The Yankees made a move yesterday night to finally add some pitching to the roster. Instead of trading for someone who could drastically turn around the team’s starting rotation, they decided to sign Jon Niese to a minor league contract. The deal comes with an invite to spring training, so he will compete for a job against the other contenders, but what does this really mean for everyone involved?
First of all, we won’t be able to tell who exactly this move will affect until we see him in camp. The Yankees reportedly see him as a starting pitcher or a reliever, and they will likely choose his role depending on how he looks and what other people do over the next month. He has only thrown 18.1 innings of relief in his major league career, so it’s hard to imagine he will be pigeonholed in that role before he has to be.
However, that being said, he’s probably better off if he was. Niese is a league-average 4.07 ERA lifetime pitcher who hasn’t thrown a sub-4.00 since 2014. He is probably the most basic and safe signing they could have made at this point in the offseason. You know that he is going to throw strikes, walk very few, and keep the ball on the ground.
Unfortunately, he had a miserable 2016 season, where he had a 5.50 ERA and was worth -0.7 WAR in 121 innings. He has also seen a troubling uptick in home runs allowed, which is disheartening to see in a place like Citi Field and seems problematic for a job at Yankee Stadium. Worse yet, he missed time with a knee injury that required surgery over the offseason. He has also dealt with elbow and shoulder problems in the last few years to at least make you worry about his chances of staying on the mound.
Despite all that, it’s entirely possible he represents one of their best options on the mound. Outside of Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, there is no one else expected to compete for a rotation spot that you know is at least capable of hitting the 100-inning mark. The Yankees didn’t want to go out and make a clear upgrade, so they are left with an incremental one that could still fall flat.
The fact that they see Niese as a possible upgrade over their young pitchers should really tell you all you need to know about what they think of these players. As promising as some of them have looked, Luis Cessa and Chad Green showed a troubling tendency to surrender home runs. Luis Severino has reportedly made adjustments over the offseason to fix what went wrong last year, but there is no sure thing. The Yankees always needed a better option here, but the fact that they see it as being Jon Niese should make you cringe.
On the other hand, it has been said that the Yankees see Niese as a potential left-handed setup man to compliment Tommy Layne in the bullpen. This would mean they are looking to roll out of spring training with their three backend relievers, a longman, and two lefty specialists. That leaves only be one spot left for the likes of Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder, two people I believe should be on the team. Despite Niese’s left-handedness, I don’t see him being a necessary bullpen piece when they already have Layne to do the exact same thing.
We will have to see how everyone does over the next few weeks. Oftentimes performance ends up being the easiest deciding factor in these matters. Even if Niese somehow does make the rotation, the team will have plenty of options to replace him with down the road. It’s good to see them try to bulk up their pitching depth, I just wish they did it with someone a little better.