3:16 pm Aug. 8, 2012
When the Mets locked up Jonathon Niese with a five-year contract extension this past spring, they did so for very sound baseball reasons.
Niese is 25 (born on the day, October 27, 1986, that the Mets last won the World Series). He's left-handed, has pitched with strong peripherals for three years running now, and the Mets bought out his arbitration-eligible years at rates that will seem like bargains if he merely maintains his current level of pitching.
The big problem with Niese over the past two seasons has been durability as the season has worn on. So Tuesday night's six-inning, four-run performance, just one start removed from getting knocked around by Arizona, is raising alarm bells. This is precisely the point in the past two seasons when Niese has worn down as well.
Through July 22, Niese had an E.R.A. of 3.59. In his three starts since, it is 5.21. Now, three starts are far from definitive. But consider his 2010 and 2011 seasons for context.
Through July 21, 2011, Niese had an E.R.A. of 3.73, with very similar peripherals to his 2012 season. He then posted a 6.82 E.R.A. over his next six starts, as the Mets gradually moved from not worrying about Niese's fatigue to shutting him down at the end of August.
In 2010, a similar deterioration took hold. Through July 27, 2010, Niese had an E.R.A. of 3.43. He got knocked out in the fifth inning on August 1, part of a 5.45 E.R.A. over his final 12 starts. Even this doesn't fully capture his late-season futility, since he rallied for a few good starts in August before a ghastly 7.57 E.R.A. over his final seven starts.
The problem with a pitcher who is only a stellar rotation member for his first 120 innings is obvious. For one thing, it means that any eventually contending Mets team would be unable to rely on him in August and September, let alone October, should the Mets make the playoffs.
Signing Niese to a five-year deal was done with the next contending team in mind; by maintaining his current levels of late-season production, it is hard to see how Niese fits into that plan.
Moreover, a fatigued pitcher is a pitcher more likely to hurt himself. That leaves the Mets with a pair of unpalatable options with Niese. Either shut him down early again, further solidifying the likelihood that he is not a full season pitcher. Or throw him out there, hoping he figures out how to pitch for a full year, and exacerbate the possibility any pitcher faces of an injury, with four guaranteed years on his contract following this one.
In reality, the Mets probably need to go forward on the second front, since partial seasons from Niese won't justify even his relatively inexpensive contract by the fourth and fifth years. Hopefully, this recent downturn is something Niese can weather. But it makes his August and September more vital than most other Mets as they play out the string; Niese still needs to prove that he'll be around when the Mets enter those months with something to play for.