By Jason Keidel
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You may recall a week or so ago I implored the Mets to refrain from unloading their fertile pitching staff for a lumber rental.
I was called all manner of moron, of course. But now that Jon Niese is nestled nicely back into the rotation, his gifted left limb catching fire in the process, fewer folks are clamoring for him to be traded.
Oh, and the Mets (47-42) are only two games behind the Nationals (48-39), with their first midseason mark over .500 in four years. Even with the wide swath of injuries and the holes in their bats and their lineups, the Mets are in prime position to make a run at the postseason. So don’t pull the cord before you’ve even leaped out of the plane.
Even WFAN host Evan Roberts joined the chorus, plucking two cans from Jo Benigno’s six-pack of Kool-Aid. Roberts mused profoundly on the prospects of Mets prospects yielding a nuclear bat for the pennant push.
(What is a pennant, anyway? Fifty years ago a club could hang a cut of cloth from its frieze and let it clap and curl in the wind because it had actually won a league and reached the World Series. Now a team jumps the pitcher when it secures a wild-card berth. Baseball has morphed into boxing in that regard, with almost endless paper champions; trophies for secondary and tertiary seasons.)
But I digress. Just as it took fiscal discipline for the Mets’ heralded hierarchy to get the club to this point, it takes even more restraint to see this through, which means keeping their conga line of gifted young pitchers.
Almost all among the baseball intelligentsia agree that it’s exponentially easier to find a good bat than a good arm. Now, with batting stats plunging perilously toward dead-ball era numbers, it’s imperative the Mets keep their studs in the stable.
Just days after I begged the Mets to keep Niese, Steven Matz plopped onto the DL. Gotham’s latest wunderkind vanished as quickly as he landed like a meteor on the mound. And while he’s not lost for the season, it’s not easy to just pluck a Niese whenever a good man goes down.
Niese is more important than ever now. The Mets are so close to first that they can see the Nats’ nose hairs. (They’re also a game behind the Cubs for the second wild card.) When everyone is healthy they can fan out into a six-man rotation, keeping Matt Harvey fresh while fresh off Tommy John surgery. When one goes down, Niese slides right in without a palpable dip in production.
Who seriously wants to jettison Niese after seven straight quality starts? Why risk losing a golden arm and golden chance to win the NL East by toying with team chemistry? And he’s a southpaw, the most valued commodity in the sport.
Since June 1 Niese has posted a 2.64 ERA, lowering his season ERA to 3.61, down from 4.43. Zack Wheeler is recovering from Tommy John surgery, Harvey is just a little more removed from it and Matz’s return date isn’t assured. So Niese is needed more than ever.
And why develop a wandering eye when a solution could be local?
David Wright could return this year and help lead the team to its first playoff appearance since last decade. Kirk Nieuwenhuis just jacked three homers, becoming the first Met to do so at home in franchise history. The team’s top prospect, Michael Conforto, whacked two hits in the All-Star Futures Game, and Brandon Nimmo also got a hit and kicked in an RBI.
Always deal from a position of strength. Despite their anemic batting, the Mets are relatively strong in an enervated division. No need, nor time, for panic. Don’t go rogue or all pinstripes and deal a Jose Rijo or Al Leiter. Don’t mortgage a rather fertile future just because impatient fans want you to.
No doubt you’re justifiably tired of the platitudes, excuses and boredom of being bridesmaids every season, only to hear corporate cliches and Bill James bromides about next year.
But believe it or not, next year really could be the year, if this year isn’t. Just don’t jettison the very arms that got you on top of the arms race.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.