By Ernie Palladino
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Jon Niese could turn out as the reason the Mets will either jump into the playoff race with both feet or fall out of it by the end of July.
Yeah, sure. It’s a bit off the wall. OK. Really out there. He is, after all, the weak link of arguably the best pitching rotation in baseball top to bottom, a six-man group that improved itself Sunday with the addition of left-hander Steve Matz. And everybody knows full well that Niese has trailed Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Bartolo Colon and Noah Syndergaard in the effectiveness department. The lefty’s 4.12 ERA heading into Tuesday’s strong start against the Cubs sticks out like neon when flashed against the rest of the group.
With all that understood, stick with this for a little bit. With Matz’ successful debut Sunday, Terry Collins has committed to the six-man rotation he tried and then all but swore off a couple of weeks ago. If Sandy Alderson got rid of one of those arms, he might have a chance of saving Collins not only from himself, but from a lot of counterproductive noise, primarily from the vicinity of Harvey’s locker.
As luck would have it, reports indicate the Dodgers and Cubs have shown an interest in acquiring Niese (3-8).
The advice here: Get the best deal possible and take it. The Mets know Niese won’t bring the big bat Collins’ lineup truly needs. He’ll have to hope newly rehabbed Daniel Murphy can provide that until the next health crisis arises. But Niese could bring someone competent for the bench, and that would be more than the Mets have now.
More important than any addition, Niese’s subtraction will bring the rotation goes back to five. Collins’ silly “save some innings for September” gambit ends, and deGrom, Harvey, Colon, Syndergaard and Matz can concentrate fully, with regular rest, on mounting a serious postseason challenge to the five current frontrunners St. Louis, LA, Washington, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
If Collins is honest with himself, he must realize the future of the 2015 Mets stands on the mound, not at the plate, even if David Wright does somehow make it back at some point in the second half.
He also has to look at the cold, hard, numbers. Baseball Prospectus has the Mets’ playoff probability at 30.9 percent, even as they sit two games behind Pittsburgh and San Francisco for the second wild card spot.
It is best that he keeps his pitchers happy. They work with a narrow enough margin for error to begin with. He proved the first time around that six-man rotations don’t work with a generation that has been brought up on five-man setups. The fact that highly-touted Matz has replaced a failed Dillon Gee in the sixth spot doesn’t change that.
Why the Dodgers and Cubs, or any other team Alderson might get a call from in the coming month, would want Niese is easy to figure out. He’s a lefty who can throw hard. Those are desirable qualities these days, even if said pitcher has been accused of throwing too straight a fastball these days.
Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Niese was actually getting people out. In mid-May, his 2.49 ERA ranked 10th in the league. Three disastrous starts followed. But he has pitched to a 3.00 ERA in five starts since, including Tuesday’s seven-inning, one-run performance against the Cubs. His emergence from an early bases-loaded jam and his limiting the sixth-inning damage to a mere RBI double should draw some added attention.
He’s also healthy, which hasn’t always been the case in previous years.
The Dodgers’ situation makes them an ideal trade partner, having lost Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu for the season to respective Tommy John and shoulder surgeries.
If Matz develops as expected, keeping Niese will only complicate matters. Though clearly on an upswing, he could throw the Mets’ greatest strength into chaos.
Removing Niese from the equation could at least give the Mets a fighting chance at the postseason against less-than-even odds.
It’s time for Alderson to make a deal.