If you are to believe what you read, Fernando Nieve is currently the leading candidate for the Mets fifth starter spot. Last week, Omar Minaya said "I think Nieve is pretty much ahead of Niese right now because Nieve has pitched already this winter."
Around the same time, manager Jerry Manuel said "Nieve is the guy we're looking at right now as we speak to be that (No. 5) guy." So there you go.
So who is this guy? (I would also like to ask 'How did it come to this?!' but that is a question for another day) And more importantly, what can we expect from him?
Despite my initial impression, Nieve might actually be a valid candidate for the spot.
Where Did He Come From?
Fernando Alexis Nieve was born in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela on July 15, 1982. He will play this season listed at 27 years old, as MLB players are listed at their age as of July 1st. He is listed at 6'0" and throws right-handed.
Last year, Nieve posted a 2.95 ERA over 36.2 innings for the Mets. Any monkey with access to statistics can say that in doing so, he outperformed his peripherals and is likely to regress. No kidding - I read about that in Uh Doyyyyyy Weekly about six months ago. He is not going to post a 2.95 ERA again. But is there reason to hope?
Over those 36.2 innings he walked 19 and struck out 25, and posted an ugly WHIP of 1.50. However in AAA he was actually quite good - 3.70 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and 8.5 k/9. Overall, he only pitched around 80 innings last season so it is hard to draw any concrete conclusions.
He was cruising along quite well last year until a bumpy start against Milwaukee where he allowed 11 hits in 3.1 innings and then his next start against the Phillies where he walked six against three strikeouts. Despite that, he turned in quality starts in four-of-six starts. He then contracted whatever curse the rest of the Mets were under last year and injured himself for the season.
Working as a starter last year, Nieve threw four pitches - a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. Interestingly, each offspeed pitch was thrown between 10% and 13% of the time. He relied on his fastball (but less so than when Houston used him as a reliever) throwing it 65% of the time. It rang in there at an average of 92.2 mph.
In terms of pitch values, fangraphs has his fastball and changeup as distinctly above average. The fastball at 0.70 runs above average per 100 pitches, and the changeup an excellent 2.79 runs above. Small-sample-size warnings aside, I love seeing pitchers with a good fastball-change combination.
It is hard to draw any conclusions from his major league service time before coming to the Mets.
There Has to be More, Right?
Right. Being 26 years of age last year, Nieve has now played parts of NINE seasons in the minor leagues. You may be surprised to learn that back in the day, Fernando Nieve was a hot prospect in the Astros organization, topping out as the Astros' #3 prospect in 2006 according to Baseball America. He had just come off a year where he dominated AA as a 22 year old, striking out more than 10 batters per nine, and then holding his own in AAA.
Unfortunately for Nieve, he spent 2006 in the Astros bullpen instead of refining his craft as a starter and then had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2007. He has not been the same since his return.
There are reports floating around the interweb that Nieve was able to throw 96 and touch 98 with his fastball before his surgery, but I haven't found anything to corroborate that. Fangraphs has his 2006 velocity at 91.9 on the fastball, and that was working primarily out of the bullpen.
After his return in 2008 he posted a 5.72 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in AAA was lit up in the majors. Which brings us, finally, to last year.
Dear Injury God: Please not my head.
What Can We Expect?
As I said earlier, it's easy to say that Nieve was lucky last season and he'll be worse. His FIP was 4.90, his strand rate was extremely high at 85.3%, and his strikeout to walk ratio was bad. Even acknowledging all of that, however, there is reason for hope. It is just as likely that, although he outperformed his peripherals, his peripherals probably did not indicate his true talent.
CHONE projects Nieve to have a 4.05 ERA next season (all out of the bullpen) while Marcel projects him at a 4.35 ERA. Both see him improving his strikeout to walk ratio to almost 2.
I would never in a million years have gone into the season with Fernando Nieve in the running for a spot in our rotation, but since we are here, we might as well make an educated guess as to what he might provide us.
I am willing to cut Nieve a little slack as last year was his first year starting full time since his return from Tommy John surgery. In his 40+ innings in the minors, he was able to compile a strikeout to walk ratio of 42-16 and post a WHIP of less than 1.20. He may never reach the ceiling that some projected for him pre-surgery, but there is a decent chance that Nieve will have some value at the major league level.
It's hard to bet against a guy who averages 92.2 on his fastball and can throw a good changeup - even if that fastball is straight as an arrow. When all is said and done, last season was a huge step forward for Nieve and I would not be surprised to see him be very useful this year.
 I had originally planned to title this post something like "Fernando Nieve, stay the hell away from my rotation" but upon beginning to read and discuss with others, I realized there was a lot more to this guy than I gave him credit for.
 I am 99% sure of this, but I am 100% sure that if I am wrong, someone will tell me.
 Caption Contest! Winner gets uh... a ball signed by the cast of Fonzie Forever (this is probably not going to happen, but I could be convinced).
 For what it's worth, if Nieve were to be slotted into the rotation, healthy, I think he'd be able to post an ERA around 4.70 on the year. That's below a 100 ERA+, so below average, but it would be an ERA mark which would be significantly above average for guys who are typically considered fourth and fifth starters in the majors.
I'd sign the dotted line on that right now if I could.
 Teaser: Roger's article for tomorrow requires linkage to this fantastic music video. Don't you want to find out why?