David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Jon Niese, for as well as he's pitched lately, isn't Steven Matz. Nor is he Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom.
And therein lies the problem.
As they look outside the organization for offensive help, the Mets are encountering a familiar obstacle in the early stages of this still-developing trade market. Sure, Niese is a serviceable pitcher, lefthanded, and under team control through 2016 at a guaranteed $13.7 million.
But anyone who talks to the Mets these days first asks about the Big Four and that's a non-starter in trade conversations. The young guns have been untouchable for a while now, and that's not changing as the Mets try to build a contender from the rotation up.
Two sources said there had been no serious conversations regarding Niese with either the Cubs or Dodgers, two teams that had been mentioned recently as potential destinations. That's not to say it couldn't happen. Just don't expect the Mets to move Niese in the immediate future.
For his part, Niese had a solid audition Tuesday night for the Cubs in a 1-0 loss. But he got burned in the sixth inning when a leadoff walk to Kris Bryant eventually led to him scoring on Matt Szczur's double. Niese had a chance to erase Bryant himself, but couldn't turn a double play on Chris Denorfia's sharp grounder back to the mound.
"It's tough to swallow," Niese said. "But you've got to be professional about it. Forget about it and move on to the next game."
The Mets probably need to stay in a six-man rotation until the end of July to bank some innings for a few of their starters. Eventually, trading Niese -- if he continues to pitch well -- could return a helpful bat if he's packaged with another piece.
But the Mets don't sound like they're in a rush, either. Sandy Alderson had some fun at the media's expense by referring to reporters as the "citizens of Panic City" after the weekend's three-game sweep of the Reds. It's going to be Panic Nation, however, if the GM doesn't improve this lineup somehow.
In the meantime, the Mets have been far too distracted lately with the mechanics of their rotation. And they still view Niese as a productive member of a necessary six-man for the time being. Dillon Gee is only back at Triple-A Las Vegas because no other team wanted him -- not with the remaining $2.5 million on his contract. The Mets would rather keep him down there as an insurance policy -- for emergency use only, in case of an injury.
So the Mets are in a bit of a bind here, with the innings limits on their starters and the desperate need for another bat. During their four-game winning streak, they held the Brewers and Reds to a total of four runs. But even with this rotation, that's not a sustainable model.
Niese allowed four hits and one run over seven innings Tuesday, his fifth consecutive quality start, and he's 0-3 with a 3.00 ERA during that stretch. Overall, the Mets have surrendered only five runs in the last 51 innings, for a 0.88 ERA. That's an impressive performance, no matter who you're playing.
"He deserved a better fate," Terry Collins said of Niese.
But as the Mets were reminded Tuesday, you can't win if you don't score, and something has to give here. Maybe the Mets have to make Niese more attractive to other clubs by adding another player. Or chipping in some money, which they have been loath to do.
Niese is signed through 2016, but if he's healthy and effective, there also are two sensible team options attached. One for $10 million in 2017 and another for $11 million in '18. Both come with a $500,000 buyout. As far as pitching goes, Niese is really the only marketable chip the Mets have as Bartolo Colon is acting more his age (42) with a 6.85 ERA over his last nine starts.
We're not sure what Niese can bring back in a trade that could help shake the Mets from this offensive funk. But if what he did Tuesday is not enough to win a game for them, it's got to be better for everyone if he's doing it elsewhere.