Jon Niese spent a large part of his professional career pitching under the bright lights at Citi Field. The lefthander was a staple for the Mets, making at least 24 starts each year from 2010-15. But lately, the lights have dimmed for Niese. He made trips to spring training with the Yankees in 2017 and the Rangers in 2018, but knee and arm injuries kept him out of the game for those two seasons.
Now Niese, 32, is on the comeback trail, and he’s chosen to do it with the Long Island Ducks. The Ducks, who will begin their 20th season Friday in York, Pennsylvania, drafted the rights to Niese after watching him pitch in the Atlantic League Player Showcase in Lakeland, Florida, last month.
“He’s had some crazy injuries the last few years,” said fellow former Met and new Ducks manager Wally Backman. “What I saw him do was throw to both sides of the plate. He’s got a great cutter. His breaking ball was a big key for him. He showed a breaking ball with some depth.”
Niese is one of 17 former major-leaguers, and three former Mets, on the Ducks' roster. Former Mets outfielders Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker also are on the team.
It certainly was a long road for Niese, who played parts of nine seasons for the Mets and made 23 appearances (18 starts) for the Pirates in 2016. Private charters and plush major league clubhouses quickly morphed into his home in Toledo, Ohio, where he spent the last two summers with his family, feverishly trying to save his career.
“I was still working on stuff, still throwing, still doing all the stuff that I needed to do back home, so it wasn’t like I was sitting on the couch doing nothing,” Niese said.
But his health still wasn’t there. Two years out of the game is a long time for anyone, and fleeting thoughts of the whole thing being over occasionally would creep into Niese’s mind.
“When you’re not playing for two years and trying to get back, some days felt a lot better than others,” he said. “There were days where I said, ‘Man, I’m not going to play again’ and there were days where I was like, ‘Yeah, I got this. I’m going to play.' ''
It may have taken longer than desired, but Niese said his health is back at "100 percent" and that he’s ready to pitch in front of people again.
“Yeah, in front of fans where they sell some pop and hot dogs?” Niese said as he pondered the reality of game action again. “It’s going to be fun. I love that nervous feeling of pitching in front of fans. It’s good. I think the best comes out of me when I’m in those situations. I’m looking forward to it.”
Backman said Niese will be the Ducks' third starter in what should be a strong rotation. Niese is throwing in the high 80s and foresees improved velocity as the season moves along.
“As far as velocity, I couldn’t really care less,” Niese said. “I was never a big velocity guy. I want to hit my spots, mix in all my pitches and get early outs.”
Based on what Backman saw in the tryout, those kinds of results are possible.
“He faced four hitters and threw one ball in that tryout,” Backman said. “He struck out two guys and broke a bat. He threw really well.”
Niese hopes Central Islip is the beginning of his journey back to the big leagues. There’s certainly precedent for that to happen. In the last four years, four players have returned to the majors after playing for the Ducks. The most famous example, Rich Hill, pitched for the Ducks in 2015 before stops in Boston and Oakland and a career renaissance with the Dodgers. Tim Melville, who is back as the Ducks’ No. 2 starter this season, pitched for the Twins and Padres in 2017 after pitching well for the Ducks earlier that year.
Backman sees a similar fate for Niese.
“I think we’re going to see Jonathan Niese pitch in the big leagues again, if you ask me,” Backman said.
But first, the Duck pond.
The Ducks' 2019 roster is jam-packed with former major-leaguers, starting with manager Wally Backman.
Matt den Dekker, OF
Jon Niese, P
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF
Brett Marshall, P
Tim Adleman, P (Reds)
Enrique Burgos, P (Diamondbacks)
Ramon Cabrera, C (Reds)
Ivan De Jesus Jr., IF (Dodgers, Reds, Red Sox)
Darin Downs, P (Tigers, Astros)
Daniel Fields, OF (Tigers)
Lew Ford, OF/DH/Hitting Coach (Twins, Orioles)
Rey Fuentes, OF (Diamondbacks, Royals, Padres)
Steve Lombardozzi, IF (Nationals, Pirates, Marlins, Orioles)
Vin Mazzaro, P (Royals, Pirates, A’s, Giants, Marlins)
Tim Melville, P (Twins, Padres, Reds)
Hector Sanchez, C (Giants, Padres, White Sox)
David Washington, 1B/DH (Orioles)
Wally Backman, manager (Mets, Phillies, Twins, Pirates, Mariners)
Ed Lynch, pitching coach (Mets, Cubs)