You guys remember Chris Capuano? When the Yankees were scraping the bottom of the barrel back in 2014, they picked up Capuano from the Rockies for cash around the trade deadline, and relied on him for over 100 innings from that point until the end of 2015.
Scrapheap pitchers are actually pretty important given that load—100 innings over a year and a half is nearly half of a full season, put upon the shoulders of someone completely unreliable and who bounces from team to team.
The 2017 Yankees have their iteration of Capuano, and it’s Jon Niese. Niese, the longtime Met who has a career 109 ERA- and 104 FIP-, is nowhere near the league-average pitcher he once was. He put up a dreadful 5.50 ERA in 2016, ended his season when he required surgery on his knee, and has dealt with elbow and shoulder issues for years now. He has never thrown more than 200 innings in a season.
Considering the Yankees have said that they could use him as a starter or as a reliever, it got me thinking about Capuano. He was also a former league-average left-handed starter who had injury issues and signed with the Yankees with the ability to start or relieve. To compare, I put their last three years as a starter side-by-side, and they look bizarrely similar.
|Jon Niese, 2014-2016||161.2||6.29||2.73||1.15||112||114|
|Chris Capuano, 2011-2013||163.1||7.55||2.41||1.16||112||102|
Both of their velocities also compare around 89 mph, and Capuano was even able to strike out another batter per inning.
If this gives you an indication of anything, it shows where Niese’s career is likely headed. His number one comp through age 29 on Baseball Prospectus is actually Joe Blanton, another very similar player.
Blanton was absolutely putrid as a starter from age 29 to 32 (77 ERA+), only to revive his career as a reliever over the past two years. There is definitely a path for Niese to do this. BP’s projections, along with the Blanton comp, are probably pretty correct as far as true talent goes: a 126 cFIP over 115 innings.
With a declining fastball velocity, a spiking home run rate, and a litany of injury concerns, Niese is nothing more than depth. Girardi has even commented that despite what the Yankees previously said, he is only looking at Niese as a reliever. Considering it’s just an invite though, and that he has an opt-out if the Yankees don’t hand him a retention bonus by the end of spring training, it works for both sides.
The Yankees have a little over a month to evaluate him and decide whether they want to take a shot or pass, and that’s worth the price of admission. But if history is any indication of what pitchers like Niese have done, it’s likely he isn’t in pinstripes in a month’s time.