Before I get started with the meat and potatoes from this piece, may I please apologize for the title. I’ve had Jon Niese and “nice” combo stuck in my head all afternoon and I simply couldn’t get it out. Also, if someone else ate the low hanging fruit and used that bland alliteration before me in their response to the trade, I have three things to say.
- I’m sorry
- I didn’t read it
- Shame on you as well
I’ve been harping on the fact for some time that Pirates fans should expect little return for their potential offseason dumps of Neil Walker and Mark Melancon. I’m happy to report that I was not expecting a solid fourth starter with multiple years of potential control in return for the Pittsburgh Kid. Niese is not a sexy pick by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not a hot prospect with upside to dream on nor is he a reclamation project in which the Pirates might yield another huge reclamation projection bonus. While I don’t think he’s a perfect fit, Niese is a steady producing middle to back of the rotation pitcher that won’t blow you away, but he won’t blow it either. Of course, his acquisition may create some questions even if he is the answer for one of the five slots.
The first question I have to ask is — Will the Pirates make another move to bring in another starter? While Niese makes for an excellent #4 starter, I have my doubts about him at the #3 spot. He’s coming off his worst season ERA wise since 2011 and he doesn’t have bat breaking stuff. The 2015 season also yielded a career low in K’s per nine innings (5.76 K/9). Not that Ray Searge gives a crap about that. Based on Searage’s recent track record, he’ll rebound, but his bounce back won’t yield another potential three-headed monster at the top of the rotation like AJ Burnett’s resurgence early last season and J.A. Happ’s sale of his mortal soul to Beelzebub did following the trade deadline. At his best, Niese will be a serviceable three, but I want more.
If the reaction of the media is any indication, the Bucs are done in the starting pitching department and Neal Huntington alluded to leaving us wanting more based on this tweet from the PG’s Stephen Nesbitt.
Do Bucs need to add just 1 SP? Huntington: "I'm sure that's not what our fans want to hear ? but market makes it tough to add 2 via trade/FA.
— Stephen J. Nesbitt (@stephenjnesbitt) December 9, 2015
He didn’t completely rule it out but it seems unlikely at this point. Barring injuries, it feels like the opening day rotation will be:
- Gerrit Cole
- Francisco Liriano
- Jon Niese
- Charlie Morton
- Jeff Locke
To put into another way:
- Strong 1
- Strong 2
- Weak 3
- Weak 4
- Strong 5
The rotation bookends well and contrary to popular belief, the Pirates will own a rotation that should provide enough pitching almost every night to put them into a position to win, but they won’t have much of an advantage most of the time through the middle. If the Pirates added a true three like Scott Kazmir or Yovanni Gallardo, suddenly they’d be pretty good across the board.
Another thought I had immediately following the trade was how would it impact the rest of the Pirates offseason moves? More precisely, would it free the Pirates to make the briefly rumored Morton for Mitch Moreland trade? I still think it’s possible, but the Pirates have so many options in the marginal / short term / transitional first base market, it would be difficult to pin down just one who they might pursue at this time. In truth, they could fare just as well with a free agent or Korean/Japanese League veteran Dae Ho Lee or by simply standing pat with Michael Morse. While this move may make it a little easier to get Moreland, it doesn’t have to be him and Morton doesn’t need to move.
Either way, Niese didn’t free up much cash to re-allocate elsewhere, as his contract pretty much matched Walker’s deal. In fact, he was a direct relocation of the cash earmarked for Walker. If the Pirates were to add another true middle of the rotation pitcher, it would likely take another move where maybe a player is traded for prospects. The Pirates have a couple notable options in Morton and Mark Melancon. The Pirates could move one or they could move neither, but I suspect one will need to go before another starter gets added.
I also questioned whether or not Niese’s two club options of control matters and would the Pirates want to keep him? I’d answer probably. If he rebounds to early career form, I suspect he’ll be an easy option to pick up especially with the way contracts have gone this offseason. I’d put Niese (career ERA 3.91) on par with guys like J.A. Happ (4.13) and Mike Leake (3.88). Happ’s already in the books for $13 million a year over three years and Leake will likely get more annually over a longer term. Leake’s potential contract of 5 years and $75 million feels right. That makes Niese at roughly $9M, with $10M and $10.5M options feel pretty darn good.
Finally, what does this mean for the prospects who look to make a mid-season jump to the majors? The answer is probably nothing. They’ll be replacing whoever is struggling, with the exception of Liriano and Cole. Tyler Glasnow still needs work and it would be difficult to envision Jameson Taillon close to being ready after missing two seasons. In an ideal world however, one would be able to make the jump this year and make the rotation better and deeper. In a perfect world, one would be able to bump Niese into the fourth spot come playoff time.
No one gets excited about pitchers like Jon Niese. The Pirates extended Neil Walker’s value to the organization by moving him to get a useful, proven middle to back of the rotation pitcher with cheap years of control rather than extending Walker himself. Walker was a nice story for the team and city as the hometown hero, but his days were numbered anyway. The Pirates dealt from strength and at the very worst return depth at a position that sorely needed it and a bridge to the guys with mending elbows on the farm. If Niese rebounds, he passably fills a hole until a pitcher with better radar gun stuff ideally takes his place. If he doesn’t, the Pirates have an easy decision to make when the Super 2 deadline passes. It also means they can add more talent to the roster or they can stay put. There hand isn’t forced into bad deals. At the end of the day, this was an old fashioned baseball trade with teams dealing from depth to fill a weakness and one the Pirates have a chance of winning big on.