Yet to reach goal, Wheeler enjoying journey
Infielder, 27, slowly working his way up, could crack big league roster with Yanks
VIERA, Fla. -- While playing his college baseball at Wallace State Community College in little Hanceville, Ala., Yankees infielder Zelous Wheeler shared a dugout with a surprising collection of talent. Future Major Leaguers Craig Kimbrel, Derek Holland and Jake Elmore were teammates at the junior college powerhouse.
"We didn't know nothing about being in the big leagues at the time, but that was our goal, to get drafted," Wheeler said on Tuesday in the visitors' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. "At the time, we were enjoying our college days and just having fun playing."
Kimbrel, whom Wheeler called a fellow "country boy" from Alabama, has traveled a fairly smooth path as a professional. The Braves drafted the fireballer in the third round in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, and he was in the Majors by '10, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award and making the NL All-Star team in '11.
Wheeler has moved on a much slower track. A 19th-round pick of the Brewers in 2007, the 27-year-old is now with his third organization and has logged more than 3,000 Minor League plate appearances without getting a shot at the highest level.
Not that he's complaining.
"The journey's been good," Wheeler said, flashing a smile. "It's been a fun ride, but I'm not done. I haven't reached my goal yet."
Perhaps this is the year, and perhaps the Yankees are the team.
New York signed Wheeler to a Minor League contract in January and invited him to big league camp. While the club has compiled significant infield depth, some of those options have fought through or are coming off injuries.
"When we look at the guys competing for some of those spots in our infield, they've all played well," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "If I had to make a decision today, it'd be extremely tough, no doubt about it. So Wheels and [Yangervis] Solarte and [Dean] Anna and [Eduardo] Nunez, all these guys have played extremely well. So we have three weeks to sort it out, and we'll sort it out."
Wheeler was excited to get a call from the Yankees after splitting last season between the Orioles' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, hitting .275/.354/.414 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs in 114 games. He also displayed his versatility, playing second base and shortstop in addition to his primary spot, third base.
The right-hander also took the mound for one inning at Triple-A Norfolk, finishing off a blowout loss by recording a perfect frame and striking out two. A former part-time closer in college, he still can hit 87 mph with his fastball, and he throws two different curves.
"Being versatile is good," Wheeler said. "I'm trying to keep it up and go from there."
For the second straight winter, he honed his skills in the Mexican Pacific League. Playing primarily for Guasave, Wheeler tied for second in the league in home runs (11) and finished third in RBIs (41).
"Big confidence," Wheeler said of what he took from the experience. "It's a sign I can do it, whether it's over there or over here. Any kind of competition, it's still baseball. If I can do it there, I feel like I can come close here, because I know I'm a good player and I can hit."
Wheeler, who was on the bench for Tuesday's game against the Nationals, was off to a 4-for-17 start at the plate this spring, with a pair of doubles.
He doesn't yet know where he will go to start the season, or where it might take him. He only plans to keep his focus on working hard and not on the goal that thus far has remained just out of his reach.
"It is tough," Wheeler said. "But you can only control what you can control and worry about that. Do your job and let the front office and whoever makes the decisions do their job, but my job is to perform to the highest level I can."
If he does that, Wallace State just might put a fourth alum in the big leagues.