New version of Wheeler better than before

The Rays appreciate the changes in their former prospect.

Published August 3, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The exchange often has been accompanied by a pep talk or some added form of motivation, but the first time Rays manager Joe Maddon handed the ball to reacquired reliever Dan Wheeler, it was different. It was far simpler than Maddon had been accustomed to this season.

"I could just tell that this guy's been here before," Maddon said of his trip to the mound Monday. "He didn't want to hear too much. He wanted the ball and wanted to get ready to go. It was, 'I've got it. I know what I'm doing.' There was no trepidation at all."

Wheeler, the 29-year-old right-hander dealt by the Astros on Saturday for infielder Ty Wigginton, has been here before. This is, in fact, where it all began. But 5 1/2 years after leaving the Rays, Wheeler is just what the organization needs - a dependable late-inning arm.

His journey back included a few detours - time in three other organizations - but what the Rays have in Wheeler, a Seminole resident, is a seasoned veteran who has learned from his travels.

He wasn't noticed out of high school in Rhode Island, and a coach's connection landed him at Central Arizona Junior College. His success there impressed the Rays enough to take him in the 34th round of their inaugural draft in 1996.

Wheeler moved through the farm system quickly, and when he made his major-league debut at 21 years, 7 months in September 1999, he was the youngest to wear a Rays uniform.

"I guess I was along for the ride," he said, joking about a Rays ownership that would later become known for promoting its prospects before they were ready. He might have been the first. He spent the next two seasons shuttling between the majors and minors.

"Looking back on it, I probably wasn't ready," Wheeler said, "but no 20-year-old kid says he's just going to stay around in Triple A. For me now, I think it made me a better player and a better person."

He still recalls what his Double-A manager in Orlando, former Dodgers standout Bill Russell, told him in his first season of pro ball: "It's a lot easier to get to the big leagues than it is to stay in the big leagues."

After spending most of 2002 and 2003 in the minors in the Braves' and Mets' systems, he finally got a call back to the big leagues with New York.

"I just started to do everything over because what I was doing wasn't working," Wheeler said. "When I got back, I wanted to make sure I stayed for good. This is where it's at."

Throughout his time in the minors, he tweaked his mechanics. He adopted a smoother leg kick. He studied all the tips from all his pitching coaches and combined them.

When the Astros acquired Wheeler in 2004 for outfielder Adam Seuss, they found a pitcher who would become one of the best relievers in the game. Wheeler owns a 2.12 postseason ERA, including a span of eight scoreless innings in 2004.

"He was a guy who we could count on day in and day out and the vast majority of the time, he came through," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who worked with Wheeler in Houston.

And now he's back, a much different pitcher than when he left.

"It's kind of funny how it all works out," Wheeler said. "It is pretty neat. Coming up through the organization, you're kind of looking for someone to help you out and now the tables are kind of turned."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com