Nashville — Earlier on Wednesday, I rounded up the various reports of progress (or lack of same) with regards to the top free agents and trade targets on the market. Meanwhile, a handful of moves of more modest size actually did get done. Here's a quick roundup of a few of them.
Mets trade LHP Jonathon Niese to Pirates for 2B Neil Walker, sign free agent SS Asdrubal Cabrera
It's not quite a parallel to the Cubs' Zobrist/Castro two-step from Tuesday, but the defending NL champions have reshaped their middle infield via both a signing and a trade. The 30-year-old Walker, who's been the Pirates' regular second baseman for the past six seasons, helping them to three straight wild-card berths, will replace departing free agent Daniel Murphy at the keystone. Walker is coming off a solid season on both sides of the ball, albeit one that hints that he may have begun his decline phase. At the plate, the switch-hitter batted .269/.328/.427 with 16 homers and a 107 OPS+, the lowest mark of his career (by one point) and a 19-point drop from 2014. In the field, he was two runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved (but seven below according to Ultimate Zone Rating) and finished with 2.4 WAR, his lowest mark since 2010, and 1.1 WAR lower than in 2014.
Even at that level, Walker is an above-average player who should be a substantial improvement upon the combined -10 DRS the Mets received from Murphy and the six other players who manned second base. He's in his final year of arbitration, one year away from free agency. MLB Trade Rumors projects him for a $10.7 million salary via arbitration, and even if he can't get back to his 2014 level, he should easily be worth that money.
Whether Cabrera will be worth the $18.5 million he'll receive over two years (plus an option) is the bigger question. Like Walker, he's a 30-year-old switch-hitter, but he's been worth a total of just 3.7 WAR over the past three seasons as his bat and glove have declined following back-to-back All-Star appearances for the Indians in 2011–12. Cabrera spent 2015 with the Rays, hitting .265/.315/.430 with 15 homers and a 105 OPS (a 12-point gain over 2014), but he was seven runs below average at shortstop according to DRS, and six below via UZR. That's actually a step up from his combined -33 DRS/-19 UZR over the previous two seasons for the Indians and, briefly, the Nationals, who used him at second base.
Sadly, even that -7 DRS would be a significant improvement over the Wilmer Flores/Ruben Tejada combination, which was a combined -25 DRS at shortstop (each held their own at second base). It would appear possible that at least one of those two players could be squeezed out of the picture by this pair of moves, with Flores probably the more valuable trade piece given that he's two years younger and has more power. The Mets could use whichever player they don't trade as a backup, and give going-on-22-year-old Dilson Herrera (incidentally, a former Pirates prospect acquired in the 2014 Marlon Byrd trade) another year to develop at Triple A, then take over once Walker reaches free agency. They could also consider trading Herrera; they have a few months still to figure out what to do here.
If the Mets' middle infield was notorious for mincing ground balls, Niese did not mince words on his way out the door. Via the Pittsburgh Tribune's Rob Biertempfel, he said, “I’m sure what I’ll appreciate more than anything is the way [the Pirates] play defense. I’m looking forward to that.” Ouch!
In Niese, the Pirates are getting a 29-year-old lefty who made 29 starts and four relief appearances totaling 176 1/3 innings, yielding a 4.13 ERA, 4.41 FIP while striking out a career-low 5.8 per nine. It was an underwhelming performance, but given Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage's track record in rejuvenating the careers of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ and others, an improvement isn't out of the question.
Niese did generate a career-high 54.5% groundball rate in 2015, and with an infield that for the moment figures to include Josh Harrison at second base in place of Walker, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, Jung-Ho Kang at third base once he returns from a leg fracture, and Anybody But Pedro Alvarez (who was nontendered after failing to make a smooth conversion from third base) at first base, the Pirates' defense—which also includes a trio of outstanding outfielders in Starlin Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco—should help his cause. He'll make $9 million in the final guaranteed year of a five-year, $25.5 million deal, with club options of $10 million and $11 million in each of the following two seasons, each with a $500,000 buyout.
Niese's departure leaves the Mets with Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and eventually Zack Wheeler, who's returning from Tommy John surgery, for their rotation, and it appears that it may set up the return of 43-year-old free agent/cult icon Bartolo Colon if he's willing to accept a swingman role. Meanwhile, Niese slots into a rotation that also includes Gerrit Cole, Lirano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, with top prospect Tyler Glasnow likely to contribute at some point. In the long run, the trade of Walker opens up second base for prospect Alen Hanson, a 23-year-old switch-hitter who figures to get more seasoning at Triple A, to work on both offense and defense, before he joins the big club.
A's trade 2B/3B Brett Lawrie to White Sox for LHP Zack Erwin and RHP J.B. Wendelken
Well, that didn't work. The November 2014 blockbuster that sent Josh Donaldson to Toronto in exchange for Lawrie and three prospects blew up in Oakland's face, as Donaldson merely won AL MVP honors while helping the Blue Jays to their first postseason appearance since 1993 while the A's missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011, with Lawrie (who turns 26 on Jan. 18) scuffling. Of course, they did get more than the high-intensity third baseman in that trade, as pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, and shortstop Franklin Barreto may yet help to balance it out at the big league level; of that trio, only Graveman saw substantial time in the majors, while Barreto had a strong season as a 19-year-old in High A. You can add the two prospects to the trade tree as well.
As for Lawrie, though healthy enough to play a career high 149 games, he hit just .260/.299/.407 with 16 home runs and a 92 OPS+. His defense, once considered a major plus, slipped to -6 DRS (-3 in 109 games at third, and the same in 42 games at second) limited him to 1.9 WAR, a whisker above the 1.7 he produced for the Blue Jays in just 70 games in 2014. The good news is that he's still young, and the White Sox have two years of club control over him, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting him to make just $3.9 million in 2016. What's more, the bar for him to improve the Sox third base situation is low, considering that Tyler Saladino and the three other players they used at the hot corner combined to hit .226/.277/.345 with 13 homers, though they were four runs above average afield per DRS.
Of the two pitching prospects, the more advanced is Wendelken, who turns 23 on March 24. A 13th-round 2012 draft pick by the Red Sox out of Middle Georgia College, he came to the White Sox in the ’13 Jake Peavy deal. He split the 2015 season between Double A Birmingham, where he thrived (2.72 ERA with 11.7 strikeouts per nine in 43 innings of relief work) and Triple A Charlotte, where he got pounded (6.19 ERA in 16 innings with just 7.3 strikeouts per nine). Listed at 6'0" and 235 pounds, Wendelken throws a 91–93 mph fastball with good command, but his big pitch is his changeup, which A's general manager David Forst described as “nasty;” his slider is nothing special. It's the profile of a middle reliever, one who could help the A's at some point in 2016.
The bigger piece in the return is Erwin, though he's at least a couple of years away. A fourth-round draft pick out of Clemson this past June—meaning that he's yet another player traded under the so-called “Trea Turner Rule,” which allows such picks to be dealt less than a year after they were chosen—Erwin posted a 1.34 ERA with 6.7 strikeouts per nine in 40 1/3 innings split between the Rookie-level Pioneer League and the A-Level South Atlantic League. He was on a short leash; none of his seven starts or eight relief appearances were more than 3 2/3 innings, but only one was shorter than two innings. At the time he was drafted, ESPN's Keith Law noted that he had a 93-mph fastball, an inconsistent arm slot, and room to fill out (he's listed at 6'5", 195 pounds), while Baseball America noted that he has a chance at three above-average offerings.