With an incredible stockpile of young arms, the Mets may be looking to offload some veteran pitchers to shore up some of the team's more glaring deficiencies at the winter meetings this week. While there are a number of high-caliber free agent pitchers currently available, many teams will likely be searching for more modest upgrades to their rotations at a less prohibitive cost. If the Mets decide they can part with Jon Niese, they should not have any shortage of potential buyers.
in 2014, Jon Niese pitched 187 innings on his way to an uninspiring 9-11 record that was as much due to poor run support—3.47 runs per game, the 13th lowest among qualified starters—as it was due to pitching. The lefty posted a respectable 3.40 ERA and 3.67 FIP for the season while maintaining a 3.07 K/BB ratio, which all suggest he pitched effectively enough to belong in almost any starting rotation in baseball while healthy. The caveat to Niese's otherwise strong season was that he spent time on the disabled list for the second straight year with shoulder discomfort. Niese was previously diagnosed with a partially torn rotator cuff, and has so far opted to rehab the injury instead of attempting to repair the shoulder surgically.
A quick look at Niese's performance after returning from the DL this past season doesn't suggest that the shoulder caused him considerable issues in the second half. The greatest disparity between his first and second half performance was a 53-point increase in batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which can only partially be attributed to a modest 2.8% increase in line drive rate. Niese actually had better strikeout and walk rates over the second half of the season, which, in conjunction with the increased number of batted balls falling for hits, suggests he may simply have been a victim of bad luck over that stretch.
While many teams may be concerned about the potential volatility of Niese's shoulder going forward in spite of his effectiveness, these fears can be at least somewhat allayed by his extremely team-friendly contract. Niese's current deal gives the team four years of control, with salaries of $7 million, $9 million, $10 million, and $11 million over that span, the final two years of which are team options. Given the flexibility of the contract and the relatively low cost for a left-handed pitcher with good control, Niese should command a respectable return from a team in need of a solid middle of the rotation pitcher with potential upside.
So what teams might be interested in Niese?
Boston has already made some major moves this offseason, adding Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to their infield. They are also still in talks with Jon Lester in an attempt to bring him back after sending him to the A's last year for Yoenis Cespedes. Given the amount of money they have already thrown around, the Sox may be interested in adding additional pitching at a more reasonable price. If the Sox are unable to bring back Lester, adding another cost-controlled lefty to their rotation may be an especially appealing option. Even if Lester were to return to the Sox, they could still show interest in acquiring Niese to shore up their rotation.
Aside from Lester and John Lackey, who was traded mid-season to the Cardinals, none of the Red Sox' starters performed particularly well this past year. The next best ERA on the team belonged to Joe Kelly, acquired in the Lackey trade, who managed a pedestrian 4.11 ERA despite walking an excessive 4.27 batters per nine innings. Overall, the Red Sox had a 4.36 ERA among starting pitchers, good for fifth worst in all of baseball last year, making them an obvious suitor for Niese's talents.
Trade targets: Brock Holt (2B, SS, 3B), Junichi Tazawa (RHP), Tom Layne (LHP)
The Jays have been swinging for the fences this offseason as well. They signed veteran catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million deal, and traded Brett Lowrie and four other players to the A's for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. It definitely looks as though the Jays are trying to make waves in the rapidly changing AL East, and to do so they will almost certainly need to improve a pitching staff that had the ninth-worst ERA in baseball in 2014.
Despite the presence of living legend R.A. Dickey, the Jays' starting rotation was anchored by the ever-efficient Mark Buehrle, who managed to pitch over 200 innings for an astounding 14th consecutive season. Aside from Buehrle and Dickey, the Jays got 120 excellent innings from rookie Marcus Stroman, who will likely serve as the ace of the staff in the coming years.
Beyond these three however, the Jays got very little out of the rest of their starting rotation. With few other choices immediately available, the Jays have signed Jeff Francis to a minor league contract this offseason. They also picked up J.A. Happ's option for 2015, which pays him $6.7 million for the year, but then traded him to the Mariners in exchange for Michael Saunders, which suggests they may be willing to spend a similar amount on another lefty pitcher who comes with four years of team control to offset the possible loss of Buehrle next offseason.
Trade targets: Aaron Loupe (LHP), Aaron Sanchez (RHP), Richard Urena (SS)
The Pirates missed winning their division and earning a Wild Card spot in the 2014 playoffs by only two games. With a fan base that finally has a taste for success, the Pirates will look to improve upon last season's team. With Gerrit Cole firmly entrenched as the team's ace after a strong rookie campaign, the Pirates have a lot of room to improve behind their up-and-coming pitching star. They've already added A.J. Burnett on a one-year deal, but with the departure of the mercurial lefty Francisco Liriano to free agency, Niese could be a cost-effective left-handed option for a team that had the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball in 2014.
Trade Targets: Jared Hughes (RHP), Tony Watson (LHP)
The Rangers' starting rotation outside of Yu Darvish was, to be blunt, awful in 2014. An absurd 74 games last season were started by Rangers pitchers who finished the year with a cumulative ERA greater than 5.00. Joe Saunders managed to amass -0.4 fWAR in only eight starts, the seventh-worst total among starters with at least 30 innings pitched. Only Darvish posted an ERA under 4.00 while making more than five starts.
Obviously, this recipe did not end well for the Rangers, who finished the season with an embarrassing 67-95 record. It's clear that Texas needs a major overhaul to their starting rotation, and given the current price of staring pitching, it would make a lot of sense for the Rangers to look to add arms via trade. Niese's low-cost contract and the ability to buy him out after two years would give the team considerable flexibility should another opportunity come along, while providing them with a pitcher who will immediately improve their starting rotation.
Trade Targets: Luis Sardinas (SS), Andrew Faulkner (LHP), Alex Claudio (LHP)
The Twins got a fantastic season out of Phil Hughes, who finally looked like the ace pitcher he was projected to be back when he was part of the Yankees farm system. Unfortunately, everyone behind Hughes was terrible, with only one other starting pitcher (barely) under a 4.50 ERA on the season. Among the five starters who logged the most innings for Minnesota last year, not a single one pitches left-handed, which points out a potentially huge area of need for the team.
Clearly in the middle of rebuilding, Niese would provide an element of stability in the Minnesota rotation, while giving the Twins the freedom to free up payroll in a couple years should the rebuilding process proceed faster than anticipated. Representing the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball, the Twins should value the affordability of Niese's contract and the option to cut him loose after two years should his health become an issue.
Trade Targets: Jorge Polanco (SS/2B), Eduardo Escobar (SS/2B)