Tonight, Neil Walker will walk into PNC Park in an unfamiliar role: outsider. And Jon Niese will pitch against a team that knows him all too well.
In December, a trade between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets sent shockwaves through both organizations. The Pirates sent beloved local boy Walker to the Big Apple in return for starting pitcher Niese, who had spent his entire career with the Mets.
Now, in Monday night’s game, the two players will face their former teams for the first time since that trade. So, which team “won” the trade?
At the time, the trade made almost perfect sense for both teams. The Pirates had an abundance of talented bats, something the Mets desperately needed, especially after losing Daniel Murphy and relying on the perennially injured David Wright. The switch-hitting Walker adds depth to the lineup, and he’s done well this season. Walker, now 30 years old, is batting .279 with 25 RBIs, and his 13 homers are the second-highest among major league second basemen. Walker also has a decent glove and has helped shore up the Mets’ infield.
And for the Mets, 29-year-old Niese was essentially expendable. This season, New York has one of the best starting rotations in baseball — Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon, and Zack Wheeler is targeting a July return — so Niese wasn’t needed. (He went 61-61 with a 3.91 ERA in his eight years in New York.) The Pirates, meanwhile, desperately needed help on the mound to back up Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano.
If looking solely at WAR, the Mets have “won” the trade; Walker’s 1.2 is higher than Niese’s 0.3. But WAR isn’t the end-all, be-all, and the Pirates remain happy with the trade, especially because Josh Harrison has played well this season at second base, batting .316 with 27 RBIs and two home runs. Harrison has a higher OBP than Walker and is a bit better defensively — even though Walker brings more power and his switch-hitting ability to the plate.
Pittsburgh was also struggling to negotiate a contract extension with Walker, who becomes a free agent after this season, so his departure might have just been delayed a year if the Pirates had kept him around.
There’s no doubt many fans will feel like they were the true losers of the trade. Walker, a Pittsburgh-born kid who was raised a Pirates fan, grew up wanting to emulate Bobby Bonilla and has a very personal connection to the greatest Pirate of all time, Roberto Clemente.
Walker’s father played winter ball with Clemente and was actually supposed to be on the plane that crashed on New Year’s Eve 1972, killing Clemente and everyone else on board as he was trying to deliver relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake. Walker’s father, Tom, helped load the supplies on the plane in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but Clemente told him there wasn’t room on the flight, so he should go home and spend time with family.
“The Roberto Clemente wall in right field is a 21-foot wall [in honor of Clemente’s uniform number]” Walker said. “I usually tip my cap before every game to the symbol on the wall out there, just as a sign of respect.”
Walker said he would tip his cap to Clemente once again tonight.
Niese, who got off to a slow start, has really improved over the course of the season; he has a 2.64 ERA in his past five starts. Niese admitted that it will be weird to start against his former team.
“It’ll be exciting, no doubt,” Niese told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “A little weird. But I’m gonna treat it as any other start. I’m gonna study their hitters and go out and execute pitches. … Our senses are gonna be heightened. They’re gonna want me. I’m gonna want them. But it’s all about execution.”
Who do you think got the better of the Walker-Niese trade?