The Pirates are actively shopping Jon Niese and have called around to a number of teams to gauge interest in the left-hander recently, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review first reported. Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hears the same and adds that the Bucs are anticipating at least a handful of scouts to be on hand this coming Sunday to watch Niese start the final game of the season’s first half.
Acquired from the Mets this offseason in a one-for-one swap with Neil Walker, Niese has struggled through the worst season of his nine-year career in the Majors. The 29-year-old currently holds a 4.87 ERA — his highest full-season mark of any in his career — and is averaging more walks per nine innings (3.1) than he has since 2010. The main problem for Niese, though, is that he’s been astonishingly prone to the long ball with Pittsburgh, surrendering 19 home runs through his first 98 innings. That mark is already higher than the total number of homers he allowed in the 2011, 2013 and 2014 seasons (individually, not combined), and it sits one behind last year’s total of 20 homers despite the fact that he’s pitched 80 fewer innings.
Of course, there are some positives about Niese’s numbers as well. His 6.2 K/9 rate is an improvement over last year’s career-low rate, his 54.7 percent ground-ball rate is a slight improvement over his career-high, and his average of 89.2 mph on his heater is right in line with the marks he’s put up over the past few years. xFIP, which normalizes his current outlier home run rate, doesn’t actually feel that Niese has been significantly worse than he was in 2015.
Even if you’re squinting to try to salvage some hope for Niese’s season, though, the fact remains that he’s allowed considerably more runs and been much more hittable than the Pirates were hoping when acquiring him in that December trade. And, with young arms like Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault all working their way up to the point of making their MLB debuts, the club has a number of younger options to deploy in favor of Niese and his $9MM salary.
That salary figures to stand as an obstacle to trading Niese, though Pittsburgh could absorb a portion of the remaining $4.23MM on that 2016 income in order to facilitate a trade. The Bucs also hold club options over Niese that are respectively valued at $10MM and $11MM for the upcoming 2017 and 2018 seasons, but Nesbitt writes that the club is likelier to buy out his 2017 option for $500K than pick it up in hope for a 2017 rebound.
His 2016 struggles notwithstanding, Niese was a solid mid-rotation arm for the Mets for many years prior to the trade. From 2012-15, Niese averaged 174 innings of 3.65 ERA ball in Queens, thriving due to strong ground-ball tendencies and a solid, if unspectacular 511-to-197 K/BB ratio. If the Bucs are willing to eat some cash, a team in need of pitching could roll the dice on Niese in hopes of a rebound that would make his club options look like a reasonable price to pay. From a speculative standpoint, the Orioles and Royals make some sense, as both are in need of rotation innings and could stand to add an arm that is controllable beyond the current campaign.