Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jon Niese: Big Shoes To Fill

Jon Niese is by no stretch another Pittsburgh Kid, but his beginnings aren't terribly far removed from the Golden Triangle - he was born in Lima, Ohio, about 260 miles to the west as the wheels turn. He went to Defiance HS, where he was pretty good at soccer but most excellent at baseball. Niese was named Ohio's Baseball Player of the Year twice, becoming the first player to win the award in back-to-back seasons. After turning his tassel, the Mets selected the lefty 209th overall (seventh round/ninth pick) during the 2005 draft.

Jon Neise 2015 (photo Kathy Kmonice/Associated Press)
The youngster climbed the ladder in the minors in good progression, making it from the Gulf Coast League in 2005 to AAA by 2008, with performances that were more workmanlike than dazzling (MiLB slash: 40-32/3.72).

The 21 year old took his major league bow on September of 2008, and tossed three starts (one gem, two clunkers) during his call up. The southpaw began 2009 at AAA Buffalo, getting a ticket to New York in May when Ollie Perez was hurt. Maybe that's when he landed on the Bucco radar, with his first start against Pittsburgh. He spun six innings, giving up two runs on seven hits with no walks and five whiffs in a no decision that was eventually won by New York. Niese made five fairly effective spot starts before he was injured stretching for a ball at first base, ending up with a complete tear of the hamstring and season-ending surgery. It would be the first of several injuries during his career.

The 2010 campaign was Niese's first full season as he broke camp with the Mets. He slashed at 9–10/4.20 in 173-2/3 IP, with the stat line bloated when he hit a wall in late August. Still, he was named to Baseball America '​s 2010 All-Rookie Team. Niese's 2011 season was sketchy, as he finished 11–11/4.40 ERA in 157-1/3 innings. The year was cut short following an August rib cage injury. After that healed, he had an off season rhinoplasty to improve his breathing. After all the medical work, he and the Mets agreed on a five year/$25.5M extension just as the season began.

He answered the 2012 bell after inking that deal, going 13–9/3.40, spinning a career high 190-1/3 frames.  Niese was named the Mets opening day starter for 2013 after Johan Santana went down and beat the Padres. But the injury bug continued to bite Niese, who missed several starts because of rotator cuff woes. 2014 was more of the same. He opened the campaign on the DL due to inflammation in his pitching elbow, came back, and then was again placed on  the DL for elbow soreness again in early July. He was effective when healthy, posting a 9-11/3.40 line in 187-2/3 IP.

In 2015, Niese made some mechanical adjustments during spring training in order to ease the strain on his arm (about time, too, we'd guess). But his biggest challenge would prove to be the arrival of a rotation of young, fireballing arms and the steady performance of ol' man river, Bartolo Colon. Niese didn't really help his own cause much, tossing another workmanlike campaign for the Mets, putting up a  9-10/4.13 line and ending up a bullpen member by season's end.

On December 9th, the Mets traded Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker. With Charlie Morton's departure, Neise is a natural to step into his #4 spot in the rotation. But with AJ and JA Happ both gone,  he's plugged into the middle of pack. If he pitches like he did from 2012-14, it's a slotting the Bucs can get away with. Niese could pull it off; he's coming to a team that doubles down on his strengths.

What he has going for him is that he's a ground ball guy (50.0% career; 54.5% in 2015) and that plays into a Bucco strength, especially as the right side of the infield should be stronger with the leather this year. In fact, Niese made a point of that, telling the beat guys that “I’m sure what I’ll appreciate more than anything is the way (the Pirates) play defense. I’m looking forward to that.”

The lefty had a rough year with homers last campaign, and PNC Park is much more forgiving of long flies. He's also coming into a situation where he fits into the rotation; the Pirate starting staff is thin right now, unlike the New York situation where there were arms overflowing. That should relieve a little of the pressure.

So the Bucs are banking on a change of scenery to put the sparkle back in his stat line. His Tango projection for the coming season (as a Met) is 8-9/3.87 and 165 IP; Pittsburgh is rolling the dice that a new ballyard, a healthy year and a little Uncle Ray TLC can help Niese top that slash, especially if he's taking up the spot that AJ & Jay Happ tossed from last year, producing 16 wins.

Jon throws four pitches - a fastball that averaged 89 last year, along with a cutter, change and curve. He picks his spots for his heater, as it was just 47% of his pitch mix last year. He does have the ingredients for a bounce-back year, plus he's young at 29 and has a fairly friendly contract. Niese makes $9M this season, with club options for 2017 ($10M) and 2018 ($11M) and a $500K buyout. If he performs as the FO expects, he's set up to be more than a rental.

A final trivia bit: Niese was the longest tenured Met and Walker the longest tenured Pirate. It's not easy to start and finish a career with one team anymore.

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