Last week, the New York Mets made two announcements of modest newsworthiness and curiously calculated timing.
David Wright has been named the team captain, and Jonathan Niese was tabbed as the Opening Day starter.
The announcement on Wright was well-deserved, one that few level-headed observers could reasonably dispute, but also served to take the spotlight off—among other things—the fact that Wright—unlike Niese—is not yet a sure bet to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. Wright hasn’t played in nearly two weeks now, his last action coming in a Team USA uniform in the World Baseball Classic, rather than a Mets uniform.
Wright’s ribcage/side injury doesn’t figure to be a longterm problem, and he might even be back by the April 1 opener against the Padres, but given the Mets cloudy history when it comes to dispensing accurate or reliable information about team injuries, well, who knows?
Well, we know this. Niese was awarded the Opening Day pitching assignment partly on merit—he is coming off the best season of his career, and the first in which he made it to the finish line without either being shut down early or slumping badly down the stretch—but also partly because the nominal Opening Day starter, Johan Santana, is nowhere near ready. In fact, some folks around the Mets have already suggested that Santana won’t pitch an inning for the team this year.
Niese was 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA in 190 1/3 innings last year for a team that finished 14 games under .500. In his last 10 starts, Niese was 6-4 with a 2.57 ERA, which was a particularly heartening development for a lefty who had never had an ERA below 4.43 in August or September before last season, and who, in fact, and barely even pitched in September before 2012.
As the Mets continue to bring eventual ace Matt Harvey along, plug other holes in the rotation with journeymen like Shaun Marcum, Dillon Gee and Jeremy Hefner, and continue to come up with creatively vague timetables on Santana’s supposed return, Niese will hopefully be able to shoulder the load to his elevation to the role of nominal ace better than Mike Pelfrey was able to when he was handed the Opening Day responsibilities two years ago.
Meanwhile, everyone will wait and wonder when the date of Zack Wheeler’s call-up from Triple-A Las Vegas will be.