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Neil Walker trade: Why Jon Niese isn't a good enough return for the Pirates

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Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Reports in the past half hour have indicated that the Pirates are trading Neil Walker to the Mets for lefty starting pitcher Jon Niese.

When trades break, it sometimes turns out to be awhile before all the relevant information comes out. Let's hope that's the case here, because Niese isn't enough of a return for Walker. (UPDATE: The trade is now official, and it is in fact Walker for Niese.) The form of the trade -- starting pitcher for soon-to-be-free-agent second baseman -- makes sense. The actual trade does not.

Walker and Niese's salaries are similar -- Walker will make around $10.7 million through the arbitration process next year, while Niese will make $9 million, plus a $500,000 buyout on his 2017 option. (He has options for $10 million in 2017 and $11 million the following season, for whatever that's worth.) So if this is a one-for-one deal with no money changing hands, that means the Pirates didn't really trade Walker because of money. That's good. But it also means this is a straight-up baseball trade. That's bad.

Walker and Niese's fWAR totals the past three seasons tell the story.

Player 2013 2014 2015
Walker 2.6 3.7 2.4
Niese 2.0 2.3 0.9

Walker has been the better player in the past three years, and it hasn't been close in the past two. Walker has been a solid starting position player; Niese has been the kind of guy you're okay with in the back of your rotation. Now let's do some Player A / Player B.

Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9 GB%
Player A, 2013 3.71 3.58 3.84 6.6 3.0 51.5
Player A, 2014 3.40 3.67 3.63 6.6 2.2 47.7
Player A, 2015 4.13 4.41 4.11 5.8 2.0 54.5
Player B, 2013 3.52 4.03 4.19 6.7 4.5 49.0
Player B, 2014 3.91 4.37 3.90 6.1 2.7 50.5
Player B, 2015 4.49 3.95 3.94 6.9 3.2 51.0

Player A is better, but they're very similar, and if you believe the advanced metrics, they've gotten much closer in quality in the past three seasons, and you could make the case that Player B has passed Player A.

You know how this game works. Player A is Niese. Player B is Jeff Locke. It certainly looks like the Pirates just traded a good second baseman for a player very similar to Jeff Locke, only more expensive.

Now, these "Player A / Player B" games aren't fair, because they intentionally ignore the broader context. And it would be stupid, at this point, not to give the Pirates at least a little bit of credit at this point when they make a pitching acquisition that looks suspect. They did need starting pitching. And Jeff Locke has been through Ray Searage's pitcher-development machine. Jon Niese hasn't. Besides, he isn't old, so maybe 2015 will prove to be merely a blip for him rather than the start of a decline. Maybe the Bucs can have Niese make some adjustments, and he'll pitch well in Pittsburgh. It's happened many times before with the pitchers the Pirates acquire. And if it happens again, they'll have a couple of reasonably priced options to keep him. They wouldn't have had that with Walker.

What made the Pirates' previous string of pitching acquisitions so great, though, was that they paid pennies on the dollar for them. That was the entire point of those acquisitions. That doesn't seem to have been the case here. The Pirates are trading a good player and got someone who appears to have significantly less value. If you can sign Francisco Liriano for a few million bucks, or trade Adrian Sampson for J.A. Happ, why would you do that?

The deal also creates a hole for the Pirates at second base. It's possible Alen Hanson or Max Moroff could fit there in the long term, but Hanson hasn't hasn't exactly lit the world on fire at Triple-A, and Moroff isn't ready. Josh Harrison could play there if Jung-Ho Kang will be healthy, but it's not yet clear if Kang will be (although the Pirates know more about that than we do).

Walker for Niese doesn't make much sense on its face. Maybe it will turn out great. In fact, I wouldn't bet against that at all.This wouldn't be the first time the Pirates made an uninspiring pitching addition that turned out brilliantly. But they've also proven there are easier ways to do that. Neil Walker, in addition to being fan favorite with local roots, is just a good player. He'll be missed.