PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- More than ever, ballplayers are reluctant to share specific individual goals for a season with the public for fear of shortfall and the appearance of failure. Pitcher Jon Niese is not immune to such concerns. This spring, though, he has a quite specific objective, and he wears it on his sleeve.
Niese wants to be an All-Star.
Of course, he isn't alone in that regard. Forfeiting three days off does have a certain appeal to a number of players, but it has a special appeal to Niese this year because his primary workplace, Citi Field, is the stage for the 2013 All-Star Game. Hence the All-Star logos on the left sleeve of all Mets uniforms. They serve as billboards for the three-day, mid-July extravaganza that includes the 84th confrontation of the leagues.
Niese noticed the logos when he arrived in camp earlier this month and began to see them as pointed suggestions as to how he ought to spend his summer vacation.
"I wouldn't mind at all giving up three days," Niese said. "I'd love to make it this year."
At the age of 26 and with three full big league seasons and a handsome 2012 campaign on his resumé, Niese hardly is engaged in pie-in-the-skying. The resumé has no All-Star entries. But he is on the threshold of becoming a recognized big league force. He has reached the point of "Why not me?" in his development. A next step certainly could be a good first half, followed by being queued up on the first-base line at the Big Citi on the night of July 16.
That scenario was presented to Niese on Tuesday morning at the Mets' Spring Training headquarters, and he embraced it.
"It would be cool. Yeah," he said. "I'm not planning on it. It's not going to be anything I'm thinking about when I'm pitching, but it would be special to be there, especially this year."
It hardly is a far-fetched possibility. Last season, Niese won 13 of 22 decisions and produced a career-low 3.40 ERA in 30 starts and a career-high 190 1/3 innings. His performance was consistent with the gradual improvement he had demonstrated over previous seasons. Now he has reached the age when the "lefties develop later" theory no longer will be applied.
Niese is stronger and thinking more about pitching into the seventh and eighth innings more often. The Carlos Beltran-financed surgery on his nose afforded him more oxygen on demand last season, as he was able to pitch more quickly and still avoid fatigue.
"The difference was significant," he said. "I don't know if people realize how much better it can be. I didn't know."
He has pitched two complete games, both in 2010, in 94 big league starts, and he has witnessed how regularly pitching deep into games, as R.A. Dickey did last season, can help the bullpen. He senses the time has come for him to assume that responsibility. He used to say, "I want to give my team a chance to win." He has a revised plan now: "I want to give us a great chance to win."
Matt Harvey and, when he arrives, Zack Wheeler will need time to become 200-inning pitchers. The idea of Johan Santana throwing 200 innings this year isn't supported by the events of the last two seasons or even what has occurred in this camp so far.
Niese wants to fill that void and also reduce the number of big innings he has allowed. With 17, he stands tied for sixth among big league pitchers in terms of the most innings of four or more runs allowed over the three most recent seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He needs to stop the bleeding. It can be done.
He knows he's in a good place for a left-hander. The Mets' most reliable defensive area is the left side of the infield, with David Wright at third and Ruben Tejada at shortstop. That their throws to first are handled by Ike Davis makes for a sense of enhanced confidence on the mound. And now that Niese works more quickly, the defense is apt to be better.
Niese isn't yet referred to a "crafty left-hander." His stuff sometimes is too good to make "crafty" the appropriate modifier. But as Davis said on Tuesday, "He gets a little smarter and a little bit better each year. Once get gets past the big inning thing, he's going to be a big winner."
Wright identified Niese as a "really solid, middle-of-the-rotation guy" and expects him to become a "front-line starter if he just keeps improving as he has."
Wright, who routinely feasts on left-handed pitching, is pleased to wear the same uniform as Niese.
"I'd never admit this to him," he said, "but that cutter on the hands ... No right-handed hitter wants to see that."
"It's not just talent," Niese says."When you're a kid, you think it's just throwing hard with control. Until I got up here, I had no clue. Nothing you learn in the Minor Leagues or anywhere else really prepares you for the big leagues. It's a challenge, but I enjoy it. You have to execute, and you have to figure out what [batters] can handle that you throw and adjust, and then you have to beat them to the next adjustment -- stay a step ahead of them.
"You find out that's not always easy, but you learn. I'm getting there. When you first come up, you don't know what to expect. You can't be comfortable when that's the case. But there is a certain certainty you develop. And when your mind is clear, it's easier to pitch. I feel like I am getting there."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.