Harper: Jon Niese’s arm, not temper, has Mets thinking trade

In final start of season, Jon Niese (49) reacts to making an out after ignoring bunt sign, but Terry Collins does not immediately yank pitcher after resulting dugout confrontation.Bill Kostroun/AP
In final start of season, Jon Niese (49) reacts to making an out after ignoring bunt sign, but Terry Collins does not immediately yank pitcher after resulting dugout confrontation.

If Jon Niese has become the pitcher the Mets are most inclined to trade this winter, as Sandy Alderson looks to acquire a shortstop without surrendering any of his young, power arms, it’s not necessarily because he got into a dugout confrontation with Terry Collins during his final start of the season.

But it could be an intriguing footnote of sorts.

To be fair, it’s important to note that Niese has often reacted emotionally to be taken out of games by Collins, showing his displeasure in a manner the manager never considered disrespectful.

“I have zero problem with Jon Niese’s competitiveness,” Collins said by phone on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, in his final start of the season, according to multiple sources, Niese may have crossed the line.

In the third inning of that Friday night home game against the Astros, after Ruben Tejada had drawn a walk, Collins signaled for his pitcher to bunt. With the corner infielders charging, however, Niese decided to swing away and flied out, thereby angering his manager.

According to players and coaches who were there, Collins jumped Niese as he came back to the dugout:

“What the (bleep) was that?” the manager demanded.

“They were coming down my throat so I tried to slash,” Niese said.

“Next time get the bunt down like we told you,” Collins continued.

“F— you,” Niese said. “Take me out if you don’t like it.”

The exchange was obviously heated, although on Thursday Collins insisted Niese didn’t say it in exactly those words.

“If a player ever said FU to me there would be a fight,” he said. “That’s not what he said. He got ticked off and said ‘let me play the game the way I (bleeping) want to.'”

At that point, Collins said he sent Niese on his way by barking at him, “Just play the game right.”

Still, you can make the case that he could have pulled Niese to send a message, especially as the Mets were playing out the string, but Collins said he didn’t feel it was necessary.

“I know Jon like the back of my hand,” he said. “He’s so wired during a game, when you say something to him in a situation like that he’s snaps.

“The players know it so I don’t worry that they might get the wrong idea. It’s not like they see me backing away from a situation like that.”

One player who saw the incident agreed, saying it wasn’t as shocking as it may sound to an outsider, largely because it was Niese.

“That was just him being a knucklehead,” the player said.

Nevertheless, it raises a couple of questions:

Is Niese’s “knucklehead” status a consideration in the Mets’ willingness to trade him?

And, the Collins-Niese dynamic notwithstanding, is the incident an indication that the manager does need to assert his authority in stronger fashion at times?

Regarding Niese, the Mets’ brass is aware that he can be rough around the edges and not the easiest guy to manage. But as one Mets’ person said, “That comes with the territory. When you’re talking about heat-of-the-battle stuff, it’s the manager’s job to handle it.”

In other words, that likely has nothing to do with the Mets’ willingness to trade Niese. More significant are the arm problem he’s had the last couple of years, which seemed to affect his fastball velocity last season and perhaps explained why his ERA was a run higher in the second half of the season.

And then there is the development of the younger pitching. In particular, Mets’ people love Long Islander Steven Matz and see him in the big leagues sometime in 2015, which would give them another lefty if they do trade Niese.

The problem for the Mets is that other teams seem to think Niese’s value has slipped. And while he would have value in a trade package that included a Zack Wheeler or a Noah Syndergaard, he can’t be the headliner in a deal for Starlin Castro or Alexei Ramirez.

As for Collins, his greatest strength as a manager is probably the work he has done in cultivating relationships with his players, and any good manager or coach comes to know which players need a pat on the back and which need a kick in the butt.

Furthermore, managers walk a tightrope more than ever these days in terms of creating a winning atmosphere, but I did think there were times last season that Collins could have been tougher with his team regarding mental mistakes, excuses for losing, etc.

I understand his reasoning for the way he handles a player as emotional as Niese. He’s trying to get the most out of him.

But sometimes opportunities present themselves. Would Collins have gained anything by yanking Niese for acting like a “knucklehead” in that final start of the season?

Put it this way: after four losing seasons, and already armed with a guarantee he was coming back in 2015, he had nothing to lose. 

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