERA for a last-place team.

Still, the bright spots (12 strikeouts in his third start, his first career quality start in his sixth and final outing of the year) had Wheeler at least pointed in the right direction. But he was just 21 that year and due for some more challenges before hitting his stride. Rarely do pitchers that young ride a perfect wave to the top. More often, they are faced with their fair share of trials.

That’s exactly what Wheeler got, as his career was all over the map for multiple seasons. This was the time when the right-hander learned a bit about adversity and figured out his true calling, paving the way for hundreds of late-inning, pressure-packed outings later in his career.

The Rhode Island native won 12 games at Single-A Charleston (S.C.) in 1998, the year before he began a shuttle back and forth between the majors and minors. He went 10-5 with a combined ERA of 4.23 between Double-A Orlando and Triple-A Durham in 1999, earning his first trip to the bigs. The first year of the new millennium, however, provided a handful of obstacles.

At 22, Wheeler made the Devil Rays’ roster out of spring training and was on the mound in their fourth game of the 2000 season, making a start in the Metrodome against the Minnesota Twins. He gave up four runs in six innings and was in line for his first career win before the bullpen lost the lead. Six days later, he couldn’t even get through four innings, giving up six runs in a 7-1 loss to Chicago.

At that point in his career, Wheeler was 0-5 with a 6.69 ERA, all as a starter. Similarly, he was beginning to struggle at the high ends of Tampa Bay’s system, going 5-11 with a 5.63 ERA at Durham that year. The maturity and know-how were there, but the results were not coming.

The Devil Rays released Wheeler after the 2001 season. Atlanta signed him as a free agent, and he spent all of the 2002 season in the Braves’ system, still as a starter. Despite going 9-6 at Triple-A Richmond, he was released again and was jobless for nearly four months before the New York Mets brought him aboard and made the decision that would transform Wheeler’s career.

Seeing a guy who threw strikes, was tough on right-handers due to a lethal slider, difficult against lefties when he got his changeup over and less effective the second time through an order, the Mets made Wheeler a full-time reliever in 2003. It was a perfect fit and evident right away. Wheeler had a successful run with New York’s Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, before posting a 3.71 ERA in 35 appearances out of the bullpen for the Mets.

No longer were Wheeler’s sights set on double-digit strikeout performances or quality starts. He saw the value in being a reliable presence on a daily basis. He has stayed that course through the rest of his career through a simple approach.

“I don’t set too many goals for myself,” he said years later, after establishing himself. “I want to make 70 appearances a year, stay healthy, and pitch until I’m 40.”

For three tumultuous years befitting a young pitcher, Wheeler posted unattractive numbers in six cities (Tampa Bay, Durham, Orlando, Richmond, New York, Norfolk) and three organizations (Devil Rays, Braves, Mets). In his newfound role, he began to lay out the path upon which his reputation would be built, a path that eventually led to Boston.

Check in Thursday for a look at Wheeler’s run as one of the more dependable relievers in the game.

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