With all signs pointing to little to no payroll increase for the 2013 season and Sandy Alderson hinting that the team will likely try to improve through trades this offseason I decided to look at some of the Mets' tradeable assets. This is part of a series I am trying to do one per week until I run out of options or get bored. I have several players in mind, but if anyone has a suggestion for a player they would like me to review post it in the comments. Throughout the process I am trying to stay objective in that I don't necessarily think the Mets should trade someone just because they have value. I mainly want to try to get an idea of what each player’s value is to the future of the Mets or to some other team. Previous posts can be found here on Bobby Parnell, here on Daniel Murphy, and here on Lucas Duda.
This week we'll be taking a look at Jon Niese. Niese Came up in the 2008 season as a promising lefty starter for the Mets. He did not get a shot at a full season until 2010 due to injuries and went on to post strong peripherals in ’10 and ‘11, but only average results while struggling to finish each season strong. Apparently some of that might have been due to poor conditioning that was a result of Niese’s funky nose before he got some surgery to remedy the problem thanks to Carlos Beltran. Also thanks to some research by roving SB Nation United writer Cee Angi, Niese has been tinkering with the mix of pitches he throws. All that is to say that we probably have not seen the best Niese had to offer until this year and maybe still not his best yet. Gaining experience and getting overall healthier has seen Niese this year pitching more in line with his peripherals and finishing the season with his highest innings total yet going 6+ innings pitched over his last 19 games. And he is still only 25.
This might be the perfect storm for Niese’s trade value because in addition to his stellar performance this year he also signed an incredibly team friendly deal that essentially has him locked up for below market value for the next five years with two option years. Later on we’ll do some comparison to Gio Gonzalez who is about as good of a trade comp you can have for Niese, but remember that when Gonzalez was traded he had not yet signed an extension. So the team trading for Niese will be getting a similar player for almost half of the contract that Gonzalez signed not including options.
First let’s look at Niese’s value to the Mets. As always when looking at trades you have to look at a team’s strengths and weaknesses and the trade has to appear to return fair value to both teams. On top of that you have to decide what your team’s goal is in the immediate and long-term future (I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but these are points that some people still do not seem to grasp). So what is the Mets’ goal for the immediate future? Is this a team that expects to improve next year and compete for the World Series in 2014? While that has been the stated goal since Alderson took over as GM things can change over time and maybe after a season where the Mets may lose 90 games the plan could get pushed back several years. So if you trade Niese that leaves a pretty big hole in the starting rotation in 2013. And while starting pitching has been the Mets’ stated strength, it’s not like they have multiple surefire options waiting in the minors. Sure Wheeler looks like he’ll be ready by next year, but not out of spring training. Mejia and Familia while blessed with loads of talent and a good chunk of AAA innings have not shown that they are ready to be capable major league starters quite yet. McHugh might be ready to pitch in the majors, but at best he will only be a Dillon Gee type. Not to mention that all of those options are right handed and once Santana leaves after 2013 Niese would be the only lefty starter in the Mets rotation for what it’s worth.
So if they decide that 2014 is still the goal and extending David Wright and R.A. Dickey is the priority this offseason, does it make sense to trade away your second most reliable starter who is signed to a very team friendly contract? I don’t think it does unless you can get a bunch of major league ready talent in return.
Now lets take a look at where Niese stands with regard to the league average starter. I’ve also included Gio Gonzalez’s stats prior to 2012 when he was traded. Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, dated 9/22/12:
League Average (Starters only)
Niese for his career is a league average starter, but take a look at his numbers for this year. He has been well above average in every category except in giving up home runs. I don’t know much about Gio Gonzalez’s history as a prospect, but he seems to be more highly regarded than Niese. When you look at their stats, especially Niese’s 2012 and Gio’s 2011 Niese has a clear advantage in walk rate showing much better control than Gio who has been known to be a little wild over his career. When you compare all their other stats however you can obviously see that Gio has the better stuff posting higher K%, OPP AVG, HR/FB, and overall better ERA. If I had to choose which one of the two pitchers (2011 Gio or 2012 Niese) would be more likely to have a Cy Young caliber season moving forward I would probably have to lean toward Gio. That elite strikeout rate will always help make up for the extra walks. So Gio is the better pitcher, but Niese is not exactly far behind. In fact with the improvement he has shown this year and his consistently better K/BB ratio I think I would rather have Niese going forward anyway, especially when he comes with the cheaper contract.
Now let’s take a look at the Gio Gonzalez trade from 2011 between the Oakland A’s and Washington. The A’s traded Gonzalez in his first arbitration year for prospects from Washington who included RHP AJ Cole, LHP Tom Milone, C Derek Norris, and RHP Brad Peacock. At this point I’d like to direct you to the review of the trade written by John Sickels over at MinorLeagueBall.com to read some details about each of the prospects involved.
A.J. Cole was the only prospect to hit the BA top 100 prospects list at 57 in 2012, but both BA and John Sickels had Norris and Peacock in the Nationals top ten prospects and Sickels also had Milone as the ninth best Nationals prospect. None of these prospects were perfect, but Sickels notes that both Cole (3rd best Nats prospect in 2011) and Peacock (4th best) had front of the order upside, and Milone and Norris (6th best) were both ready to contribute to a major league squad at the time of the trade. Sickels had all of the prospects rated in the B- to B+ range.
In 2009 Beyond the Boxscore had an article about the value of trading prospects. Based on their 2009 table of prospect value (these numbers would be inflated in 2013, but for convenience lets just work with the table) the prospects traded for Gonzalez would add up to a value of about $32.2M. By using the trade equivalency calculator from the same article we can look at Niese’s trade value.
If Niese were only worth 2.5 WAR each year for the rest of his contract including options (a number he will have eclipsed in both 2011 and 2012 by seasons end) he would be worth about $29.7M or roughly the equivalent to the prospects in the Gonzalez trade. If a team valued Niese at 3 WAR per season he would be worth $43.2M. For comparison you valued Gio at 3 WAR per season going forward with his new extension (only a slightly conservative assumption before this season) he would be worth roughly $32M. All this is to say that if I were the Mets I would not trade Niese for any less of a package than Gonzalez went for. Also based on the prospect value table Niese could either net the Mets a package like the A’s got or he could potentially get you a top 25 hitting prospect.
To sum up, the argument for trading Niese is that the Mets would be dealing from a position of strength that they have in starting pitching. While they do have a bunch of really promising pitching prospects coming through the minors it’s not like they have anyone besides Wheeler who is banging on the door in the immediate future. So if the Mets plan to contend in 2013 and 2014 they had better get something very good for him to justify trading a rotation anchor.
As a closing note, I had planned on doing one of these reviews on Ike Davis, but since in the last week or so it has been discussed ad nauseam I think I would not have much new information to add to the debate. So this will most likely be the end of my series. Thanks for reading and commenting, and I wish everyone good luck when AAOP season comes around. I know I can’t wait.