Editor's note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will be profiling Dan Wheeler each day this week. On Wednesday, Wheeler's ability to overcome adversity in his early years was covered.
Once he had found his niche as a reliever, whether through suitability or through struggles as a starter, Dan Wheeler’s major league career began to take shape. But it wasn’t until he joined his fourth organization in a span of four seasons that his major league career began to take off.
In 67 games between 2003 and 2004 with the New York Mets, the team that converted him to a full-time reliever, Wheeler was 4-4 with a 4.25 ERA and a pair of saves. It wasn’t an eye-popping stat line, but the boy from Warwick, R.I., had made it clear he had a big league arm.
Still, the Mets utilized Wheeler in a variety of roles. At times, he was a full-fledged middle reliever. Other times, he was a long man, and a handful of occasions saw him performing mop-up duty. He once made an appearance out of the bullpen, throwing 28 pitches in 1 1/3 innings, and then was called upon to start the very next day (4 IP, 6 H, 3 ER).
Wheeler figured that his versatility had gained favor in the organization, which was why he was caught off guard when dealt to Houston near the end of August 2004.
"I was very surprised," Wheeler said. "I understand they had to make a move, but a trade was the last thing I thought of. I talked to [general manager] Jim Duquette, and he said [the Astros] put a claim in on me, so they had to make a move to keep me in the big leagues. So they did this out of respect for me."
At the very least, Wheeler was a respected guy at the major league level. That level of respect would skyrocket in Houston, where the righty caught the eye of manager Phil Garner down the stretch and took over a vital role in a playoff-bound club. Wheeler tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings to start his Astros career, gave up a pair of runs in one wayward outing and then threw 6 2/3 more scoreless frames. Respect had transformed to reliability, and Wheeler would translate that quick run of zeroes into a place in Houston baseball lore with a remarkable postseason run.
After five scoreless innings over his first three playoff outings for the Astros that year, Wheeler was called upon in the seventh inning of a tied Game 4 in the NLCS versus St. Louis. The Cardinals already led the series 2-1 and had the meat of their order up against the kid who had been cast off by the lowly Mets a few months earlier. He would navigate another scoreless frame, watch Houston pick up a run in the bottom of the frame and then stride into the clubhouse with a postseason win to his credit — one which had tied the series.
The following season, now serving as the definitive setup man for closer Brad Lidge, Wheeler gave up just one run in seven innings during the NL playoffs as Houston reached the World Series for the first time.
Years later, Wheeler would recount those October moments in the Lone Star State as defining for his career.
"That’s what I do for a living," he said in October 2008 when asked about getting big outs in the playoffs.
Wheeler’s success all these years has not been limited to the postseason. He had a post sub-3.00 ERA for three straight seasons in Houston and began in 2005 a string of four straight seasons with at least 70 appearances. Only six pitchers in all of baseball made more appearances during that stretch.
Even when Wheeler left a few pitches up, as was the case in 2007 when his ERA soared into the 5.00 range, he was able to do some special stuff. Splitting the season between Houston and Tampa Bay (Wheeler was swapped for Ty Wigginton in July), Wheeler struck out a career-high 82 men in 74 2/3 innings while walking only 23.
Through his rise in Houston and subsequent years with the Rays, Wheeler made such control his calling card. And under Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who likes to mix and match in his bullpen a bit more than other skippers, Wheeler remained reliable in a variety of roles, earning the respect of his peers during the club’s 2008 AL title run.
"He’s the jack of all trades," said former Rays closer Troy Percival when the two were teammates. "He’s a great setup man, he's come in and got some big outs in the ninth inning. He’s a stabilizing guy down there because he throws strikes. You know what you’re going to get with Dan. He’s not going to walk you out of innings, and he knows what to throw at the right times. It’s good to have a guy like that."
It took a handful of years, multiple trips to and from the minors, several role changes and a handful of different organizations for that much to be clear. Now, it’s the Red Sox’ turn to have a guy like that.
Check back Friday for the fifth and final story on Wheeler, a glance at his last days with the Rays and his mindset heading home to the Boston area.