Mets botched it with Nieve

Posted on July 23, 2010 by

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The Mets designated Fernando Nieve for assignment. It was the right move to make, as Nieve was not getting the job done as a reliever and the Mets needed someone who actually had a chance to provide some relief when he entered the game. But Nieve is a nice case study in what is wrong with the Jerry Manuel-Omar Minaya Mets.

The team made a nice pickup when it grabbed Nieve off waivers prior to the start of the 2009 season. He always had a live arm but injury problems had partially derailed his career. It was a perfect low-risk, high-reward move.

And Nieve had a very successful season for the Mets in 2009, first in Triple-A and then in the majors. However, anyone who looked at Nieve’s statistical profile in his eight games with the Mets in 2009 saw a pitcher who was not ready to contribute in the majors. While he had an impressive 2.95 ERA for the Mets last year, his FIP was 4.90 and his xFIP was 5.41 – indications that his success was more the product of good fortune than it was actual good pitching.

Nieve’s problem in the majors was a 4.66 BB/9. There are very few pitchers who can survive, much less thrive, in the majors who allow that many free passes. Among 107 pitchers with enough innings to qualify, the highest BB/9 ratio this year is 4.51 and only four pitchers had a ratio of 4.20 or greater. You just cannot put that many runners on base and expect good things to happen in the majors in the long haul.

The easy solution was to have Nieve open the year in the minors, working on his control. He had done a decent job in Buffalo in 2009, with a 3.70 BB/9, but it was not so good that he could not have benefitted from additional experience in Triple-A.

But here is where the shortcomings of the Manuel-Minaya team came to the forefront. Nieve appeared in 17 games for the Mets organization in 2009 and 15 of those were as a starting pitcher, including seven of eight (the last seven) games in the majors. So, the Mets brain trust decided it was in their best interest for Nieve to make the team out of Spring Training as a reliever.

And then Manuel decided it was a good idea to pitch him as often as possible. Nieve appeared in 26 of the team’s first 44 games, a pace that would have resulted in 96 games over a full season. He made another relief appearance four days later. Then he was thrust into a spot start three days after that. After he was predictably lousy in the start, Manuel lost confidence in him and he appeared in just 12 games in the following eight weeks.

One of the hallmarks of a good manager is putting his players in a position to succeed. Manuel put Nieve in a role in which he barely performed a season ago, pitched him at a rate that would have made him the team’s all-time leader in games for a pitcher, then with little warning and less time to prepare asked him to move back to a starter and finally let him rot for two months before the DFA. Manuel did not put Nieve in a position to succeed. Instead, Manuel acted as if he had a reason to see Nieve fail, as he consistently put him in non-favorable positions.

Because Jenrry Mejia is one of the club’s top prospects, much of the venom received by Jerry Manuel over his handling of the pitching staff has been directed towards how he handled the 20-year old. But Manuel’s usage of Nieve deserves just as much scorn. Nieve may not have as high of a ceiling as Mejia, but he was also a pitcher who could conceivably contribute to the Mets as a starter and now that chance appears remote.

Nieve should have opened the year in Triple-A, as a starter. He could have worked on his command and potentially have been in line for starting roles that opened up when John Maine and Oliver Perez went on the DL. Now the club risks losing him altogether, as Nieve now has to pass through waivers before he can go to the minors. Having him open the year on the major league roster helped cause the loss of Nelson Figueroa. The Mets may end up losing two major league caliber pitchers because of the way they handled Nieve this season. This is not the way a good team operates.

It is impossible for us to say who deserves more of the blame here. Who fought more for the inclusion of Nieve on the roster as a reliever? My gut tells me that was Manuel’s call. It certainly was Manuel who decided how to use him once he was on the roster. But Minaya deserves blame here, too. He should have been able to forecast how this would play out and refused to let Nieve open the year as a reliever in the majors.

Maybe Nieve never would have been able to get his walk rate under control. After all, he had a 4.71 BB/9 in 42 IP this year. But perhaps if the Mets had nurtured him, rather than throwing him to the wolves by forcing him into impossible situations, Nieve would have made improvements and been a real contributor in the years ahead. Now we are left to wonder what might have been with a pitcher who had a mid-90s fastball and three other pitches.

It is another reminder why Manuel should not be the manager of the team.

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Posted in: Perspectives