The New York Mets are set at the front of the rotation with Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine. However, with Oliver Perez and Pedro Martinez both eligible for free agency, two other spots in the starting five may be up for grabs. Sure, the team from Queens could elect to fill one or both of those slots with splashy free agent or trade acquisitions, but the club could also take a long look at left-hander Jonathon Niese. A 7th-round selection in the 2005 amateur entry draft out of Defiance, Ohio (the same high school that produced Dodgers stud Chad Billingsley), Niese has steadily climbed the minor league ladder and reached New York for a brief cup of coffee last September. Though not overpowering, the 6-4, 215 pounder could prove to be a nice low-cost addition to the back end of the rotation.
Niese got his professional career off to a good start in a brief 24.2 inning stint with the GCL Mets (Rookie League) in the summer of 2005, striking out 24 batters and walking ten. The man the Mets pried away from a University of Cincinnati scholarship was ranked as the 9th-best prospect in the system by Baseball America following the season.
In 2006, Niese would be bumped up to the Low-A South Atlantic League, tossing 123.2 innings with Hagerstown. He posted a 3.52 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA), striking out an impressive 9.61 batters per nine innings but also posting a hefty 4.51 BB/9. Still, the combination of K’s and groundballs (51.4 GB%) made for a solid debut for a teenager in a full-season league. Niese was bumped up to St. Lucie of the Florida State League (High-A) at the end of the year, tossing 10 frames with a 10/5 K/BB ratio. Following the season, BA would bump Niese up to the 7th-best prospect in the Mets system, noting the potential of his “big, looping 68-70 MPH curveball” but also mentioning that he can “get overcompetitive and try to strike everyone out.”
Niese would spend the entire 2007 campaign at St. Lucie, posting a 3.28 FIP in 134.1 IP. His strikeout rate dipped (7.37 K/9), but he sharpened his control by a considerable amount (2.08 BB), shedding almost two and a half walks per nine innings and compiling a 3.55 K/BB. Niese also continued to burn worms, generating groundballs at a 50.4% clip. Heading into 2008, BA listed Niese as the 8th-best farmhand for the Mets, noting that his curve had now become a “plus” offering and that he had “figured out how to throw his changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball.” However, his fastball velocity and stamina were still something of an issue: he sat “91-92 MPH early in games”, but that figure tailed off toward the middle innings.
In 2008, Niese would pass through the Eastern and International Leagues before getting a quick glimpse of the majors at the end of the season. In 124.1 IP for Binghamton (AA), Niese compiled a 3.03 FIP ERA. He whiffed 7.26 batters per nine innings while issuing 3.18 BB/9. His sinking fastball continued to keep his infield D busy, with a 52 GB%. Niese was promoted to AAA New Orleans in the second half, where he would post a 4.11 FIP ERA and a 32/14 K/BB ratio in 39.2 innings. In dire need of starting pitching down the stretch, the Mets promoted Niese to the big leagues, where he made three September starts. He posted an 11/8 K/BB ratio in 14 innings with a 7.07 ERA.
Jonathon Niese will likely never be a front-of-the-rotation stalwart, but his combination of solid K rates and groundball tendencies makes him an interesting young arm. There’s always concern with a pitcher like Niese who generates those K’s with a big breaking ball and a tame fastball (89.4 MPH with the Mets): conventional wisdom says that while minor leaguers may not be able to lay off of that 74 MPH curve in the dirt, major league hitters will show more restraint and be less apt to chase. With the high-80’s heat, the big-breaking curveball and so-so control, Niese seems to have a Barry Zito starter kit at his disposal, with better ability to induce groundballs.
Wait! Don’t run! Before Zito lost several ticks on his fastball and became one of the most infamous free agent signings in major league history, he was a useful (if overhyped) mid-rotation starter for the A’s. Niese could enjoy a similar career arch, minus the unwarranted hardware and nine-figure contract.