Backup plan: Mets trade Niese for Walker after losing out on Zobrist
The New York Mets quickly bounced back after losing out on their first choice of second basemen, acquiring Neil Walker from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday for left-hander Jonathon Niese.
The Mets had made it known they were targeting Ben Zobrist as their No. 1 goal this offseason. But on Tuesday, the All-Star free agent chose the Chicago Cubs and former manager Joe Maddon.
"He’s a guy we had on our short list but didn’t know if he’d be available, and we view him as a real positive alternative to the deal we were looking to do the other day," Mets assistant general manager John Ricco said about Walker at the winter meetings. "He fits on a lot of different levels — a switch-hitter, he’s got some power."
The Mets also agreed to a deal with free-agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who would likely be an offensive upgrade over Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores.
Walker fills the hole created when postseason star Daniel Murphy became a free agent after New York lost the World Series to Kansas City.
"It’s certainly weird," Mets manager Terry Collins said of losing Murphy and Niese, two of the team’s longest-tenured players. "Even when things were tough here, they were two guys who stood out and played well for us."
Walker is eligible for arbitration. He earned $8 million last year — after losing in arbitration — and can become a free agent after next season’s World Series. A Silver Slugger winner in 2014, he batted .269 with 16 homers and 71 RBIs last season for the Pirates, his hometown team.
"It’s an exciting opportunity, obviously, with the success the Mets have had this past year," Walker said on a conference call. "Obviously, there’s mixed emotions being a born-and-bred Pittsburgher."
Walker was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular players, and the Pirates even built a marketing campaign around him when he was called up to the big leagues in 2009. But general manager Neal Huntington had indicated he wasn’t going to pay market rate for a 30-year-old infielder with a history of back issues.
Walker flatly said "no" when asked if he received a long-term offer from the team.
"I have no ill feelings toward anybody in Pittsburgh, in the organization," Walker said. "Certainly given the circumstances with how being from Pittsburgh and never knowing anything else and coming up through the system and having a lot of ups and downs, definitely something that was unfortunate, I guess you could say."
Huntington said Josh Harrison will take over at second base and Jung Ho Kang is expected to shift to third next season after he is fully recovered from a takeout slide that left him with a broken leg and torn knee ligament.
"We certainly feel earlier than later and recognize there is some inherent risk," Huntington said of Kang.
Huntington identified several options if Kang is not ready, including Alen Hanson, a touted 23-year-old prospect who spent last season with Triple-A Indianapolis. But he also said the Pirates will look outside the organization for a placeholder.
Niese, 29, became expendable with the development of young Mets aces Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler — the latter is expected to return from Tommy John surgery next summer.
"I was totally surprised," Niese said on a conference call. "I heard Zobrist signed with the Cubs and I was kind of wondering what the Mets were going to do and I really didn’t know this is the avenue they were going, but I’m certainly excited."
Niese helps fill Pittsburgh’s rotation holes created when A.J. Burnett retired and J.A. Happ signed a free-agent deal with Toronto.
The Mets have focused on adding relief help and a second baseman this offseason. The loss of Niese doesn’t appear to shift that focus onto a starter because of the team’s depth but they’re still open to signing one. Ricco said New York hasn’t ruled out re-signing Bartolo Colon because he had success in a relief role in the postseason.
Niese was 9-10 with a 4.13 ERA last season. He was a steady presence in the Mets’ rotation through the lean years but was moved to the bullpen for their run through the postseason.
He is 61-61 in eight seasons with a 3.91 ERA and has made at least 30 starts three times without ever reaching 200 innings.
Niese is owed $9 million next season in the final year of a five-year, $25.27 million contract. The Pirates will have $10 million options — or $500,000 buyouts — for 2017 and `18.