Toronto Blue Jays get: SP R.A. Dickey, C Josh Thole
New York Mets get: C Travis d'Arnaud, SP Noah Snydergaard, C John Buck
Timing is everything, and in R.A. Dickey's case, timing apparently wasn't worth two years and $25 million dollars.
The 38 year-old knuckerballing 2012 NL Cy Young winner was shipped to the Toronto Blue Jays for two of the team's best prospects, including one of the most elite in all of baseball's minor leagues.
Dickey's story is one of the best in baseball, in which he missed two of the last twelve seasons not from injury, but because he wasn't good enough to make a team. He reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher in the middle of the last decade after several seasons in Texas. As a Ranger, Dickey established himself as one of the game's worst every day pitchers, throwing up a 5.72 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings, amongst many other ghastly stats. In short, he was absolutely terrible and was actually fortunate to stick around int he Majors as long as he did.
However, after two seasons in Seattle and Minnesota honing his craft (to the tune of a 4.99 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings--about as on par with his Texas numbers as he could get), Dickey was a scrap heap signing with the Mets in 2010. He immediately became a bright spot amongst an otherwise forgetful NYM season, throwing together a stunning 2.84 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 26 starts and 174 innings. Since then, Dickey has been simply amazing, doling out two seasons of 32 and 33 starts, with 2012 being his masterpiece: 2.73 ERA, 20 wins, 1.05 WHIP, 230 strikeouts (!) to only 54 walks and a NL Cy Young Award. The blessing and the curse of the knuckleball is that because it's thrown without rotation, it's hard to predict where it's going to land. Luckily for Dickey, he's been able to understand the art of the ball's static nature and put it into places where he's able to accurately deceive the hitter.
The problem is that he did all of this at age 35. Going into 2013, Dickey will be 38 years old for a Mets team that's, from all projections, is a couple years away from contending. The future of the franchise is built squarely around two young prospects, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler. Harvey already made it to the Majors this year, posting a devastating 2.73 ERA, 70 strikeouts, 29 walks in just 59 innings. Wheeler, who came from the San Francisco Giants last year in the Carlos Beltran deal, is the organization's second best prospect (or perhaps best, depending on who you talk to), and could be up in the Majors late this year or early in 2014. With Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese, the Mets 2014-2016 rotation looks just about set, just as long as these youngsters can stop themselves from becoming the next Rick Ankiels. Dickey, at his age, was simply too far out of the Mets' forecast for playoff contention to pay him a contract that essentially would have placed him with the Ryan Dempsters of the world. Ryan Dempster, last I checked, finished the season with an ERA over 5.00. R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young Award.
There's a couple flaws in the Mets' logic here, most of which sits with nature of knuckleballers. For the most part, throwing the pitch takes stress of the pitcher's elbow and shoulder, allowing guys like Tim Wakefield to pitch effectively into his mid-forties and for a guy like Dickey with a missing ligment in his throwing elbow to win the Cy Young at age 37. In the words of MAMBINO contributor Pucklius, R.A. could be pitching at an elite level for anywhere from two to five to seven more years. With a knuckleballer, it's not unfathomable for a hurler to excel deep into his forties--after all, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro made an All-Star team at age 44 and played until he was 48. He's more of an aberration than the general rule, but it's not out of the realm of possiblity. More often than not knuckleballers retire not because their arms wear out--it's because they simply can't field the position anymore with back and leg injuries.
Dickey could very well be pitching at a high level by the time that Harvey and Wheeler become a Cain and Lincecum one-two punch. Moreover, the money that Dickey would be getting paid wasn't an exorbitant expense. In the end, he got a two year, $25 million dollar extension on top of his $5 million dollar salary next season. The Blue Jays are now paying Dickey just over $30 million for what could be elite-level production.
However, from the Mets' side, it's easy to see why the potential of a still dominant Dickey/Wheeler/Harvey front line would be outweighed by the package they got in return for the ace's services. Travis d'Arnaud has metrics that slot him as an All-Star catcher down the line, with a .914 and .975 OPS the past two years in double-A and triple-A ball. Even though he was hitting in the offensively friendly Pacific Coast League, d'Arnaud simply mashed in 171 minor league contests, with 54 doubles and 37 jakks. He's going to be expected to provide monster production from the middle of a future Mets order that looks far less impressive than their pitching staff. New York has had a difficult time developing hitters outside of Ike Davis and David Wright, so the addition of a fantastic hitting prospect like d'Arnaud means even more to the Mets than it would other organizations. The other farm hand, Noah Snydergaard, was the Blue Jays' third best prospect, has shown monster strikeout potential (10 k's per nine innings), as well as an incredible amount of control for such a young pitcher.
On the other side of the trade, there's good reason to see Dickey's 2012 as a huge candidate for an outlier. Looking even at his 2011 numbers, the knuckleballer had never even sniffed 8 strikeouts per nine innings, much less the 8.9 he felled this past year. There's some doubt that he'll be able to replicate that type of domination, even though everything about Dickey's scholarly approach to pitching and meticulous thought put to his starts could keep his production high. He's also moving back to the American League (East division, to boot) with five teams that could compete for playoff spots. Most importantly, he's 38 years old, and even though his elbow and shoulder aren't at high risk for injury, the rest of his body could be ripe for falling apart any day now.
For the Jays, any and all points I laid out for the Mets apply to them as well. On one hand, they could have dealt two premium prospects for a 38 year old pitcher who just had a career year, far exceeding anything else he could accomplish in the Majors. On the other, you could say they dealt two extremely good but extremely young players for an elite-level pitcher that would add stability to it's already injury-prone top two hurlers, Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow. The Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs in almost twenty years (!), but after a month of crazy trades, GM Alex Anthopolous seems to have his club poised for their first legitimate run at an AL East title in decades.
The Mets either traded high on a 38 year-old who just threw a career-best season, or traded away one of the game's best pitchers who might just stay effective into their perceived timeline. Either way, it's a blow to a Mets fanbase that have had so little to cheer about the previous five seasons. As Pucklius told me earlier this weekend, Dickey is the type of pitcher you love to cheer for, and one of the reasons why sports is so great. I understand what the Mets were thinking here, but it's a shame that Dickey had to be a casualty of bad timing. It could also be a shame that the Mets could be dead wrong.