When I tell people what I do, the first question they ask is some variation of “Are you from Pittsburgh?”, which only leads to confusion when I say that I’ve never lived in Pittsburgh. My dad’s family is from the Pittsburgh area, and I spent the first 12 years of my life in central PA. But I have no emotional attachment to the city of Pittsburgh. I like the city. I like sandwiches. I like the baseball team. But this is also how I feel about Tampa and several other cities (and the list would grow if you remove the baseball team part).
So the fact that Neil Walker was from Pittsburgh never had any impact on my analysis of him as a player. I thought he was a good player, but not a great player. Offensively, he was above average at second base, and defensively he was well below average. Overall, this put him middle of the pack at second base. The Pittsburgh impact often elevated him higher than that for some people. But if that has no impact for you, then he’s a guy that you’d want to see on your team, but who isn’t quite irreplaceable.
That isn’t saying it will be easy to replace Walker. In fact, I’ve said many times this off-season that this will be difficult. It looks like the Pirates will be going with Josh Harrison as their second baseman once Jung-ho Kang returns, and unless Harrison sees a return to his 2014 offense — which would require a boost in power — then they’ll fall short of Walker’s production. Harrison will be an upgrade defensively, but the Pirates will lose some offense, which they’ll have to find a way to make up elsewhere.
As for the overall trade, I thought it was a move that made sense for both sides. The Mets get the second baseman they needed. The Pirates got the starter they needed. They could have probably found a way to get a starter while keeping Walker. But they make up for that here with the value that Niese brings in the long-term.
Earlier today, it was passed along to me the comparison between Niese and Mike Leake. Here is the comparison:
Good point by @HIP_H0P_JORGE earlier:
Mike Leake: 3.83/3.76/8.9
Jon Niese: 3.79/3.70/10.5
Leake about to get paid big.
— Tim Williams (@TimWilliamsPBN) December 9, 2015
Leake was projected to make $56 M over four years, and we should find out in the upcoming days or weeks how much he will actually receive. Meanwhile, Niese will get three years and $30 M maximum, and only $9.5 M of that is guaranteed. If he does well in 2016, they can bring him back in 2017. If he does well in 2017, they can bring him back in 2018. If they don’t need him either year, they can trade him. There is literally zero long-term risk with this contract, and only upside to be had.
Independently, that isn’t enough to justify the addition of Niese. Having a guy for X amount of years doesn’t matter if the player isn’t good. And I’ve seen plenty of complaints that Niese isn’t a good player, which has me wondering what people are basing that on. Niese isn’t coming off a great year in 2015, with a 4.13 ERA and a 4.11 xFIP. However, he’s had some strong numbers before that, and was a 2.0-2.7 WAR player each year from 2011-2014.
The Pirates have a good track record of getting the best results out of their pitchers. Niese fits into their trend as a high ground ball pitcher who can get some strikeouts when needed. If they can get his pre-2015 numbers, then he’ll be a steal for the next three seasons.
One hidden impact of this move is that the Pirates have now moved on from Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. Those two were the weak spots of the infield defense. Harrison will upgrade over Walker on defense, and it won’t be difficult to upgrade over Alvarez. If they get someone like Mitch Moreland who has strong defense, then they’ll see a big upgrade.
Niese had the seventh best ground ball rate among starters last year. He joins Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke as three of the five best ground ball left-handers in baseball, and three of the top 20 qualified starters in terms of ground ball percentage. Gerrit Cole makes the same list when you expand to 30, and if Charlie Morton qualified, he’d be on the list.
The Pirates put a huge focus on getting ground ball pitchers, and the rotation they now have will lead to the best results in the league once again. The defensive shifts will help, and the improved infield defense on the right side will be a big improvement. This will help all of their starters, especially Niese, who should revert to his best numbers with the Pirates. He’s a lefty pitching in PNC Park with extreme ground ball numbers, playing in front of what should be a strong defensive infield that is maximized by defensive shifts, and working with one of the best pitching coaches in the game to get him to his best form.
There will be questions for the Pirates at second base in 2016, and it’s possible they’ll see a short-term downgrade at the position. But it’s also possible that they’ll get a starter who can put up league average numbers at a below-market rate for up to three seasons. If the move to add pitching works half as good as most of the other moves they’ve made for starters in recent years, then this trade will end up working out very well for the Pirates.
**I want to take a moment to address the ridiculous theories going around about Neil Walker and any rifts with the Pirates. There has been a long standing theory that the Pirates don’t like Walker, simply because they didn’t bring him up right away in 2010, and then they didn’t name him as the official starter at second base over Aki Iwamura when he came up.
To the first issue, Walker struggled in his first two years in Triple-A. He had a .694 OPS the first season, and a .791 OPS the second season, with the latter being fueled by late season success. He followed that with a September callup, where he hit for a .194/.275/.222 line in 40 plate appearances.
Pedro Alvarez arrived in Triple-A at the start of the 2010 season, and the Pirates had to find a new position for Walker. He moved around a lot, playing third, first, left field, and second base. When Aki Iwamura started to struggle, Walker got playing time at second on a consistent basis. The Pirates brought him up and said he would be a utility player at first, but after less than a week, he became the starting second baseman, and only had four starts at third base before that transition took place.
As for the timing of the move, Walker ended the 2015 season with five years and 166 days of service time. If he would have been called up just a week earlier, he would have been eligible for free agency this off-season, rather than having one more year of control remaining.
To recap, Walker entered the 2010 season as a 24-year-old who didn’t do well in his first two seasons in Triple-A, and was being moved off his position by the top prospect in the system. He started showing success, and they quickly found a spot for him. He was called up, and wasn’t given a guaranteed starting spot immediately, instead having to wait a whole week to be the everyday starter. He also was called up at just the exact time where the Pirates could keep him for an extra year.
It sounds like they hated him, alright.
There’s also the extension stuff, with the Pirates not working hard to extend Walker. But they’re not required to extend him. I’ve written many times why he wasn’t a good extension candidate. They already had his prime years under control, and an extension pays him big money for his decline years. The best approach was either trading him in this type of situation, or keeping him until he walked via free agency. The fact that they didn’t extend him, and didn’t pay his asking price when they talked to him early, says nothing. Tons of players across baseball go without signing extensions. It’s common.
Also, I don’t like calling out other people’s work, but feel it’s necessary to point this next part out. Dejan Kovacevic mentioned yesterday that Walker was benched in 2010 in the minors for not running out a pop up, and that caused a huge rift between him and Kyle Stark which eventually led to this trade.
I don’t recall if Walker was benched for this, but I’m going to assume it’s true. I’ll assume it’s true because pretty much every single hitting prospect in the system gets benched at some point for not running out a ground ball or a pop up. As you could guess, not every player takes it well, although it’s always short-term. I’ve never heard of this type of thing leading to an irreparable rift. The idea that this was the butterfly flap that led to a trade 5.5 years later is a stretch, especially when the clear answer to the trade is that Walker was in his final year, making more than the Pirates were willing to spend, and had value on the market. If that’s indication that there’s a rift, then the Pirates will have rifts with pretty much every player in their system at some point in time.
The Pirates have never been afraid to make an unpopular move. If they truly didn’t like Walker, they could have dealt him well before this. Instead, they kept him for almost the full duration of his team control, and traded him at a time when it made sense to deal him. It’s normal, and has nothing to do with a small punishment in the minors almost six years ago, which actually happens with every player in the system.
So, no. Walker wasn’t traded because Neal Huntington or Kyle Stark didn’t like him for petty reasons in 2010. He was traded because it made sense to deal him before his final year. And his eventual replacement in Alen Hanson? A guy who has been benched a few times for not running out a play. Just like pretty much everyone else in the system, including the model players. That process is used as a small punishment to enforce hustle on every play, and nothing more.
I like Dejan, but his theory on this is a big stretch.
**The Rule 5 draft is tomorrow morning, and we’ll have a preview, along with coverage of the event. The Pirates have two spots open on the 40-man roster, so they’ve got what they need to make a pick.
**Pirates Trade Neil Walker to Mets For Jon Niese. The full timeline of the trade talks today. Something to consider about the off-season: we hadn’t heard a word about movement on a Walker trade until today. That’s partially because teams got interested after Ben Zobrist went off the board. It just shows how some players can hold other deals up, and how quickly things can move when that block is out of the way.
**Pirates Have Shown Interest in Mike Napoli. More rumors about Napoli today. Speaking of holdups, it seems the first base market is being partially held up by Chris Davis. The trade market might have broken through today with the Adam Lind deal. I’d expect things to really take off when Davis signs.
**Clint Hurdle on the Off-Season, Harrison’s Role, First Base, Marte in Center. A transcript of Hurdle’s most notable comments today.
**Pirates Could Make a Run at Scott Kazmir. This would be really interesting, and the addition of Kazmir would set up a trade of one of Charlie Morton or Jeff Locke. That would line up well for a Mitch Moreland deal. That said, I’d be surprised if the Pirates do end up with Kazmir.