With the New York Mets having some of the most electric young arms in baseball in Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, Jon Niese is being overshadowed entering the 2014 season.
However, Niese’s performance this year is key to the Mets’ success in the short and long term, as a strong season will help secure his trade value moving forward.
Niese entered last season as the Opening Day starter, and while he seems like he's been around forever, he is just 27 years old. He's been a stabilizing force in the Mets’ rotation since his first full season, with a career ERA of 3.99 and 3.75 FIP.
With Johan Santana no longer on the roster, Niese is entering 2014 as the Mets' only left-handed option out of the rotation, unless John Lannan performs exceptionally this spring.
Last season, Niese had a rotator cuff injury that held him out 51 days, which could be concerning moving forward as shoulder injuries often linger. Looking to the Mets’ future, they need Niese to show he is healthy and effective in 2014, regardless of whether or not they are contending for a playoff spot.
If everything clicks for the Mets this upcoming season, meaning Travis d’Arnaud breaks out, Chris Young turns his career around, and the team’s key pieces stay healthy and play up to their ability, Niese needs to perform if they want to compete for a playoff spot.
Niese’s solid performances every fifth day will be crucial, especially with pitchers like Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia, who have higher ceilings but are less consistent, pitching on the other days.
If the Mets perform poorly in 2014, Niese’s pitching is just as important (if not more so).
Niese is a 27-year-old left-handed pitcher with a history of success and a devastating curveball, but his most appealing asset to teams across the league is his contract.
If Niese maintains his career performance (or dare I say improve upon it) and stays healthy, proving that his 2013 shoulder issue was a blip on the radar rather than a lingering problem, he will be a tremendous asset on the trade market.
The Mets signed Niese to a bargain of an extension prior to the 2012 season and the Ohio native went on to have the best season of his career. He pitched more than 190 innings and had a 3.40 ERA while stranding 76.5 percent of baserunners with a 1.172 WHIP.
Niese’s contract was a five-year extension for $25.52 million with club options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The contract rises in value, as the Mets will pay Niese $5 million this year, $7 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016.
Relative to other contracts around the league, Niese’s value outweighs his contract to a large extent. The Cincinnati Reds resigned 27-year-old right-hander Homer Bailey to a six-year, $105 million contract on Wednesday, and despite having two career no-hitters, he is arguably less valuable than Niese.
Bailey has been effective the last two seasons, but has a career ERA of 4.25, and in 2010 and 2011 he had three separate shoulder injuries that caused him to miss 155 days. Niese has a less damning injury history and a better career ERA and FIP.
The Reds will be paying $105 million to Bailey through 2019 while the Mets (or whoever Niese plays for) have the ability to pay Niese much less with club options in 2017 and 2018 for $10 million and $11 million, respectively.
Looking at Niese’s value compared to free agent pitchers from this offseason, the Mets signed 40-year-old Bartolo Colon to a contract averaging $10 million over the next two years, while Bronson Arroyo, who will turn 37 next week, signed a two-year, $23.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Ricky Nolasco turned 31 in December, but signed a four-year, $49 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, and he also has a higher career ERA than Niese.
As the Mets currently stand, they have a number of exciting young arms that could become impact major-leaguers for a long time. Their starting pitching depth in the minors is their biggest organizational strength, and with a number of holes on offense, dipping into their starting pitching depth could be the best route at turning the franchise’s fortunes around.
With the price of starting pitching rising every year, having cost-controlled pitching is a sound strategy for a team struggling financially like the Mets. Niese doesn’t have the electric stuff that Harvey, Wheeler and Syndergaard boast, but he is still young, proven and a competitor on the mound.
If the Mets don’t want to trade one of their three young studs, Niese could be an enticing option for a team looking to make a run, especially in a smaller market. Teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates hope to compete in the next several years and need to find ways to do so while working within financial restrictions. A pitcher like Niese, who is paid pennies compared to similar pitchers around baseball, could be extra enticing and garner a haul of elite prospects.
Last offseason, when the Mets were looking to trade R.A. Dickey, trade rumors circulated that a deal structured around Niese and Royals prospect Wil Myers was being discussed, as evidenced in the below tweet by Adam Rubin of ESPN.
The rumors included Wheeler as well, but the Mets were not going to give up both for Myers. In the end, the Royals dealt Myers to Tampa Bay in a package centered around James Shields, who has had a very good career and has posted better numbers than Niese (although not quite as superior as you may think).
Shields’ greatest strengths were his ability to stay healthy (seven-straight seasons of more than 200 innings) and friendly contract, earning $9 million and $12 million on club options for 2013 and 2014.
Niese needs to prove that he can stay healthy, and while he isn’t as good as Shields, his contract runs for much longer. While fans shouldn’t expect a player as good as Myers in return, as he is now one of the best hitters in the AL East, Niese definitely could garner valuable prospects in a trade.
Niese could also be dealt as part of a package for an offensive superstar. A team like the Colorado Rockies may be willing to part with one of their stars (such as Troy Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez) if they were getting a pitcher who they could rely on every fifth day and not pay an exorbitant amount of money. In a trade for such a star, the Mets would need to include many more pieces, but Niese’s combination of his friendly contract and consistency are just as valuable as many of the best prospects in baseball.
There is also a situation in which Niese performs well and the Mets decide to keep him and his contract. It’s no secret that the Mets have reduced payroll since the Bernie Madoff crisis, and as a team that needs to make sound financial decisions, Niese has plenty of value to them. The Mets could use a cost-friendly contract for a fifth of their rotation through 2018, especially if they plan on locking up their stars (like Harvey) in the future.
Also, keeping Niese would make sense as insurance for their minor league pitching depth. The Mets have been lucky with their recent prospects, as most prospects don’t end up panning out. If the Mets dealt Niese and Harvey doesn’t recover properly, Wheeler never refines his command enough and the upcoming prospects stall in their development, the team’s rotation would be rather barren.
In the end, trading Niese next offseason makes the most sense for the Mets. Trading him this season could also make sense if the right offer is made and the team is struggling.
Starting pitching is an expensive and highly sought out commodity around baseball, and the Mets have a surplus of cheap and promising options. Niese is less sexy than the Mets’ other assets, but he has practical value enticing to any team. Dealing him could help fill an offensive hole at the major league level or replenish the team’s farm system.
Niese has been solid in his career, but looking forward, he could help the Mets’ future much more on another team than in New York.
Contract information courtesy Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Injury histories courtesy Baseball Prospectus.