Over in the Star-Ledger, Andy McCullough has a dispiriting but useful article about the Mets and Jon Niese.
“A season ago, when the Mets listened to offers for Niese, the pitcher might not have been considered worth a sizable offer. A young starter needs to show ‘consistency for clubs to be comfortable,’ one executive said.
“Has he done enough this season to show that quality? The Mets will likely explore as much this winter.”
The whole piece is worth a read. But it’s also worth stepping back and considering exactly what trading Niese means.
For one thing, Niese has been a consistent starting pitcher for three years now. And unlike 2010 and 2011, he looks to be finishing strong.
Accordingly, that deal the Mets signed him to this spring appears to be a bargain. Niese will be owed three million dollars in 2013, five million in 2014, seven million in 2015 and nine million in 2016. The team also holds a ten million dollar option in 2017 and eleven million in 2018. So if Niese stays this good, he’ll be a bargain through most of the rest of the decade. Even eleven million dollars is a solid value for the kind of pitching Niese gave the Mets in 2012. According to Fangraphs, his 2011 was worth $12 million; his 2012 has been worth $9.7 million already.
All this is to say that Niese is a good bet to be an asset for the Mets any time between now and 2018. If the idea in building a contending team, ideally, is to mass as many good players at similar ages together at the same time, then there’s really no plan the Mets can have between now and 2018 that shouldn’t involve putting players around Niese. Not because he’s dominant, but because he stands a very good chance of being one of those good players.
Now obviously, this comes with the caveat that an offer which bowls the Mets over is one to consider. But if the return is just a good prospect or two, it leads to the question: just what are the Mets building toward? And if Niese is expendable because his upcoming peak doesn’t fit the time horizon of when the Mets expect to be good, just why are the Mets keeping David Wright beyond 2013, when he’ll be 31, or R.A. Dickey, when he’ll be 39?
This is not an endorsement for failing to retain either of them. Instead, it is the natural follow to failing to do things like keep Jose Reyes around, or add other talent to the major league club for several years now. It’s how a team falls into endless rebuilding: let a few parts go, see the major league team fall into disrepair, and what’s the point of adding talent?
I’ve had no shortage of discussions on Twitter with people who argued the Mets might as well have let Jose Reyes go, since they weren’t going to contend with Reyes on the team anyway. And that’s, of course, a ridiculous way to evaluate a player’s worth to a team. No one player’s acquisition or retention would have meant contention for the 2012 Mets. Use that standard, and no player will ever be retained, thus putting the Mets further and further from contention, and continuing the cycle.
The flip side to that argument is equally fallacious- that a team must do something. But what major league teams ought to do, regardless of where they fall in the rebuilding cycle, is to acquire and retain players who can be valuable to them for many years. Reyes, an elite shortstop in his 20s, is one such player. He signed a six-year deal with the Marlins. If the Mets don’t have a plan that calls for them to contend by year 3-4 of that deal, they aren’t doing it right.
The same is true for Niese. Witness this quote from McCullough, an absolutely accurate one:
“Players like second baseman Daniel Murphy and outfielder Lucas Duda will garner some interest this winter. But they will only return so much. ‘Nobody’s really going to give you an impact guy for a non-impact guy,’ one executive said.”
In other words, the Mets have let most of their valuable players go. They won’t get anything of value for Duda or Murphy. But with Niese, they can flip him for a couple of prospects, surround them with… well, whatever happens to be on hand. Maybe Matt Harvey can replace Dickey’s production, and perhaps Zack Wheeler can turn into Jon Niese or better.
And in a few years, they can be a few pieces away, and in need of a consistent, effective starter like Jon Niese. Or things don’t go well-they often don’t with young pitching, hence the desire of many other teams to add a pitcher like Niese.
So the Mets can just start again. Again.