ATLANTA -- Zack Wheeler is no longer some vague thought for the future, an idea without a face. As of Tuesday, Wheeler is officially a big leaguer, and his presence is about to make a real impact on others.
Because of Wheeler, their top pitching prospect, the Mets will soon need to dump someone from what is now a six-man rotation. For weeks, the common line of thinking had run through Dillon Gee and Jeremy Hefner, the Mets' fourth and fifth starters heading into the season. But even before Shaun Marcum coughed up five more runs in a 5-3 loss to the Braves on Wednesday, manager Terry Collins indicated that he is also at risk.
"When we get back to five guys, I think we're going to take the five guys we decide are the best to run out there every fifth day, and who give us the best opportunity to win," said Collins, who affirmed that his decision will come before the All-Star break. "Certainly in the second half, the one thing we want to do is, instead of maybe struggling, we'd like to play very well in the second half to get us excited for 2014."
If it is indeed a meritocracy that Collins envisions, that spells bad news for Marcum.
In allowing five runs over 4 2/3 innings Wednesday, three of them on a fourth-inning homer to third baseman Chris Johnson, Marcum's ERA rose to 7.94 over his last three starts. He has struck out 14 batters over that 17-inning span, walking seven.
Compare that to this: over Gee's own last three outings, he has posted a 1.64 ERA with 20 strikeouts and four walks, while Hefner has produced a 1.50 ERA with 14 strikeouts and three free passes.
"It seems like every mistake's getting hit," Marcum said of his own performance. "Unfortunately, it's been a 2 1/2-month ordeal for me so far."
Though Marcum is the veteran of the bunch, an eight-year Major Leaguer with a $4 million salary, those numbers paint a rather stark picture. What's more, any benefit the Mets may receive by keeping him in the rotation and dangling him as trade bait is erased by his contract, which includes escalating incentives based upon roster days and innings pitched. The more he takes the mound, in other words, the more the Mets -- or another team -- would owe him.
Certainly, Marcum has had his moments this season -- even recently, when he fired eight innings of one-run relief in the Mets' 20-inning loss to the Marlins. But more often than not, his inconsistencies have undermined him, as they did Wednesday at Turner Field.
Though Marcum struck out five batters over his first three innings, each of them scoreless -- but none of them spotless -- he gave up consecutive two-out singles to B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in the fourth. The next batter, Johnson, smoked a three-run homer into the seats in left.
Quickly tying the game on pitcher Kris Medlen's throwing error and Kirk Nieuwenhuis' run-scoring bloop single in the fifth, the Mets watched Marcum give the lead back for good during a two-run rally in the bottom of that inning. Marcum walked two batters, allowing the go-ahead run to score on a wild pitch before serving up Upton's two-out RBI double.
"I really thought he was going to give us some more innings," Collins said. "The one thing about Shaun, you see a lot of strikes. I don't know what it was today, but he was behind in more counts than he usually is. I'm not sure his command was the best it's been."
The Mets never really rallied again, going quietly against Medlen -- who pitched into the eighth inning, striking out seven -- and a duo of relievers. All told, they rapped out only six hits, one by new leadoff man Eric Young Jr.
Afterward, Marcum said he was not worried about his rotation spot, simply because the decision is not up to him. And amidst other circumstances, perhaps his struggles would not loom so large.
But with Gee and Hefner both pitching well, the pecking order in this meritocracy seems clear.
"I know he's not happy or satisfied with it," said catcher John Buck, who has known Marcum since their days together with the Blue Jays. "Marcum's the type of guy that, if anything, it's going to fuel him to work harder. He's not the type to back down by any means. So is it something that I think is going to cave him? No. I think it's something that's just going to drive him even more to push harder and be even more determined for the next outing."