Niese or Nieve? Mets not sure for No. 5 spot
At the beginning of spring training, New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel sounded as if he was ready to pencil Jonathon Niese into the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
Now, midway through the Grapefruit League schedule, his tone is not so enthusiastic.
Neither Niese nor right-hander Fernando Nieve - the two leading candidates - has set himself apart from a pack that also includes left-hander Hisanori Takahashi and righty Nelson Figueroa, and Manuel expects the competition to last until just before the team breaks camp.
``I'd like to see them continue to compete for that,'' Manuel said. ``I'd really like us to go down to the wire.''
Niese has a 7.04 ERA in 7 2-3 innings of work, while Nieve has a 6.00 ERA over 9 innings. The two have taken turns starting and relieving one another since pitching in separate split-squad games in their spring debut, but as the starters begin to stretch out deeper into games, Manuel is going to have to be creative to get Niese and Nieve their innings.
Both will be able to start Sunday when the team plays split-squad games at home against the University of Michigan and on the road against the Houston Astros, but Manuel also would like to give Takahashi a start as spring training winds down.
The manager said Takahashi isn't just a fallback option if Nieve and Niese don't pan out, but he does have a smaller window of time to show he can be the fifth starter.
``When he starts, it depends on the time in spring training and the lineup he matches up against and how well that particular team is swinging,'' Manuel said. ``We have to try to get him as close to what we might see in the regular season.''
Based on results so far, Takahashi, a left-hander who has shown command with all of his pitches, is the top candidate for the job.
``What we have seen so far is he really has the ability to pitch and pitch with all his pitches,'' Manuel said. ``He probably is our sharpest pitcher right now, as far as everything hitting where he wants it to hit.''
Niese hasn't been overly disappointed in his results so far because the biggest thing for him is showing he is healthy.
Manuel liked what he saw from the 23-year-old in his second of two call-ups to the majors last season before a torn hamstring ended his season Aug. 5. The southpaw was 1-1 with a 4.21 ERA in five starts but showed his best stuff in a July 25 win over Houston in which he allowed just four hits and one run in seven innings. He had made two starts in May when Oliver Perez went on the disabled list with knee problems.
``I guess they say spring training numbers don't mean anything,'' Niese said. ``I want to get outs, put up all zeros, but that doesn't happen all the time. As long as I'm healthy, I'm happy.''
All things being equal, the organization seems to prefer the idea of Niese making the rotation as a promising young prospect. Nieve could pitch in any role in the bullpen and Takahashi could serve as a long reliever.
If Niese doesn't earn the No. 5 spot he will start in Triple-A Buffalo, and in that case both Nieve and Takahashi, who signed a minor-league deal, likely would make the Opening Day roster. Nieve - the only one of the trio who is out of options - would have to clear waivers before being sent to the minors.
``I am ready for whatever they want me to do,'' said Nieve, who went 3-3 with a 2.95 ERA in eight games, seven starts, last year. ``If they want me for the bullpen or the rotation, I am ready. I hope to be on the team is the only part that I want. If they keep me in the rotation I am excited about that because I want to be a starter, but in the bullpen I will keep doing my job like before.''
Manuel said he will decide who the starter is before figuring out the bullpen, but the bullpen's needs may play a factor.
``I'd say it's very close,'' Manuel said. ``Just like I mentioned early in spring, I think a lot might depend on how our bullpen shapes up as well. If we feel Fernando Nieve can fit there and make us better there, and if it's a flip of the coin, we are going to try to take the best 11 or 12 pitchers we have.''