It might be a stretch to say that 2015 is a make-or-break year for Jon Niese, but with a rotation stacked full of talented hurlers and more on the way, it certainly is an important season for the 28-year-old. Rafael Montero, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz are just a few young phenoms who are pounding on the door in Queens. With three rotation spots securely held by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Jacob deGrom, Niese needs to prove to the Mets that he can be counted on as the one southpaw in the rotation.
Third in tenure on the club behind David Wright and Daniel Murphy, the left-hander's final numbers were solid in 2014. Niese set a career-best in walks per nine innings (2.2), and with 187.2 innings pitched, he was second only to Bartolo Colon among Mets pitchers. He also reached 30 starts for the third time in five years but as is often the case with Niese, he seemed to leave the Mets wanting for more. Despite needing two MRIs on his left arm during spring training, Niese sported a 2.88 ERA through his first 16 starts, though his 3.51 FIP was not quite as impressive. On the night of July 4, Niese left his start in the first inning after being hit by a line drive, and he was placed on the disabled list three days later with a seemingly-unrelated left shoulder strain.
Upon returning, Niese posted a 3.95 ERA in his final 13 starts with a 3.71 FIP. His BABIP was .287 before the injury but .336 afterwards. While Niese's overall 3.40 ERA looks sound, he was more or less a league average pitcher in 2014, sporting a 98 ERA- and a 105 FIP-. He admitted last summer that he had changed his delivery to compensate for shoulder soreness, and he has seen his average fastball velocity, which topped out at 90.5 mph in both 2012 and 2013, fall to 88.8 last season.
The Mets are penciling Niese in for 30 starts and close to 200 innings again in 2015, numbers he should be able to reach if healthy. In addition to his shoulder problems, Niese left his last start of the year with an elevated heart rate for the third time in four years. Despite his claims he is pain-free and ready for the season, his continuing health issues are a red flag that bears watching.