Is Jonathon Niese the new ace?

As of today, Mets ace Johan Santana has yet to throw an in-game pitch this spring. His first game was pushed back to mid-March, which the Mets attributed to “lack of arm strength.” As Mets fans know, a Santana setback is definitely not something that should be taken lightly.

Santana was placed on the disabled list last August, and finished the season there, with “lower back stiffness.” Mets GM Sandy Alderson has also stated that he suffered from general fatigue stemming from his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery he underwent in September 2010, a surgery that no pitcher has really ever come back from in full form.

In an effort to build arm strength, he’s been increasing his throwing distance incrementally. The Mets still state that they hope he will be their opening day starter, but there’s a very real chance that we will not be seeing Santana throw the first pitch of the Mets 2013 season. Which begs the question: if Santana is no longer the Mets’ ace (and with R.A. Dickey no longer in the picture), who is?

Terry Collins has stated that, should Santana not be ready for opening day, Jonathon Niese would get the nod. Would that be the right choice? After Santana, Niese is the longest tenured Mets starting pitcher, but it’s not like there is any real certainty beyond him. Dillon Gee and Shaun Marcum are both coming off of injury-riddled seasons, and Matt Harvey is still wet behind the ears. Is this a case of Niese being selected by default, or has his performance earned him the right? Below is a table summarizing Niese’s last three seasons.

Year W L ERA IP ERA+ WHIP SO/BB WAR
2010 9 10 4.20 173 93 1.463 2.39 -0.2
2011 11 11 4.40 157 83 1.411 3.14 0.1
2012 13 9 3.40 190 113 1.172 3.16 3.2

Is Niese an ace? Well, his numbers do not suggest that he is, at least so far. He’s certainly improved over the last three years and 2012 may have been a turning point for him. Better yet, at 26, he still has room (and time) for improvement. However, his ceiling is probably a very good mid-rotation starter, and that’s just fine.

The more appropriate question to ask is: “Is Niese the ace of this Mets staff?” The answer to that question is probably, at least right now and in the absence of Santana. He has had more success or better health (or both) than the other starting rotation options. In this case, he’s probably earned the right to make the opening day start if Santana cannot.

No, Niese is not an ace. There are few true aces in baseball, and Harvey or Zack Wheeler will probably lead this staff by the end of 2013. He is, however, a key piece to the next contending Mets team, and a top of the rotation trio of Harvey/Wheeler/Niese is something every Mets fan should be excited about.

3 comments for “Is Jonathon Niese the new ace?

  1. March 3, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I’m glad to see Niese being appreciated!

    Having said that – I absolutely hate the whole “ace” idea. This time last year, everyone would have called Tim Lincecum an “ace.” Then he led the league in losses and posted a 5.18 ERA. How does an “ace” do that?

    To me, promoting the idea of an “ace” is a masturbatory idea – trying to create differences that have no real or practical meaning.

    Last year’s Cy Young Award winner is no longer in the league but Clayton Kershaw finished second, so I’ll use him as an “ace” example. If Niese goes up against Kershaw, I’m not writing the game off as a loss because the Dodgers are throwing an “ace” and we aren’t. I think Niese gives the Mets an excellent chance to win whenever he steps on the mound, regardless of who the other pitcher is. That’s no disrespect towards Kershaw – it’s an acknowledgment that Niese is a damn fine pitcher and whatever label someone wants to throw on him is meaningless.

    • Name
      March 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      I also do not like the term “ace”. The reason is that there are 2 interpretations of this term. Some people use the term as “best pitcher on the squad” while others use it as a “pitcher who is one of the top pitchers in the league”.

      Going with the first definition, i would say that Niese has a good shot to be the best pitcher on the team next season.

      If you use the second defition, there are people who think that he can take the next step to become that type of pitcher (me included) and then there are people who do not.

      Also, it’s very easy to lose/gain the title of “ace”. Brian already cited one example: Tim Lincecum. But do you remember that Dickey was NOT considered an ace at the beginnning of last season? But after that ridiculous June, he was able to quickly gain that title.

    • March 3, 2013 at 4:44 pm

      I don’t disagree with you here, Brian, but it’s just something that is part of the game. I think it really comes down to the difference that Name mentioned below. “True aces” and “team aces.”

      Sure, Lincecum is an extreme example of ace one year and not the next. But there are others who are truly dominant, your Verlanders, that embody what might be deemed a “true ace.”

      That being said, I’d much rather have a rotation of great pitchers who give you a chance to win every night than an ace and 4 mediocre arms.

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