Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exploring a Trade of Jonathan Niese

As the landscape of professional baseball continues to shift toward homegrown, cheap, controllable players, the one glaring market inefficiency has become the most prized asset on the field: The starting pitcher.

It's no secret that pitchers, especially the elite ones, who reach free agency will set their families up to live extremely comfortable lives for several generations. Often scooped up by the big market teams in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Chicago, these players are often paid for their past results while teams hope that their futures will only be marred with minor injuries and bigger successes. Oftentimes this isn't the case, and with the drought of quality starting pitching those who are mediocre to above average are beginning to wreak the benefits. There's no need to dive into Oliver Perez's albatross of a contract, because even that looks tame in comparison to the contract the Boston Red Sox awarded John Lackey prior to the 2010 season. Having not played in a full season in 2 years, Lackey was the most sought after free agent pitcher on an extremely weak market, ultimately landing a 5 year agreement worth $82.5 Million. For 2 years of work, Lackey has made 61 starts while ultimately contributing a healthy 5.26 ERA and a WHIP above 1.5. This isn't about Lackey, but he serves as a prime example of how desperate teams have become for quality starting pitching.

This offseason has seen its fair share of contracts that are ticking time bombs as well: Going into his age 33 season, Mark Buehrle agreed to terms on a 4 year, $58 Million agreement with the Miami Marlins. While Buehrle's aggressive style of play may have made for a solid transition to the National League before he signed his contract extension with the Chicago Whitesox, at 33 years old Buehrle will begin his natural decline. Add in that he has pitched over 200 innings or more in 11 consecutive seasons and there's bound to be a serious bite toward the end of the contract.

Looking beyond, former New York Met Chris Capuano received a 2 year, $10 Million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a deal that will be a big boost to the club if Capuano remains healthy, but is likely a slight overpayment for the aging lefty. Along similar lines, Aaron Harang with join Capuano in Los Angeles on a similar agreement, a move for a mediocre pitcher that very well may hurt the club in the end. Oh, and need I mention CC Sabbathia's contract extension?

Several days ago the Tampa Bay Rays inked rookie sensation Matt Moore to a club friendly deal, the type the Rays have become synonymous with. The 22 year old will earn a guaranteed $14 Million over the next 5 years, with Tampa holding options for 3 consecutive years after for a contract that could be worth a total of close to $40 Million. It's a model that I predict will become increasingly popular in baseball, and the cash strapped Mets should be taking notes from Andrew Friedman.

During the winter meeting last week, names began popping up like whack-a-moles at an arcade as to who the Mets were exploring in the trade market. Would it be the young, power slugging 1st baseman in Ike Davis? Would David Wright be on the move? Angel Pagan had already been shipped out to San Francisco, who knew what Sandy Alderson could do?

The only name that had any real intrigue was Jonathan Niese. Niese, entering his age 25 season, will be arbitration eligible for the first time in 2013 and isn't scheduled to hit the free agent market until 2016. Niese's main concern has been staying healthy, although his injury in 2009 was a freak accident and he only missed his last remaining 4 starts in 2011. Although his ERA hasn't been sparkling, his peripherals show that he'll become much more effective in the near future. Sporting a healthy 7.9 K/9 to a 2.5 BB/9, his rates went in the right direction for the second consecutive year, and it peaked the interest of many clubs, many of whom seemed willing to overpay for the southpaw. The question isn't whether or not to trade Jonathan Niese, the question should be: When do the Mets trade Jonathan Niese, if ever?

As it stands, there are two conceivable routes the Mets should look to take with the Lima, Ohio native: Explore extending Niese to a team friendly contract while providing a measure of guaranteed financial security for Niese, or seriously consider moving him while the Mets await the further development of prospects. It would, however, seem nonsensical to move Niese while his value is at a low point: Despite his peripherals, Niese is coming off of an injury and a season that sported a 4.40 ERA. Niese has started strong in 2 consecutive seasons, carrying a 3.67 ERa into the end of June in 2011 and a 3.43 ERa into the end of July in 2010. Trading Niese mid-season would likely net a bigger return, while teams who are on the brink and in need of quality starting pitching will be looking to dish out a much bigger haul.

Trading Niese could certainly benefit the Mets in the long haul if the package is right and they can receive an adequate return, possibly a highly touted catching prospect or starting pitchers with a higher ceiling. However, doing so now would send a poor message to the fan base, many of which are looking for reasons to believe for the future. If Niese can step into his shoes and perform to his peripherals, the Mets will either be able to secure a big return or look into making him a staple of a future winner.