The Mets' big Jonathon Niese contract as a gesture, and as a baseball move
By agreeing to sign Jonathon Niese to a five-year, $25.5 million contract extension, the New York Mets are trying to accomplish two things at once.
In the wake of ownership's settling of the lawsuit against them, and a concurrent sale of minority stakes in the team, Fred Wilpon and his partners reportedly have been looking to "do something as a gesture of financial stability." The Niese contract qualifies as such a gesture.
And of course the deal gets the Mets something in baseball terms, too. General manager Sandy Alderson needed to get some known quantities into their pitching staff, with minor leaguers like Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler both unproven.
The Niese contract is more likely to help with the baseball than with the team's awful public relations at the moment, which is just as well: Catering to the public with personnel decisions is how the Mets traded six players for J.J. Putz, signed Jason Bay, and made so many other ill-advised moves.
In terms of what the deal says about ownership's newfound (relative) prosperity, the answer is: not much. Niese will earn a little less than $800,000 this year, $3 million in 2013, $5 million in 2014, $7 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016. If Niese merely replicates his 2010 and 2011 seasons this year, he would have earned that or more in 2013 and 2014. So the contract is actually a money-saver over the next few years.
But by signing this deal, the Mets are clearly hoping that Niese will add up to something greater than the pitcher he's been to date. For one thing, his E.R.A. last season was 4.40, and the season before it was 4.20. Neither mark is terrible, but adjusted for park and league, he was below average in 2010—an ERA+ of 93—and even worse in 2011, with an ERA+ of 84.
However, Niese's xFIP, a calculation that takes defense and luck out of the equation, has him roughly a run better than his 4.40 E.R.A. last year. Niese has, in both seasons, had a high batting average on balls in play, and played in front of some brutal defenses. The Mets undoubtedly hope that has depressed his overall numbers, making him a value addition. And he probably is.
The other problem Niese has had so far is a failure to pitch full seasons. He logged 173 2/3 innings in 2010, 157 1/3 innings in 2011. His arm was not to blame either time, but his performance had begun to suffer both years as the season went on. The Mets are betting that not only will Niese improve, or at any rate, that his results will, but that he'll become more durable as well.
Regardless, the Mets are making an investment in a market that appears to be at the start of a new inflationary period. Matt Cain just signed a six-year, $127.5 million contraxt extension with the Giants. Cain is two years older, and has actually pitched to lesser xFIPs than Niese over the past two years. But his durability and results made him that expensive.
Clearly, the Mets think there's a good chance Niese would have become far costlier had he continued his development.
So the move is a good one, just as locking R.A. Dickey up for two years and $7.8 million made sense back before the 2011 season. Alderson continues to grab value where he can, and putting together 40 percent of a rotation on roughly what Freddy Garcia will make for the Yankees in 2012 is an accomplishment in itself.
The best part for Mets fans is having a front office that at least understands what it may have in Niese. The Mets used to take such pitchers who underperformed their xFIP, like Heath Bell and Dan Wheeler, and cast them aside. There are no guarantees with pitchers of any kind, but the Mets are taking a chance with one in Niese for the right reasons, whatever ownership may think the extension will prove to the fans about their own staying power.