Phil Niekro is in the best shape of his life

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Niekro AP.jpgReally, he’s rarin’ to go:

Phil Niekro claims he’s in great shape, and if the wind is
favorable enough, the 70-year-old right-hander said he can still crank
his fastball up in the 80-mph range . . . “I’m in excellent shape,” Niekro said on a conference call with
reporters on Monday. “In fact, I’m on the boat right now fishing, and I
just got done throwing this morning. My fastball is up to about 81
[mph] now with the wind behind me, so yeah, I’m looking forward to [the
Classic].

What he means is the Hall of Fame Classic, the exhibition game played in Cooperstown in advance of the inductions in late June. Neikro was announced today as one of seven Hall of Famers who
will play this year.  Bob Feller will be there too, as he was last year. As will newcomers Rollie
Fingers Goose Gossage, Gary
Carter, Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt.

The real question: If Niekro can really throw 80, and if he still has even a modicum of control over the knuckler — to the extent anyone ever really has control over a knuckler — how much better is he than, say, the Royals or the Mets fifth starters this year?

Mets sign Jose Lobaton to minor league deal

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The Mets signed catcher Jose Lobaton to a minor league contract, the team announced Friday. The deal includes an invitation to spring training, where it’s assumed Lobaton will be in the mix for a backup role behind Travis d'Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki.

Lobaton, 33, is coming off of a four-year stint with the Nationals. He put up his worst career numbers in 2017, producing -0.6 fWAR after slashing just .170/.248/.277 with four home runs in 158 plate appearances. While he’ll give the Mets little to work with at the plate, his near-decade of experience behind the dish should make him a decent emergency option, if nothing else.

In the meantime, the Mets are expected to roll with a d’Arnaud/Plawecki platoon to start the season. Both catchers saw slight upticks in value over the 2017 season: d’Arnaud turned in 0.8 fWAR after hitting a career-high 16 home runs, while Plawecki collected 0.6 fWAR and three homers after raising his batting line over the Mendoza Line for the first time since 2015.