Going beyond the top relievers [2017 Season Preview]

(Gett Images)
Layne. (Getty Images)

Over the last few days, we’ve covered the four key cogs in the Yankees’ bullpen machine: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard. If healthy, each will take up the main roles in Joe Girardi‘s ‘pen and be called upon for the most important innings this season.

But the bullpen features far more than four guys. There will be at least seven on opening day. The Yankees had 20 different relievers pitch in at least one game last season. They had 26 the year before (24 if you take out position players).

So let’s take a look at the rest of the bullpen. Chances are, far more than the guys listed below will log time in relief, but these are the ones that jump out with a chance right now.

The veteran pick-up

Frieri circa 2014. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Frieri. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Last week, the Yankees added Ernesto Frieri on a minor league deal. Frieri didn’t pitch at all in 2016 after an awful spring with the Phillies, but he played for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. While there, he tossed two shutout innings against the Dominican Republic, even striking out Nelson Cruz.

Frieri, just 31 years old, was a pretty solid reliever from 2010-13, highlighted by a 2.32 ERA and 23 saves with the Padres and Angels in 2012. However, he was barely usable in 2014-15 with the Angels, Pirates and Rays with his ERA ballooning as high as 7.34 in 2014. At his best, he utilizes his mid-90s fastball to get hitters out, mixing in a slider and the occasional change or curve.

He’s a real wild card for the Yankees’ pen. There’s a solid chance he’ll make the team (seven batters into spring, he has six strikeouts and one HR allowed) but what he does from there is anyone’s guess. His velocity seems to have returned after falling a bit in 2014-15 and could be the secret to an improved Frieri.

The lefties

Girardi loves his southpaws, so one has to figure there will be at least one on the roster at all times, if not two. That’s not including Chapman, who won’t be used as a matchup lefty and is the definitive closer.

First up is Tommy Layne. Layne, 32, is a classic LOOGY, much better against lefties than righties. He tosses a lot variations of fastballs alongside a slider and curveball to produce some strikeouts. He was perfectly fine in 29 games for the Yankees in 2016 and it’s not outlandish to expect him to have another mid-3.00 ERA with a few too many walks and struggles against righties. Again, classic LOOGY.

Behind him lie a few different options, namely Chasen Shreve and Jon Niese. Niese, 30, has started most of his career and has succeeded at primarily keeping the ball on the ground. He’d provide a solid option as both another lefty and as a long man, two roles Girardi has said he sees Niese filling. He is coming back from a knee injury that he struggled with last season, so a healthy Niese would be an interesting piece.

We all know about Shreve. He was dominant for a couple months in 2015 with his low-90s fastball and changeup before becoming a liability late in ’15 and shuffling between the bullpen and the minors in 2016. The 26-year-old southpaw isn’t a LOOGY with the changeup as an out-pitch, but hitters appeared to figure out his off-speed offerings over the last couple seasons.

Two pitchers who reached Triple A last season are also in the mix for roles this summer, if not earlier. Jordan Montgomery and Dietrich Enns each played roles in Scranton’s success last fall and looked solid in Double A Trenton before that. Enns was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Lefties hit Enns slightly better than righties last season and the soft-tossing southpaw may not be best suited for a role as a LOOGY.

Montgomery — who is potentially in play for a spot in the rotation on opening day, let alone a relief spot — isn’t on the 40-man roster yet. Similar to Enns, Montgomery had a reverse split last year, although neither lefties or righties hit him well. He throws from a high arm slot and has a solid change-up and would be a solid long reliever if he isn’t a starter.

Righties with a taste

Heller (Getty Images)
Heller. (Getty Images)

Both Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder got chances last September to help the Yankees bullpen and neither particularly impressed. Heller, a 25 year old who came over in the Andrew Miller trade, throws in the upper 90s with his fastball and mixes in an effective slider. Despite his 6.43 ERA in seven big league innings, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on because he has the stuff to be effective. He’s posted strong strikeout numbers everywhere in the minors, solid enough to mask occasional issues with walks. I’d expect him to be one of the first relievers called up this spring, if not someone on the roster opening day after a lights-out spring (one run, 8 ks in 9 2/3 innings with 6 BB).

Like Heller, Holder couldn’t seem to have his strikeout numbers translate in his short big league stint (8 1/3 innings). He also uncharacteristically struggled with control. Still, his fantastic strikeout rates (101 Ks in 65 1/3 innings last year over three levels) are the reason he was added to the 40-man roster early at 23 years old. He’s likely behind Heller but still a solid option this spring/summer.

Long man

The Yankees’ have a series of young pitchers competing for the final rotation spots right now and only two will walk away with said spots. Therefore, the rest will be relegated to Triple A or to spots in the bullpen. Frieri’s addition to the team makes it less likely the team brings two of those losing out north — or actually south 20 miles from Steinbrenner Field to Tropicana Field — for opening day.

Still, there is likely one spot, if not two, for those who lose out. Let’s say Luis Severino and Bryan Mitchell get the rotation spots. It’s easy to see Luis Cessa take the long-man role while Chad Green and Montgomery go to Triple A. The latter two would still be likely to see time in the majors and could be see it quickly considering the bullpen shuttle of recent years.

40-man roster and beyond

Barbato (Getty Images)
Barbato. (Getty Images)

There is a gaggle of relievers that got opportunities to show off their stuff this spring with the Yankees, way too many to go through in detail. Johnny Barbato and Gio Gallegos are both on the 40-man and closest to the majors.

Further down the 40-man, Yefrey Ramirez and Domingo German both have strikeout worthy stuff, but they’re starters at the moment and haven’t pitched above Single A. Ronald Herrera, acquired for Jose Pirela a couple years ago, has all of five innings above Double A.

Off the 40-man roster, it’s worth paying attention to a few names. Nick Rumbelow, outrighted off the 40, is coming off Tommy John surgery and once showed promise for a middle relief role. Joe Mantiply — a southpaw who was claimed off waivers, DFA’d and then re-signed to a minor league deal this winter — has solid strikeout rates in the minors but hasn’t thrown much above Double A. Finally, J.P Feyereisen was acquired in the Miller deal with Heller and co. and was solid as a fireman for Double A Trenton in the MiLB playoffs last year. Could be something down the road and I wouldn’t be shocked if he is seen in the majors for a stint this summer.

Yankees smart to look at Niese as a reliever, but they should keep an open mind about starting

(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

The Yankees made what will likely be their final free agent signing before Opening Day this weekend, inking veteran southpaw Jon Niese to a minor league contract. He pitched with a bad knee for much of last season and it showed in his numbers. A healthy Niese — he passed his physical yesterday, so he’s healthy — could be a nice little pickup. The minor league deal means there’s no risk anyway.

Niese, who is still only 30 and will spend the entire 2017 season at that age, has been a starting pitcher most of his career, though he’s also pitched in relief. The Mets used him out of the bullpen during the 2015 postseason, and last year the Pirates moved him into a relief role because he pitched so poorly as a starter they had no other choice. Point is, Niese has experience as a starter and reliever, and versatility is always appreciated.

The Yankees, however, are looking at Niese strictly as a bullpen option in Spring Training, Joe Girardi confirmed yesterday. Despite the wide open fourth and fifth starter spots, the veteran Niese isn’t a consideration for the rotation. That surprised me. Here’s what Girardi said, via George King:

“(The bullpen is) how we envision using him,’’ Girardi said. “He’s one of those guys, if he’s in the bullpen, he can do left on left or he can give you distance. As of right now, we aren’t looking at him as a starter. We have the five guys vying for the two spots. We would look at him more long and short.’’

On one hand, I’m glad the Yankees are sticking with the youth movement and prioritizing the young pitchers in the rotation race. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you at least see what Niese looks like in Spring Training games before ruling him out for a starting job? What if he comes out firing BBs with a healthy knee and forces the issue? No one thought Bartolo Colon would throw well in Spring Training 2011, then his first pitch was 95 mph.

Ultimately, Girardi’s words don’t matter that much. They don’t lock the Yankees into anything. If Niese comes out and looks fantastic in camp, the Yankees always have the option of re-evaluating things and looking at him as a starting pitcher. Plans change. For what it’s worth, Niese is willing to do whatever. “I’m here to pitch to the best of my ability and make the team … Whatever the role, I want to make the ballclub,” he said to King.

I’m excited to see the young pitchers this year — and let’s be realistic, all those guys will get chances this season, that’s the way the pitching cookie often crumbles — though I also think the Yankees should keep an open mind about using Niese as a starter. If he’s healthy, he could be pretty useful in that role given his ground ball tendencies. Also, he is only 30, so if he has success as a starter, the Yankees could look to keep him around in 2018 (and beyond?).

Furthermore, the young guys are all going to be on some sort of workload limit. I don’t know what the exact innings number will be — Luis Cessa let the kids with 147.1 innings in 2016 — but the number definitely exists. For all of them. The Yankees will have to monitor their workloads all summer, and not everyone will be able to follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint. Niese could help manage those workloads by making spot starts and whatnot.

My guess is Niese is going to be have to blow people away to get rotation duty at any point this year. If you’re expecting him and the kids to give you similar production, the kids should be the priority. And they will be with the Yankees. I’m pretty sure about that. I do think the Yankees should keep an open mind about Niese as a starter this year, but for now, looking at him as a bullpen option is an okay move. Development of the young arms is more important long-term.

Update: Yankees agree to minor league deal with Jon Niese

(Getty)
(Getty)

Monday: Ken Davidoff has the financial details. The deal will pay Niese a $1.25M base salary at the big league level, with another $750,000 available in incentives. He has separate incentives based on whether he is a starter or reliever, though the max value of the contract remains $2M either way.

Sunday: The Yankees have added some veteran rotation depth. According to multiple reports, the club has agreed to a minor league contract with left-hander Jon Niese. He is reportedly in Tampa and either has taken his physical already, or will do so soon. Niese’s season ended in late-August due to knee surgery, so the physical isn’t necessarily routine.

Niese, who turned only 30 in October, had a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 innings spread across 20 starts and nine relief appearances for the Pirates and Mets last year. As I wrote in our Scouting the Market post a few weeks back, Niese pitched through knee pain for much of the season. He said it started bothering him in June, and, well:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

It’s impossible to know how the injury — Niese had a torn meniscus and had the knee scoped, so he should be good to go by now — affected Niese on the mound, though the timeline matches up. Niese said it started bothering him in June and that’s when his performance went in the tank. The minor league deal means it’ll cost the Yankees nothing to see if he can return to his 2012-15 form (3.79 ERA and 3.78 FIP) with a healthy knee.

The Yankees will reportedly look at Niese as both a starter and reliever, which makes sense. They have two openings in the rotation and a few more in the bullpen. The club has been looking for another lefty reliever pretty much all winter, and while Niese has spent most of his career as a starter, he has relieved in the past. He was in the bullpen for the Mets 2015 postseason run, for example.

I’m a fan of the move. I don’t expect Niese to come in and throw 180 innings far-above-average innings, but he’s been a ground ball lefty throughout his career, and those guys are always welcome at Yankee Stadium. The minor league deal is no risk. Healthy Niese could prove to be a nice little pickup.

Open Thread: February 20th Camp Notes

I missed this last week, but the Yankees have announced single-game tickets for the 2017 season go on sale next Monday, February 27th. The Mastercard pre-sale period begins this Wednesday, February 22nd. Baseball is coming, folks. Make sure you get your tickets. Here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Jon Niese passed his physical and his minor league deal is official, the Yankees announced. There are now 67 players in big league camp, though Richard Bleier remains in limbo after being designated for assignment. Niese said he was surprised he had to settle for a minor league deal, and added he signed with the Yankees because he sees a good opportunity to make the team. Joe Girardi said Niese is competing for a bullpen spot, not a rotation spot. [Jack Curry, Erik Boland]
  • One more note on Niese: he’s an Article XX(B) free agent because he has six years of service time and signed a minor league deal. That means two things. One, the Yankees have to pay him a $100,000 bonus at the end of Spring Training before sending him to the minors. And two, his contract automatically includes a June 1st opt-out if he is not on the big league roster.
  • Here, via Brendan Kuty, are the day’s pitching assignments, hitting groups, and fielding groups. Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa both threw simulated games while Michael Pineda, Tyler Clippard, Justus Sheffield, and Chance Adams were among those to throw live batting practice. Greg Bird took someone deep during a sim game (video).
  • Hensley Meulens, the former Yankee, said Didi Gregorius is going to play second, short, and third with the Netherlands during the World Baseball Classic. He’ll also get at-bats as the DH. Meulens is the team’s manager. The Netherlands has Jonathan Schoop at second, Andrelton Simmons at short, and Xander Bogaerts at third. [Jon Morosi]

This is the open thread for the evening. The NBA is still in their All-Star break and none of the local hockey teams are in action, so all you’ve got tonight are a handful of college basketball games. Talk about anything here as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jon Niese

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Things have been awful quiet around the Yankees since the Aroldis Chapman signing, which both makes sense and is kind of annoying. The club was never going to spend big for a free agent bat, and trading top prospects for an impact pitcher was always unlikely, meaning there isn’t a whole lot going on at the moment. Tinker with the margins of the roster. That’s about it.

A small army of cheap veteran starters remain on the free agent market, and with the Yankees set to rely on young pitchers in two of the five rotation spots, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they swooped in to sign one before free agency. Among those still looking for a job is former Mets southpaw Jon Niese, who turned 30 back in October. He’s not the most exciting name out there, far from it, but is he a fit for the Yankees? Let’s give him a look.

Injury History

This is the best place to start, I think. Niese’s season came to an abrupt end on August 23rd last year, when he faced four batters in a spot start before being forced to exit with left knee pain. He had season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus the next day. After the injury, Niese told reporters he’d been pitching through knee pain since June, and it was bad enough that he needed the knee drained and a few cortisone shots along the way.

Aside from last season’s knee injury — by all account Niese’s rehab is going fine, and given the typical rehab timetable of a meniscus repair, he should be ready to go by now — Niese has dealt with on and off physical problems over the years. No arm surgeries, but not stuff you can easily ignore either:

  • 2009: Missed two months with a torn right hamstring.
  • 2010: Missed six weeks with a strained right hamstring.
  • 2011: Missed a month with a right intercostal strain.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Missed nearly two months with a small rotator cuff tear. He only needed rest and rehab.
  • 2014: Missed two weeks with elbow inflammation, then another two weeks with a shoulder strain later in the season.
  • 2015: Healthy!

The hamstring woes were kinda fluky — he tore the hamstring running over to cover first base — and Niese has had no hammy problems since. The arm injuries in 2013 and 2014 are more concerning, even though they’re a few years in the past now. Niese returned from the rotator cuff tear in 2013 and was marvelous (3.00 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 66 innings), so that’s encouraging. His arm hasn’t given him any trouble since 2014. Some scary stuff in there. No doubt.

Recent Performance

The Mets traded Niese to the Pirates for Neil Walker last offseason, then the Pirates traded him back to the Mets for Antonio Bastardo at the trade deadline. All told, he made 20 starts and nine relief appearances in 2016, and pitched to a 5.50 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 121 total innings. Yikes. HOWEVA, look at the breakdown:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
First 12 starts 71 3.93 5.10 15.8% 7.7% 55.0% 1.52
Last 17 games
50 7.74 6.35 16.5% 9.8% 45.8% 2.34

Remember all that stuff about pitching with knee pain since June and needing cortisone shots and all that? Guess when Niese made his 12th start. Yep. June. That 12th start was the end of a five-start stretch in which Niese allowed six runs total in 31 innings. He was great. Then, suddenly, he crashed and allowed 28 runs in his next six starts and 30.2 innings. Hmmm.

Now, we can’t say anything definitive here, but it sure seems to me pitching through knee pain — it was Niese’s left knee, his push-off knee — may have compromised Mr. Niese’s performance. Call me crazy. His home runs were up all year — everyone’s home runs were up in 2016 — and that’s a red flag. Otherwise those first dozen starts were typical Niese. A below average rate of strikeouts, but plenty of grounders and not a ton of walks. That’s Niese.

In 2015, his last healthy season, Niese managed a 4.13 ERA (4.41 FIP) with 14.7% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, 54.5% grounders, and 1.02 HR/9 in 176.2 innings. That’s not great by any means, but it is serviceable. You could stick that dude in the back of your rotation and not sweat too much. That’s the guy whatever team signs Niese will be hoping to get this coming season, when his knee is presumably healthy.

Present Stuff

Niese is a five-pitch pitcher who uses three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter), a curveball, and a changeup. He tinkered with a slider a few years back, but it didn’t work, so he gave up on it. Niese has never been a hard-thrower — his average four-seamer velocity peaked at 91.8 mph back in 2011 — and these days his four-seamer and sinker sit right around 90 mph. Here’s his 2016 game-by-game average velocity chart, via Brooks Baseball:

jon-niese-velocity

That dip at the end there screams “ow ow ow my push-off knee hurts so much.” The Pirates moved Niese to the bullpen in July and his velocity never did spike. And even though his knee started bothering him in June, it never showed in velocity. If you’d have looked at that graph on August 1st, you wouldn’t have been able to tell Niese was nursing a knee injury or had changed roles. His velocity held steady.

There’s nothing too exciting about Niese. His curveball doesn’t buckle knees and hitters won’t be so far out in front of his changeup they’ll break their bat on their back. He is what he is. A generic back-end starter who relies on ground balls and won’t wow you with pure stuff. Here’s some video:

That knee injury and the fact Niese pitched through it for several weeks is pretty much the only reason I wrote him up as a possible free agent target. I saw it as something that could explain his poor overall performance, and sure enough, the numbers kinda fit the timeline. How exactly did the knee injury affect Niese though? There’s no dip in his velocity. Let’s look at this four-seamer and sinker location, via Baseball Savant:

jon-niese-fastball-heat-map

In his first dozen starts, Niese kept his fastballs down in the zone, which is what you’d expect from a guy who lives and dies by the ground ball. After that, ostensibly when his knee started barking, Niese was much more prone to leaving his fastball up in the zone. That right there can help explain why his performance declined so much. He was throwing more hittable pitches, and since he lacks premium velocity overall, hitters made him pay.

Contract Estimates

Niese did not appear on a single top 50 free agent list this offseason, not one, so we have no contract estimates. Generally speaking, reclamation project starters have been getting one-year deals in the $5M range over the last two or three years, and Niese fits there. The Mets declined his $10M option after the 2016 season, and I’m guessing they gauged the trade market to see if anyone wanted him at that price. When there was no interest, they cut him loose. One-year and $5M seems like a decent framework. Maybe he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract.

Does He Fit The Yankees?

It ultimately depends on the price and health of his knee. It was a fairly routine procedure — Niese had the meniscus tear scoped like so many other athletes — and while you can never guarantee a return to full health, this is one of those surgeries with a high success rate. It’s not like taking on a dude coming off Tommy John surgery. If he’s healthy and the price is right, sure, sign him up as depth.

Keep in mind the Yankees have had interest in Niese in the past. They tried to get him from the Mets during the 2011 Winter Meetings, which was obviously a very long time ago. The Yankees liked the 25-year-old version of Niese back then. Do they like the 30-year-old version now? I’m guessing they like that he’s a lefty who gets ground balls, that he’s pitched in New York, and that he’s shown the versatility to start or relieve. (Niese was in the bullpen during the 2015 postseason.)

The question is, as always, whether Niese wants to try to rebuild his career in Yankee Stadium, which is something very few pitchers seem willing to do. The Marlins have been connected to Niese several times this winter and they might be a more preferable destination as an NL team in a big ballpark. I’m a fan of adding pitching depth. I’ve said that a million times. Healthy Niese might be the best pitcher available right now. If he’s open to coming to the Yankees, he’d be a fine low-cost pickup.

Scouting the Trade Market: Last Minute Rotation Targets

The Return of Big Bart? (Alex Goodlett/Getty)
The Return of Big Bart? (Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Now that James Shields has landed in San Diego, the top free agent starters are all off the board and the only guys left unsigned are hangers-on. Roberto Hernandez, Chris Young, Kevin Correia, guys like that. The Yankees passed on Shields, Max Scherzer, and Jon Lester because they didn’t want to hand out another big contract but they could still use another starter. Every team except the Nationals could, really.

Pitchers and catchers will start reporting to Spring Training next week, though there are still a handful of pitchers on the trade block who could be moved between now and then. Cole Hamels is the obvious one, but he’s a complicated case. I’m taking about back-end starters, guys who eat innings and wouldn’t cost much more than salary relief to acquire. The Yankees have shown no real interest in those types of guys but they could jump into the mix. Here are a few back-end arms who are definitely available right now.

RHP Bartolo Colon, Mets

ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 4.09 3.57 17.9% 3.6% 39.3% 8.8% .331 .299
2012-14 3.40 3.52 16.0% 3.6% 41.9% 7.9% .292 .309

When the Yankees plucked Colon out of winter ball back in 2011, who would have guessed he’d still be kicking around in 2015? Not me, that’s for sure. The Mets have an enviable collection of young starters and have been shopping their high-priced arms hard all winter, and the 41-year-old Colon is the highest priced of them all — he’s scheduled to earn $11M this coming season.

Colon has pitched well since returning to the big leagues four seasons ago but his fastball velocity has been slipping in recent years, and that’s pretty scary for a guy who throws about 85% four-seamers and sinkers. Here’s his velocity graph since resurfacing with the Yankees a few years ago, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Bartolo Colon velocity

His fastball velocity has been steadily declining and that is not at all surprising for a guy Colon’s age. It’s remarkable really that he is still throwing as hard as he is given the nearly 3,000 career innings he’s logged and the arm injuries he’s dealt with.

As the velocity has slipped, Bart has become increasingly fly ball and line drive prone according to the imperfect batted ball data we have. Opponents are squaring him up more often, basically, so it’s not necessarily a fluke his BABIP has climbed from .286 to .294 to .307 the last three seasons. And remember, he was pitching in two pitcher friendly parks (O.co Coliseum and Citi Field) the last three years.

At his age, you have to expect Colon to continue declining in 2015. At best, maybe he’ll be able to maintain last year’s performance. The guy is going to turn 42 in May and he’s an extremely fastball reliant pitcher who is having a harder time cracking 90 mph with each passing start. I think the Mets would give him away at this point as long as they shed themselves of his $11M salary, but he still feels more like a “all hell broke loose” last resort for the Yankees.

(Doug Pensinger/Getty)
(Doug Pensinger/Getty)

RHP Dillon Gee, Mets

ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 4.00 4.52 16.5% 7.5% 44.1% 11.5% .315 .321
2012-14 3.85 4.09 17.8% 6.4% 44.9% 11.1% .294 .341

Like I said, the Mets have been trying to unload a high-priced starter all offseason, and it’s sort of sad Gee’s $5.3M salary is considered high-priced for a New York team. (Gee will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2016 as well, so he’s not necessarily a one-year rental.) The 28-year-old has been a popular target this offseason as the Rockies, Padres, Giants, Nationals, Rays, Royals, and Twins had interest in him at various points.

There was a stretch from May 2013 through July 2014 where Gee was damn near ace-like, pitching to a 2.67 ERA (3.81 FIP) in 209 innings across 31 starts. Then he finished last year with a 5.10 ERA (4.83 FIP) in his final 13 starts and 77.2 innings. Gee’s had a bunch of shoulder problems over the years (labrum tear in 2009, blood clot in 2012, strain in 2014) and he’s not a big stuff guy, sitting in the upper-80s with his two and four-seam fastballs while also throwing low-80s sliders and changeups. He’s the quintessential “won’t kill you” mid-to-back-end starter, someone who will flash enough brilliance to make you think he can be something more.

Unlike Colon, the Yankees would actually have to give up something of value for Gee, who is young, affordable, and a bonafide Major League starting pitcher. Two and a half years of Bud Norris was traded for a low level pitching prospect and an MLB ready utility man a few years ago, which might be a point of reference for a Gee trade. One year of Ross Detwiler cost two low level prospects, guys on the back half of their team’s top 30 prospects list. Gee shouldn’t cost much more than that.

Jackson. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Jackson. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

RHP Edwin Jackson, Cubs

ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 6.33 4.45 19.4% 10.0% 39.4% 11.9% .358 .404
2012-14 5.00 4.00 19.4% 8.2% 46.6% 11.2% .323 .357

Somewhere out there, someone is still waiting for Jackson’s ERA to catch up to his FIP. He’s only 31, it’ll happen any day now! Except that when a guy has had a considerably higher ERA (4.57) than FIP (4.17) in his last 1,500 innings (1,473 to be exact), it’s time to say that’s just who he is. That’s Jackson. Ricky Nolasco is the same way. Some guys are sabermetric teases.

Jackson has been flat out terrible for the Cubs these last two years, pitching to 5.58 ERA (4.09 FIP!) in 316 innings since signing a four-year, $52M contract during the 2012-13 offseason. A total of 865 different pitchers have appeared in at least one MLB game since the start of last season and Jackson ranks 865th with -3.6 bWAR. Dead last. He’s been that bad. The only good thing you can say about him at this point is that he still throws hard, averaging 94 mph with his four-seamer last year. The stuff is still there and that’s something.

The Cubs have their top three starters (Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel) and they have a small army of pitchers set to compete for the last two rotation spots: Kyle Hendricks, Tsuyoshi Wada, Jacob Turner, Kyle Hendricks, Felix Doubront, Travis Wood, and Jackson. They been shopping Jackson for weeks with no luck, and I don’t think that’s surprising. He’s so pricey and unproductive that there’s no way a team could justify giving up something of value for him. If the Cubbies are willing to eat a huge chunk of that $26M, great, otherwise there is very little reason to kick the tires on Jackson.

Niese. (Andy Marlin/Getty)
Niese. (Andy Marlin/Getty)

LHP Jon Niese, Mets

ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 3.40 3.67 17.6% 5.7% 47.7% 9.8% .329 .289
2012-14 3.49 3.69 18.1% 6.5% 49.0% 10.4% .317 .292

Another Met because hey, these guys are available. The Yankees and Mets haven’t gotten together for a real trade (sorry, Gonzalez Germen) since the Mike Stanton/Felix Heredia swap in December 2004, but I don’t think either Brian Cashman or Sandy Alderson would let the crosstown thing get in the way of a deal that improves their club. Neither seems to care all that much about fan or media scrutiny, and if they think they can best help their team by trading with each other, it’ll happen.

Anyway, Niese is 28 and he’s the best pitcher between himself, Colon, and Gee. He’s been very good for three years running now and has averaged 170.1 innings in his five full MLB seasons. Plus his contract is rock solid: Niese is owed $7M in 2015 and $9M in 2016 before team options for 2017 ($10M) and 2018 ($11M) come into play. (Both options include a $500,000 buyout.) So he’s pretty young, pretty good, and signed affordably. Lots to like here. But, of course, there’s a catch.

The single biggest concern with Niese is health. Despite averaging those 170.1 innings the last five years, the southpaw has had on and off arm problems, including both elbow and shoulder issues. He missed time with shoulder inflammation in 2013, a shoulder strain later in 2013, shoulder soreness in 2014, a hyper-extended elbow in 2014, and then more shoulder inflammation later in 2014. The Mets’ willingness to trade Niese seems to be as much about clearing a spot for a young pitcher as it is moving him before his arm completely blows out.

The good news is that most of Niese’s arm issues were very minor and sidelined him for no longer than two weeks (the shoulder strain cost him two months), though that’s just putting lipstick on a pig. His health is a big concern going forward and why trading for him is quite risky even though he’s the most effective non-Hamels pitcher realistically available right now. I think the Detwiler and Norris trades I mentioned for Gee work as references for Niese, though the prospects would likely have to be of a higher quality.

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

LHP Travis Wood, Cubs

ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 5.03 4.38 18.7% 9.7% 34.4% 8.8% .371 .276
2012-14 4.08 4.33 18.2% 8.7% 33.9% 9.2% .331 .274

Nothing but Mets and Cubs pitchers in this post. What can you do? They’re the teams with spare starters to trade right now. Wood will make $5.686M this coming season and remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2016 as well, though, given his recent performance, he might be a non-tender candidate next winter. That’s why the Cubbies could look to trade him now and get something in return.

Wood had an excellent season in 2013, pitching to a 3.11 ERA (3.89 FIP) in exactly 200 innings, but he had a 4.50 ERA (4.53 FIP) in the 262 innings before that and a 5.03 ERA (4.38 FIP) in the 173.2 innings since. Looking at his career since breaking into MLB full-time back in 2011, the 2013 season is the outlier, not 2014. Wood is a small stuff lefty, sitting in the mid-to-upper-80s with his fastball and throwing his cutter once out of every three pitches. His ground ball rate is tiny but he does have one of the highest infield pop-up rates in baseball since 2011, so it’s not like he’s giving up a ton of scary fly balls.

As I mentioned before, the Cubs have a ton of back of the rotation options, but Wood is affordable and has averaged 176.2 innings the last three years, so he’s someone they could easily justify keeping. He just turned 28 last week and his soft stuff limits his upside, especially since he has such a big platoon split, though there’s just enough here to keep him interesting. Wood might only be a younger version of Chris Capuano and that’s not someone you give up a ton to get, yet his recent All-Star season and age might mean it’ll take a real live prospect or two to pry him loose.

* * *

There’s a reason all five of these guys make some kind of sense for the Yankees. Colon and Jackson could provide innings and would come almost free. Niese is a pretty damn good pitcher when healthy. Gee and Wood are low upside but affordable innings guys who wouldn’t require an arm and a leg to acquire. Based on the way the Cubs and Mets have operated this winter, all five guys are available right now, in the days leading up to camp, and this might is be best time to acquire one of them, before pitchers around the league start getting hurt in Spring Training and the demand rises.

Report: Yankees have called Mets about Jon Niese

Via Andy Martino, the Yankees have called the Mets about Jon Niese after seeing that the left-hander has been made available in a trade. Talks are nothing more than preliminary at the moment though. Joel Sherman says the Amazin’s want “a place holder starter” and a “main prospect piece” in return, which sounds reasonable.

I might do a longer breakdown of Niese’s game if talks intensify, but I am a fan. He’s a 25-year-old left-baller that doesn’t walk many and gets ground balls with a better-than-average strikeout rate. Like the more-hyped Gio Gonzalez, Niese is under team control through 2015, though he still has one year at the league minimum left before arbitration. The only problem is that he’s thrown more than 170 IP in a season just once in his career thanks to hamstring and oblique problems. Cross-town trades don’t happen often, but I think this is one worth pursuing.