NEW YORK -- Top prospect Zack Wheeler was among a group of six Minor League players the Mets added to their 40-man roster Tuesday, thereby protecting them from next month's Rule 5 Draft. The team also added right-handers Hansel Robles, Gonzalez Germen and Greg Burke, left-hander Darin Gorski and infielder Wilfredo Tovar.
The Mets had to add Wheeler, 22, to their 40-man roster, or else they would have lost him during the Rule 5 Draft at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. Wheeler is coming off his first full season in the Mets' organization, establishing himself as one of the best prospects in baseball by going 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 25 starts split between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo.
Wheeler, who struck out 148 batters and walked 59 in 149 innings, will likely follow the same path that similarly-touted prospect Matt Harvey did last year. He is a long-shot to break Spring Training with the club, but should reach New York by September at the latest.
Major League regulations stipulate that any player who signed his first professional contract before age 19 and has been in the organization for five years, or who signed after age 19 and has been in the organization for four years, is eligible to be selected in next month's Rule 5 Draft, if not protected. Thus, players such as Wheeler must be added to the 40-man roster, while fellow top prospects Brandon Nimmo and Gavin Cecchini are safe.
If selected, a player must remain on his new team's active roster or disabled list all season, or be offered back to his original club at a discounted price. The Mets did not make any selections in last year's Rule 5 Draft, but do own the rights to one of the most famous Rule 5 selections of all time, left-hander Johan Santana.
Leaving players unprotected can go both ways. Last year, for example, the Mets opted not to protect pitchers Rhiner Cruz and Collin McHugh, among others. The Astros subsequently selected Cruz first overall in the Rule 5 Draft, kept him on their active roster all season and now own his rights. But no one selected McHugh, who enjoyed a fine season in the Minors, made multiple starts down the stretch for the Mets and will compete for a spot on next year's Opening Day roster.
Robles, 22, went 6-1 with a 1.11 ERA in 12 starts for Class A Brooklyn last season. He led the New York-Penn League in ERA and finished the season without allowing an earned run in his final 45 innings, striking out 66 batters over that span. Robles was a finalist for the MiLB.com Pitcher of the Year Award.
Germen, 25, was 12-12 with a 4.34 ERA in 24 starts and two relief appearances split between Class A St. Lucie, Binghamton and Buffalo.
Burke, 30, appeared in 48 games with the Padres in 2009 and pitched in Baltimore's Minor League system last season, compiling a 3-1 record, 17 saves and a 1.53 ERA in 44 Minor League relief appearances. The Mets signed him to a deal earlier this offseason.
Gorski, 25, went 9-8 with a 4.00 ERA in 25 games with Binghamton last year, including 24 starts. The Mets' seventh-round pick in 2009, he was named Organizational Pitcher of the Year in 2011 after going 11-3 with a 2.08 ERA for St. Lucie.
Tovar, 21, combined to hit .270 with 28 doubles, three triples, one home run, 50 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 122 games split between St. Lucie and Binghamton last year, and was named to the mid-season Florida State League All-Star team.