Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Neil For Niese; So Long, Pittsburgh Kid

The domino effect of Ben Zobrist's signing has landed The Pittsburgh Kid in the Big Apple, swapped for the Mets' veteran lefty Jon Niese. The Los Angeles Angels, Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers also were also in the mix.

Neil Walker, 30, was a Pirate lifer. He was Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2004 (#11 overall) out of Pine-Richland HS. His versatility was evident, as the Bucs juggled him from catching to third and eventually to second with some quick OJT when Aki Iwamura fizzled in 2010. A big guy, he nevertheless settled into a fairly dependable fielder, although his range had been gradually shrinking in the past couple of seasons. He made up for glovework with his bat, providing the punchless Pirates with some pop from a middle infield spot. But the emergence of Josh Harrison, with Alen Hansen & perhaps Max Moroff in the wings, made him expendable.

Neil Walker (2004 Bowman Heritage)
Walker was in his walk year contractually. He and the FO never came close on an extension, and so The Kid wasn't a long-term piece of the puzzle. In fact, there was talk of the Pirates working him at first for the coming campaign. With a group of younger players knocking, the Bucs flipped him to fill a hole in their rotation by acquiring Niese, 29, who the FO hopes to slot behind Gerrit Cole and Frankie Liriano. It serves New York's needs, too, as they get a rental to replace Daniel Murphy but give heir-apparent Dilson Herrera some time to mature without giving out a big contract or dipping into their young arms.

Niese was the Mets’ opening day starter in 2013, but rotator cuff woes were followed by an elbow issue, and he fell behind the NY collection of young fireballers, ending the 2015 season in the pen. In 29 starts/33 appearances, he posted a 9-10/4.13 slash, which matched up with his 4.27 SIERA. But he is lefty, just 29 years old, controllable through 2018 and more importantly, Niese ranked seventh in the majors last season in groundball percentage at 54.5 percent.  He features four pitches, a four seamer (89 MPH), cutter, curve and change; a hard tosser he is not.

Jon Niese is comin' to town (Photo: USA Today)
Financially, the deal isn't much of a salary dump. Walker was projected to have a $10.7M arbitration payday in 2016 while Niese will make $9M this season, with team options of $9M in 2017 and $10 M in 2018. It gives the Bucs some spare change and a reasonable three-year contract for a mid-to-back rotation arm. And while he may have to step up this year, with the young arms on the horizon - Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, etc - he doesn't have to hold down the middle of the rotation long term.

The question is where this leaves the Bucs right side when they break camp. We're waiting to see who Pedro's replacement is (Clint said they're looking for a platoon partner), and with Jung Ho Kang out for a yet undetermined period, Josh will likely start the year at third instead of his now-ordained spot at second. (Note: Kang is recovering quite well, so hopefully he won't lose too big a chunk of the season.) They don't even have S-Rod signed yet, so filling that void, even temporarily (plz no P-Flo!), should be challenging.

As for The Pittsburgh Kid, the fans will get to see him again on June 6th, when the Mets come to town.

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