Trademas In July: A look at the potential market for Jon Niese
The Pittsburgh Pirates are shopping Jon Niese, but that may prove to be a difficult task. Our Trademas In July series kicks off with a look at the market for his services.
You hear it all the time when you speak to Pittsburgh Pirates fans who happen to be fathers. When they tell you that their young child is taking up baseball, the standard retort is always heard.
“Make him into a left handed pitcher!”
Indeed, left handed pitchers – both starters and bullpen arms – have always been a hot commodity for Major League Baseball clubs this time of year. The Pirates found themselves at the start of 2016 with not one, not two, but three left-handers in their rotation.
Now, after clawing their way back into postseason contention after a legendary June swoon, the club might have the opportunity to spin one of those left handers to fill other team needs. Those needs are debatable and ever-changing, but for now let’s focus on gauging the market for one Jon Niese.
Pirates are shopping, but is anyone buying?
Niese came to the Pirates billed as an average mid-level starter whose value gets boosted by a solid ground ball rate. Niese has made good on that bill of sale, as his 53.3 percent ground ball rate leads all Pittsburgh starters. Of course, Neal Huntington likely did not expect to be saddled with a ballooned HR/9 rate of 1.8. That figure represents more than double his home run rate for the three previous years combined (0.8).
The home runs Niese has allowed have been many and varied, but it’s not just the long ball that is leading him to an ERA of 5.13 and a FIP of 5.49. Averaging 11 hits per nine innings doesn’t help, and his walks per nine of 3.2 is an increase over the past two years as well.
Back all of this up with strikeout ability that is average at best (Niese has the lowest swinging strike percentage – 7.2 percent – of any Pirates starter with a minimum of 50 IP), and you have to start to wonder if being a left-handed pitcher with controllable years is enough to cover all of these warts.
Finding a potential fit
Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh Pirates are shopping Niese, and despite his foibles, there may yet be a market for him. His contract – Niese is owed $10 million in 2017 and $11 million in 2018 – is attractive due to the twin $500,000 buyouts tagged to each year. In this way, Niese could serve as a bridge for a team with big plans on the 2018 free agent pitching market. By most reports, the 2017 market is weak. Teams may be looking for a stop gap that can be easily shuffled off.
Due to the second wild card, at least 19 teams are expected to buyers to some degree in 2016. By virtue of this, the Pirates can scratch off the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets and Cardinals as potential dance partners. This leaves the pool a little lean, and may force the club to look to the American League for someone to bite on Niese’s services.
The prospect of Niese pitching in the junior circuit may seem ill-advised on the surface, but the wild card picture in the AL is even more jumbled than the NL. Six teams are within 5.5 games of the wild card, leaving only four teams that are truly out of the picture.
A better option even at an advanced age
Of course, chief among the many reasons teams might be reluctant to grab Niese is the abundance of flat-out better options. If we assume that teams would be interested in Niese chiefly from the combination of the flexbility of his contract combined with his left-handedness, teams may prefer to prioritize one of those factors over the other.
If other GMs take that route, Rich Hill immediately jumps to mind. Hill has resurrected his career at the age of 36 after some hard-luck years plagued by injury. We have previously wondered if he’d be a fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with good reason: he comes very cheap. Making $6 million for 2016, Hill’s contract is eerily similar to J.A. Happ‘s 2015 salary of $6.7 million, which Huntington did not balk at.
By all accounts, the Oakland Athletics need to restock at key positions, and it might take a mid-level prospect not named Reese McGuire or Kevin Newman to part with him. But, don’t be surprised if Billy Beane woudl take Niese in a deal such as this. Beane has shown to make “baseball trades” at the past few years – think of Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester – and would need someone to eat innings before his own prospects are ready. This is where Niese’s contract could play a big role.
Whether the Pirates end up with Hill’s services or not, he represents a much better value over Niese.
A higher ceiling lurking in Tampa and elsewhere
Matt Moore is another controllable left-hander that could fetch better interest than Niese. Though Moore has had some struggles of his own, he has a bit more strikeout ability than Niese while allowing nearly the same amount of HR/9 at 1.1. However, Moore has shown considerably better flashes than Niese, including an All-Star 2013 that saw him post a 17-4 record with a 3.29 ERA/3.95 FIP in 27 starts.
Moore’s contract also contains multiple team options, but that is about where the similarities end.
Though the buyouts are more significant, teams may not balk at those if they believe they would have a better return.
There are a myriad of other options as well, perhaps none of which is a hotter name than the Padres’ Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz has been a steady performer for the past several years, but has increased his strikeout rate to 10.1 in 2016. This newfound swing-and-miss ability has put his name on the lips of many this trade season. He, too, comes with three years of control, as he will hit his first round of arbitration after this year.
Though many teams can always use a starting pitcher at the deadline, the market for Niese is likely to cannibalize itself. Normally, a left-handed controllable pitcher would be in high demand, but as we see here, there are better options for a team looking for a rental, and better options for a team looking for someone with control. Niese thus falls into a strange limbo in between these two approaches.
Though the Pittsburgh Pirates may hope to salvage something from Niese, the reality of the market may have other ideas.