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.
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.