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Jonathon Niese and a League of Captain Renaults

Posted By Howard Megdal On December 3, 2012 @ 11:57 am In Today's Mets headlines | Comments Disabled

So the winter meetings have begun in Nashville. One storyline has become clear for the New York Mets as they pursue a 2013 team to at least reverse their three-year trend of winning fewer games: they intend to trade a pitcher.

[1]

It could be R.A. Dickey, who is still unsigned beyond 2013. And if they keep Dickey, it will be Jon Niese.

The reason is simple: they have some starting pitching. They have no starting outfielders, and baseball convention generally requires three at all times. And their only catcher, Josh Thole, had an OPS+ of 63 last year.

But every time I hear someone talk about the team’s “surplus” of starting pitching, I think of what Captain Renault said to Rick Blaine [2] after Rick threw Yvonne out of Rick’s during the finest movie ever made, Casablanca.

“How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce.”

I think it is worth keeping in mind that the Mets could be just fine in terms of starting pitching. But it requires both extreme optimism, and to ignore the inherent fragility of pitchers, to pretend they have a surplus.

As it stands now, they have Dickey, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Niese, who just completed a strong age-25 season and Matt Harvey, who was dominant in his first ten starts, all as givens. You can make an argument against that idea based on Dickey’s age, or Harvey’s inexperience, but let’s just call them givens for now.

Then there’s Dillon Gee, who missed the second half of the 2012 season due to a blood clot that likely came from repetitive motion. And Johan Santana, who broke down in the second half before getting shut down in August. And Zack Wheeler, a very good prospect who has yet to master Triple-A.

Looking to get the equivalent of two full rotation spots from those three isn’t impossible, but it is worth pointing out that the three of them are far less sure bets for 2013 than the first three. Assuming all goes right, that can certainly happen.

And moving beyond that group of six, there’s not much else help around. Much of this comes down to how highly you think of Collin McHugh, Jeurys Familia and Jenrry Mejia, but there’s almost no reason to think the latter two are ready to start at the major league level, and significant doubts exist about McHugh’s ability to consistently get major league hitters out.

The point isn’t to suggest that the Mets don’t have enough starting pitching. They probably have enough, though adding a couple of potential fill-ins at Triple-A would be helpful (and possible; it is early in the offseason).

They do not, by any stretch, have a surplus.

Consider, for just one example, the 2012 New York Yankees. It sure looked like the Yankees, entering spring training, had a surplus of starting pitching. They had CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Pineda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. They had, waiting in the wings, David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell at Triple-A. 12 pitchers, in other words, for five spots.

A combination of injuries and regression meant they needed virtually all of them. This was not some plague, either. Starting pitchers are very fragile.

So for the Mets to deal Dickey, if they are unable/unwilling to keep him long-term, makes sense. He’s a free agent after 2013; the focus, really, shouldn’t be on next year’s team, so get what you can for 2014 and beyond.

But Jon Niese? Trading the guy coming off of a strong season, who just turned 26, and is signed at below-market rate for quality starting pitching for years to come? No, that doesn’t make any sense at all (with the caveat that anyone should be traded if overwhelmed in response). We’re talking equal value here, though. And it isn’t just about Niese being worth about three wins last year, but the inherent difficulty in even finding a starting pitcher at that level without surrendering a ton in trade or overpaying via free agency for him.

It isn’t hard to imagine the Mets, like all teams, in need of starting pitching due to one bad break on the injury or regression front. It is far easier to acquire a starting outfielder than a starting pitcher of Niese’s caliber. It is pretty hard to imagine dealing Niese as part of a strategy to make the starting outfield good enough to win in 2013. And it is easy to see how Niese fits into an eventual Mets contender in 2014 or beyond.

The line that follows Renault’s more famous quip to Rick goes like this:

“You know, now I think I shall pay a call on Yvonne. Maybe get her on the rebound. Hmm?”

You can expect plenty of teams to think this way about Niese. And before assuming the Mets have all the starting pitching they need, remember how many women Rick had by the end of the movie.

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[1] Image: http://mets.lohudblogs.com/files/2012/12/rains.png

[2] Captain Renault said to Rick Blaine: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/quotes?qt0429950

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