During his tenure as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Neal Huntington made his fair share of both good and bad trades. This trade, however, was one of his worst.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made his fair share of good trades and poor trades during his nearly decade long run as the team’s GM. One of his poorest trades as the team’s GM came on December 9, 2015. This was the day Huntington traded away long time Pirate second baseman Neil Walker.
Now, trading away Walker was not the problem. While he was one of the team’s most popular players due to his on field ability and being a Pittsburgh native, he was set to hit free agency following the 2016 season. Additionally, Walker was starting to develop back problems which had caused him to miss nearly 100 games over the course of the prior four seasons.
The problem is the trade did not work out for Huntington and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, at the time of the trade, it did not appear to be a disaster for the Bucs. Huntington traded Walker to the New York Mets in exchange for left-handed pitcher Jon Niese.
From 2010-2015, Niese logged 1028.2 innings in 169 games for the Mets, 164 of which were starts. During this stretch Niese owned a 3.86 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 6.8% walk rate, 18.0% strikeout rate, and he allowed home runs at a 0.90 HR/9 rate. Niese was worth an average of 2.1 fWAR during these six seasons.
Niese was a strong middle of the rotation arm during this six season stretch. The only reason the Mets were willing to move him was due to the emergence of young starters such as Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Niese he was expected to slide into the team’s rotation behind returning aces Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to still give them a formidable top three. This move was made to replace the retiring A.J. Burnett. Unfortunately, as we will get to, that is not how things would work out.
From the time he made his MLB debut on September 1, 2009, until his tenure ended with the Pittsburgh Pirates ended when the 2015 season ended, Walker was one of the best offensive second basemen in baseball. In 836 games with his hometown team Walker logged 3426 plate appearances and hit for a .272/.338/.431 slash line to go with a 114 wRC+.
However, Walker struggled defensively at second base. The switch hitter struggled with his range at the keystone position, and was never a better than average defender. Despite this, Walker was worth a total of 15.9 fWAR during his six full seasons in Pittsburgh. This does not include his -0.4 fWAR in 20 games played in September of 2009.
To circle back to Niese, he would struggle with the Pirates. After a mediocre start to the season, the wheels came off in June and he was moved to the bullpen following the All-Star Break. In 23 games with the Pirates, 18 of which were starts, Niese posted a 4.91 ERA, 5.36 FIP and his home run rate ballooned to 1.72 HR/9. It goes without saying this was not the production the Pirates were looking for from Niese when he was tabbed as the guy to replace Burnett.
As for Walker, he went on to got for a .282/.347/.476 slash line with a career high tying 23 home runs in 2016. He posted a 3.6 fWAR, which was the second best of his career, and was far better than what the Pirates got from the second base position in 2017. This made Niese’s struggles sting even further.
Niese’s tenure in Pittsburgh would be short lived. On August 1, 2016, Niese was traded back to the Mets. In exchange, the Pittsburgh Pirates received Antonio Bastardo. Like Niese, Bastardo was returning to his old team after he spent 2015 with the Bucs.
Following the 2016 season, Niese became a free agent and signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers would then release him on March 26. The same thing happened to Niese with the Texas Rangers in 2018, as he was once again released before the start of the regular season after signing a minor league contract. In 2019, he would be picked up the Seattle Mariners, but never appears in a MLB game despite pitching in 14 games at the Triple-A level.
Walker’s career took a downward turn following the 2016 season. He started 2017 back with the Mets, before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. He spent 2018 with the Yankees and 2019 with the Miami Marlins. During this three year stretch, Walked hit for just a .249/.339/.398 slash line with a 99 wRC+ and a 2.7 fWAR in 339 games played.
This past spring, he was in camp with the Philadelphia Phillies. After signing as a minor league free agent, he was looking to make the team as a utility man. This, of course, was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic leading to a stoppage in play.
After Niese was traded back to the Mets, Huntington even acknowledge that the original trade to acquire him was a mistake. He told reporters that the Mets offered two packages for Walker. A package of prospects, and the other was Walker straight up for Niese. Huntington would go on to say if he could do it over he would have taken the package of prospects, and addressed the team’s need for another starting pitcher via free agency.
Unfortunately, that is not how things would work out. As a result, the Walker trade went down as one of the worst that Huntington made. It also led to one of the most popular players in Pittsburgh Pirates history seeing their tenure with the Bucs end on a sour note.