By: Paul DiSclafani
The Mets front office acted swiftly after failing to lure free agent utility man Ben Zobrist to Flushing and dealt left-handed starter Jonathan Niese to the Pittsburgh Pirates for second baseman Neil Walker. Zobrist shunned the Mets on Wednesday for the Chicago Cubs, signing a 4-year, $56M contract.
Walker, the 2014 Silver Slugger award winner, was a first round draft choice for the Bucks in 2004 and the Pittsburgh native grew up a Pirates fan. The arbitration eligible infielder made $8M last year and will be a free agent after the 2016 season.
“It’s an exciting opportunity, obviously, with the success the Mets have had this past year,” Walker said. “I’m really excited about the opportunity. Obviously there’s mixed emotions being a born and bred Pittsburgher, and obviously not knowing yet the other organization. It’s definitely been a whirlwind day and something my wife Niki, who also is from the same area that I’m from in Pittsburgh, and I are dealing with — all the emotions that are coming with what’s going on with new lives that we’re about to embark on.”
The son of former MLB pitcher Tom Walker, Neil and the Pirates were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract and he was a little surprised at their lack of interest.
“I have no ill feelings toward anybody in Pittsburgh, in the organization,” he said. “It’s kind of the motto of how they handle their books, I guess you could say. We weren’t able to come to any common ground through my career there. Like I said, I have no ill feelings. But certainly given the circumstance of being from Pittsburgh — never knowing anything else, and coming up through the system, and having a lot of ups and downs — it’s definitely something that was unfortunate, I guess you could say. I no longer have to worry about that. And I’m excited to be in Met blue.”
The 30 year-old Walker was drafted as a catcher and converted to a third baseman by the Pirates before being moved to second in 2010. Since then he has hit 93 home runs (second most by NL second baseman) and has 283 extra-base hits (most by an NL second baseman). The switch hitting Walker had 16 HR and 71 RBI in 2015 while hitting .269.
The Anaheim Angels thought they were close to a deal with the Pirates for Walker on Wednesday as they try to upgrade over Johnny Giavotella, but the Pirates decided on getting Niese from the Mets instead.
The acquisition of Walker most likely ends the Mets relationship with postseason hero Daniel Murphy. The free agent Murphy became fodder for Mets fans again after Zobrist signed with the Cubs as the fan favorite all of a sudden became a real possibility again. Although Walker and Murphy are similar players, other than Walker is a switch hitter, but both also have the same flaw – they are not great defensive players.
The Cubs agreed to a back-ended, $56 million deal with soon to be 35 year-old Zobrist that will pay him $10.5 M the first two years, then $15M in the final two years, when he will be 37 and 38 years old. Zobrist also got a no-trade clause that allows him to select just 8 teams that he can be traded to, stifling the Cubs ability to move him somewhere down the road. Maybe the Cubs did the Mets a favor?
And what does the departure of Niese do to the Mets rotation in 2016? Probably not much. Niese was clearly expendable for the Mets in their pursuit of infield help and for the perennially cost conscious Pirates, he is certainly affordable at $9M in 2016 and under club control for $10M in 2017 and $11M in 2018.
Without Niese, the Mets do have a hole in their rotation with only four starters until Zack Wheeler returns in July. That could mean a promotion for Rafael Montero, Sean Gilmartin or Logan Verrett. 43 year-old free agent Bartolo Colon is still out there and a reunion is not out of the realm of possibilities, especially when Colon showed a willingness to work out of the bullpen leading up to the postseason and was one of their most effective relievers during their World Series run.
Niese (29) was solid, if not spectacular, in his career long tenure with the Mets. Niese was 9-10 with 4.13 ERA in 2015. His departure, along with Daniel Murphy, leaves David Wright as the longest tenured Met and Wright is now the only Met left that has played at Shea Stadium.