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After ultimately failing to land top free agent target Ben Zobrist, the Mets still had a Daniel-Murphy-sized hole at second base to fill. And Neil Walker is a suitably eerie Judy Barton. Both Walker and Murphy are 30-year-olds, below-average defenders at the keystone, and a bit above average with the bat. Walker gets his production with a bit more power and a bit more patience, which hews more closely to the mold of hitter the Mets front office prefers, but otherwise there isn't much to separate them offensively. Murphy has a lifetime .273 TAv, Walker, .279. Unlike Murphy (and Zobrist for that matter), Walker only requires a one-year commitment, at the Arb4 price of $10 million or so, which makes him roughly a wash financially with Niese. And for the budget-conscious Mets, the $60 million they may have had on the table for Zobrist can now go toward an upgrade in center field or the bullpen. Well, maybe.
This move also allows the organization to give one of their better no-longer-a-prospects, Dilson Herrera, a bit more development time without completely blocking him at second base. The Mets have made noises throughout this offseason that they were confident going ahead with Herrera as their everyday second baseman, but Walker gives them a much lower-variance player for a team that is looking to return to the playoffs. And sure, he's probably not going to turn into Sylvester Coddmeyer III for the Mets in the 2016 playoffs, but he is also less likely to randomly wander off the field with two outs in the inning. Walker may need to be platooned some against left-handed pitching, as he has a 150 point OPS split, but the Mets are well suited to handle that if need be, with the lefty-mashing Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada around.
The loss of Niese will leave the Mets a bit thin in terms of starting pitching. A reunion with Bartolo Colon is already making its way around the rumor mill, and anyway, fans probably won't complain too much if Logan Verrett, Rafael Montero, or Sean Gilmartin is taking 30 starts, considering the other four days would feature Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz.
A few hours after finalizing the deal for Walker, the Mets got him a double play partner. Cabrera bounced back in 2015 after a couple down seasons and was a league-average hitter with some pop and OBP issues. Like Walker, Cabrera is a switch-hitter, but doesn't have much of a split to speak of. He may still end up getting platooned some with Wilmer Flores, who posted a .955 OPS against left-handed pitching last year, but Cabrera is the best longside option the Mets will have at shortstop. He doesn't figure to help the Mets infield defense, exposed badly in the World Series against Kansas City, much. The defensive metrics view him as below average to well below average at shortstop.
The Mets middle infield is now well stocked with Flores and Ruben Tejada having already been tendered contracts for 2016, but given the inevitable uncertainty around David Wright's back, the depth will allow them to slide Flores or Walker over to third base whenever and as long as is needed without having to turn to Eric Campbell or Daniel Muno, as they often had to in 2015. One subplot to watch will be if Terry Collins is willing to aggressively platoon the four, or if he runs with the veterans for the bulk of the playing time. —Jeffrey Paternostro
Neil Walker, 2B
Walker has been about as steady a performer as they come in his six full seasons, routinely producing top-six value among National League keystoners. That alone is almost enough to trump any other considerations, and yet the arrow creeps down on account of contextual factors and age. As noted above, the overall park effects should dampen his production marginally, though as a switch-hitter he’ll get some of the left-handed benefit. And as things currently stand a Cespedes-less Mets lineup probably figures to be a tick less effective than Pittsburgh’s. Walker is 30 now, though he didn’t show any outward signs of slippage yet last year. He chased a few more out of the zone than normal, but all of his batted ball and approach indicators otherwise remained consistent.
Depending on how the rest of the offseason shakes out, figure Walker for marginally lower Run and RBI projections, which may bump him down into the top seven or eight in the NL instead of being a top-sixer —notable, though certainly no reason to build a new draft board.
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
Cabrera returned to fantasy relevance last year in producing top-10 value among AL shortstops after a couple poor seasons had him on the fringes. Thing is, he did this largely by running into a few more base hits along the way. His BABIP returned to career norms after a couple seasons of sub-par performance, yet his batted ball indicators paint the picture of a season with worse contact overall. His whiff rate went up, his chase rate went up, he made more contact with the bad balls he chased, and so on. Point being, the profile already shaped up dodgy enough.
A best-case scenario here had Cabrera signing in an offensive park and sliding over to second base to increase his versatility. He was one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball last year, worse even than Flores. But given that the Mets just acquired a second baseman not a couple hours earlier, it appears they signed him to play shortstop. That makes projecting playing time difficult at present given Wilmer Flores’ presence on the roster. The ballpark jump hurts him to boot, as does the league swap given his likely fit in the second half of a lineup.
He should be on the radar for NL-only and deep mixed league drafts, especially as a competent MI target, but for where you’re going to be targeting him in the draft you’re probably better for making an upside play anyway.
Wilmer Flores, SS
This had to be a puzzling day for Flores. Between last July’s near-trade and now the signing of two guys to play his two most-likely positions, it may just be that his future lies with another club. For the time being he appears to be a man without a starting position, and that’s an unfortunate limbo for fantasy managers who saw glimpses of his long-heralded offensive potential start to peak through last year. If you roster Flores in a keeper format, hold him for the time being to see if or how this winter shakes out.
Dilson Herrera, 2B
It was always a longshot that the defending NL Champs were going to be willing to hand the keys to the keystone to a 22-year-old, and sure enough Herrera players are going to have to keep waiting longer still. —Wilson Karaman
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Aquired LHP Jon Niese from the New York Mets in exchange for 2B-S Neil Walker [12/9]
MEMO TO: BP authors
FROM: The Department of Lazy Comps
RE: Jon Niese
You should note that Jon Niese has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, you will be tempted to compare him to another “crafty veteran southpaw” from the Midwest with mediocre peripherals who just happened to experience a recent Renaissance under Pirates pitching coach Ray Searade. We here at the DoLC want you to be aware that J.A. Happ and Jon Niese are not, in fact, particularly similar pitchers.
For one, Happ throws his fastball a lot, while Niese has thrown his fastball less and less throughout his career, relying more on a cutter, especially to right-handed batters. Between the cutter and a four-seamer with greater than average sinking movement (per Brooks Baseball), Niese gets far more groundballs, while Happ misses more bats. Now, the groundballs might play better in Pittsburgh than New York, as Niese himself has been quick to note:
Jon Niese: “I’m sure what I’ll appreciate more than anything is the way (#Pirates) play defense. I’m looking forward to that.”
— Rob Biertempfel (@BiertempfelTrib) December 10, 2015
But there are some warning signs here as well. Niese's fastball velocity is trending downward, as is his K-rate. He has struggled with neck and shoulder issues that have occasionally led to a wandering armslot, and general durability issues. All in all, Niese is a prototypical no. 4 starter, who won't give you the innings or consistent performance to merit mid-rotation status. It is certainly possible that Ray Searage has a magic bullet here, and Niese's stuff has at times outpaced his performance (especially back when his fastball was sitting in the low 90s), but Dan Warthen is a rather good pitching coach as well, and Niese never really took a true step forward under his tutelage. Still, he is owed less than the aforementioned Happ, and only one of the three years left on his contract is guaranteed, giving the Pirates some flexibility and a pitcher whose skill set fits well with their organizational philosophy.
The loss of Walker opens a bit of a hole at second base for the Pirates. Early indications are that Josh Harrison will get the bulk of the playing time there. The Pirates also have former top-100 prospect Alen Hanson lurking in the International League, but he has stagnated, and doesn't figure to be an everyday player on a first-division team. —Jeffrey Paternostro
The caveat here is that the arrow isn’t up nearly as high as many people might intuitively imagine. Niese will certainly have an opportunity in Pittsburgh’s rotation—something which was at best a possibility in New York—and that accounts for the majority of his improved stock. Whether or not that benefits or hurts fantasy owners remains to be seen. Niese produced just four bucks of NL-only value last year to rank 129th among Senior Circuit hurlers. Rotationmate Steven Matz outproduced him ($5) in just six starts.
Still, where most people saw Niese’s strikeout rate plummeting to heretofore unseen depths, the Pirates saw a veteran starter who transitioned into a two-seam guy, jumped his groundball rate in a significant and possibly sustainable way, and still attacked the zone with an above-average rate of strikes (first-pitch and otherwise). The ballpark adjustment, meanwhile, is more of a mixed bag. On the surface this is a clear negative, as the Mets play in what was last year the third-worst run–scoring environment in the league, while the Pirates’ digs are just mediocre. It’s more complicated than that, though. Niese is not a guy who generates much of a platoon advantage, and that makes sense since both of his bendy pitches show below-average movement and velocity. Citi Field helped with a good bit of the scale-balancing throughout Niese’s career. Last year the park played as one of the friendliest in baseball for southpaw sluggers while PNC, by contrast, played among the seven worst parks for left-handed hitters.
More overtly negative is the swap of New York’s defense for the Pirates. By DE the Mets were a top-third defensive unit at converting balls hit into outs, while Pittsburgh was just 23rd. The Pirates allowed 74 extra men to reach base via error last year, which was the second-most in baseball.
Niese’s overall fantasy value shouldn’t be all that drastically different. He belongs in the relevant streaming bucket for shallow leagues and the solid, boring back-end bucket in NL-onlies. There’ll be more intrigue here than most of the guys in those buckets on account of the Searage factor, which may just push him into overpriced territory. —Wilson Karaman
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