Today, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 M deal. As you may remember, a few weeks ago I posted a comparison between Leake and Jon Niese. That comparison seems perfect to bring up once again with today’s move.
Leake – 3.83 ERA/3.76 xFIP/8.9 WAR
Niese – 3.79 ERA/3.70 xFIP/10.5 WAR
There isn’t a huge difference here, as they’ve basically been the same pitcher over that amount of time. The contracts are where the deals really separate.
The Cardinals have guaranteed Leake $80 M over five years. Meanwhile, Niese is only guaranteed $9.5 M for one year, with two option years remaining. The total deal would be worth $30 M over three years, or about $6 M less per year than Leake will receive, without the final two years and $32 M extra at the end of the deal.
Simply put, Niese is under a very team friendly deal when you look at what he would have received if he was a free agent this off-season.
Of course, the Pirates did have to give up Neil Walker to get this team friendly deal. Using the traditional trade values, if we assume Niese reverts back to the 2.0 WAR per year pitcher, and Walker remains a 2.7 WAR a year guy, then the Pirates gave up $6 M in value to get $7.5 M in value.
Part of the appeal with the Walker trade was the deal Niese has. This deal makes him much more affordable compared to the guys on the open market, which allows the Pirates to add other pieces. They also aren’t blocking prospects in the future. And the deal gives them some trade value with Niese in the future when they no longer need him, as his team friendly deal will look much better to the alternatives on the market.
But a lot of this assumes that Niese will still be productive and will be in demand following the 2016 season (or whenever he is no longer needed). That’s also the most important thing here, as dealing for a guy who is affordable only makes sense if that guy is also productive.
There are multiple reasons why I think Niese will be productive, ranging from his track record prior to 2015, to the Ray Searage factor, to the fact that the Pirates have been very successful finding bounce back pitchers who can exceed their values. But perhaps the biggest reason I think Niese can bounce back with the Pirates might be one of the most overlooked parts of the off-season so far.
The Pirates have replaced Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, which means we now get to hear on a daily basis how many home runs they’ve lost from the 2015 team. What rarely gets brought up is the fact that those two were poor defenders, among the worst at their position, and part of what made the Pirates a poor defensive team in 2015. The Pirates will replace Walker with Josh Harrison at second base, and the full upgrade for Alvarez at first hasn’t been revealed yet. Harrison represents a defensive upgrade over Walker, and it won’t be hard to upgrade over Alvarez.
Niese has one of the best ground ball rates in baseball. Put him in front of a good defense, employing defensive shifts, and add in the fact that he’s a lefty pitching half his games at PNC Park, and you’ve got a lot of reasons to expect good things. Do I expect him to be the next breakout ace to join the Burnett/Liriano/Volquez/Happ group? No. But I do expect him to have a 2.0 WAR or better, and wouldn’t be surprised if he matched Neil Walker in value.
There were arguments today that Leake is the fourth or fifth starter for the Cardinals, while Niese is currently the third starter for the Pirates. That’s true at the moment, although the off-season is still incomplete. The Pirates could still add another starter, bumping Niese down to the number four spot. He could get bumped down another spot when Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon arrive, depending on how the rest of the rotation is performing. And that will make for a strong rotation in the future, possibly on Opening Day if they add another starter this off-season.
Today’s deal with Leake reminds us how valuable Niese is as a pitcher. The fact that the Pirates have him on a ridiculous team-friendly deal only makes him more valuable. That, alone doesn’t make the trade work out. But if the Pirates use that savings on another rotation upgrade, along with smaller upgrades to the rest of the team, then we could be looking back at this move as another big off-season steal by the Pirates.
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**Pirates Still Interested in Mat Latos? Speaking of adding another pitcher, they’re still getting connected to Latos. If they can get him to bounce back, then he would be a great number three option in this rotation.