Dickey Trade Cools Off the Rest of the Hot Stove

R.A. DickeyThere’ve been bigger deals this offseason than the pending seven-player trade between the Jays and Mets, in both talent and dollars.

Zack Greinke signing with the Dodgers for $147 million and the Angels locking up Josh Hamilton for $125 million defined this winter’s free-agent market, and might end up doing the same for two divisional races. The Royals-Rays trade saw more talent change hands. The Jays themselves made a much bigger trade just a few weeks ago.

Maybe it’s our short memories, and how overwhelming the news cycle can seem in the middle of it. But at this moment, the trade that would send R.A. Dickey and two other players to Toronto for a four-player package highlighted by two terrific prospects has shoved all other Hot Stove news to the backburner. Here’s why we’re freaking the hell out about it.

R.A. Dickey is really good. He’s also unique.
Rany Jazayerli wrote many words about these two topics, so we’ll leave the bulk of the description to him. Two nuggets from that piece really struck me. First, the power knuckleball that Dickey has developed over the past couple of years is different from any other pitch that’s been thrown in the game’s history. Second, check out this comparison that Rany made:

R.A. Dickey, 2010-2012: 91 starts, 617 IP, 2.95 ERA, 468 Ks, 150 walks
Zack Greinke, 2010-2012: 95 starts, 604 IP, 3.83 ERA, 582 Ks, 154 walks

No advanced stats, we don’t know about park and league effects, hit rate, the defenses that played behind both pitchers, and about 57 other factors. Still, Greinke just signed for $147 million. Dickey’s owed a measly $5 million for 2013. If he signs a contract extension with the Jays at the number commonly quoted during Dickey’s Mets negotiations, he’d be owed $31 million over the next three seasons. That’s $31 million over three years for the defending NL Cy Young winner. In a market that saw Jeremy Guthrie sign for just $2 million a year less for those same three seasons.

So we’ve got an excellent pitcher who’s also a 38-year-old knuckleballer. Should he be treated as a true no. 1 starter for the next one to three seasons? Or should we be suspicious of his career path, his arm, and his results? The Jays obviously chose the former.

The Jays are taking some big risks with this trade.
In the deal, the Mets would send Dickey, catcher Josh Thole, and a third player (not believed to be a major piece) to the Jays for top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud, Single-A right-handed starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, catcher John Buck, and a fourth player (not believed to be a major piece). For the trade to become official, the Jays and Dickey reportedly would need to come to terms on a contract extension by 2 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Rany’s made the case for Dickey, but yes, he’s still a pitcher, and a 38-year-old knuckleballer at that. The Jays would be giving up two very good prospects in d’Arnaud and Syndergaard. Also, the trade won’t happen unless Dickey signs an extension. Given that Dickey now holds the fate of this entire blockbuster deal in his hands, he could conceivably exert his huge leverage and make the Jays pay through the nose, which would only heighten Toronto’s risk.

Then there’s the Jays’ catching situation. They were reportedly so down on flipping no-bat, great-defense catcher Jeff Mathis to the Marlins for John Buck in their November megatrade that Alex Anthopoulos considered calling the whole thing off. Which seems impossible, but also speaks to the Jays’ interest in catcher defense, and their ambivalence over Buck’s abilities and his contract. Thole makes pretty good contact, and he’ll work a few walks. But he has no power at all, doesn’t rate as an elite fielder, and is a career .261/.331/.333 hitter. Still, in Thole, the Jays would get someone who’s actually caught Dickey; talk to any catcher who’s not accustomed to catching a knuckleballer, and there’s a chance he might vomit all over you in terror before he can finish answering your question. We don’t know the financial details of the trade yet, but if Toronto’s dumping Buck’s iffy skill set and $6 million salary without having to send millions back to the Mets, that’s a win in itself.

All of this might seem like small beer in a trade this big. That is, until you look at where the Jays’ catching situation was before this trade, vs. after.

J.P. Arencibia is, at this point in his career, a highly flawed baseball player. He’s got impressive power, having cranked 43 homers in his first 242 games in the big leagues. It gets ugly after that. He’s a career .222 hitter with a .275 on-base percentage. He strikes out more than four times as often as he walks. He’s ranked in the top three in passed balls over the past two seasons, and allowed 53 stolen bases in 2012, despite starting only 91 games. There’s a lot of Miguel Olivo in his game, which is a good thing. Arencibia turns 27 next month, so it’s possible he’ll improve as he matures. Still, assuming this trade goes through, d’Arnaud’s gone, and Arencibia remains Toronto’s no. 1 catcher for the present and the foreseeable future. This is not an ideal outcome. If we’re going to ding the Royals in the James Shields trade because Wil Myers’s departure means we see a lot more of Jeff Francoeur, we should do the same with the Jays for giving up a catcher with a chance to be better than the incumbent for 2013, and an excellent chance to trump him beyond next season.

Finally, plenty of teams have tried to make a big splash by spending a ton of money, mortgaging the farm, or both, only to fall flat on their faces. This happened to the Angels and Marlins following last winter’s spending spree. The Dodgers made a monumental trade and took on a preposterous amount of money in an ultimately futile effort to make the postseason in 2012. Given what the Jays have surrendered in dollars and talent, it wouldn’t be pretty if their quest to make the playoffs for the first time in two decades goes as poorly as it did for Miami and the two L.A. teams.

The Jays have a chance to do something big with this trade.
Unlike a lot of fellow pointy-headed writers, I didn’t hate the Royals’ trade for Shields and Wade Davis on its face. The bigger problems that I had involved the Royals’ overall offseason strategy, which saw them pay more than $20 million to Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie next season, then made the big Shields trade, under the assumption they were ready to contend immediately. Even if that were true, there were better ways to spend that much money than on two such pedestrian pitchers, and the Royals might’ve been able to upgrade their starting pitching without strip-mining their farm system.

The Jays also give up a lot of perceived value here. But while the Jays and Royals had virtually identical records and run differentials in 2012 (73 wins and -68 for Toronto, 72 wins and -70 for Kansas City), the Jays also did a lot more to upgrade their team before making the Dickey deal than the Royals did before jumping on Shields and Davis. Start with the Melky Cabrera contract. Even after accounting for likely regression following a really good, high batting average on balls in play season that also featured a PED bust, Cabrera’s two-year, $16 million deal still looks like a big bargain compared to some of the huge contracts given to outfielders this winter. Maicer Izturis was another solid, cheap signing to either play second base or serve as a superutilityman in Toronto. And then there was the monster, the gigantic deal with Miami that brought Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle to town, with the Jays surrendering little of value from the big league roster. All told, you could reasonably assert that the Jays added 10 to 15 wins, on paper, to last season’s club.

In the ensuing few weeks after the Marlins trade, anytime someone in Toronto would ask me for a Jays prediction, I’d say they looked like an 85-win team. You could debate the finer points: Ricky Romero can’t possibly be as nuclear in 2013 as he was in 2012, Brett Lawrie might be due for a breakout, and, of course, everyone who set foot in Rogers Centre last season seemed to suffer a calamity, from the starting rotation getting ravaged by injuries to a starting lineup that lost almost everyone for an extended period at one time or another. So, OK, maybe set your expectations at something like 84 to 89 wins. Pick any spot in that range and you get a team that was one big acquisition away from dramatically improving its outlook for next season. Research on baseball’s win curve shows that wins roughly in that 87-to-93 range are the most valuable, since they often make the difference between a team playing into the postseason, vs. hitting the golf course. Maybe all the Royals’ young players have breakouts at once next year, in which case their Shields-and-Davis deal could add some of those extra-valuable wins to the team’s record. But given the existing talent bases — and especially what the Jays did this offseason before the Dickey trade — it’s far more likely that Toronto struck at the right time than the Royals did.

Add to the equation an AL East that’s in flux, given the Yankees’ aging core and lack of interest in spending money; the Orioles’ staying disappointingly quiet this winter after a dramatic 2012 playoff run; the Rays losing Shields and Davis and still needing one or two more quality bats; and the Red Sox coming off a 69-win season and being measured in their offseason approach, and you get potentially perfect timing for a Jays uprising.

From a PR standpoint, the Mets handled this terribly.
We’re not going to go too far into the smear job that the Mets pulled off, not when the New York Times’s Tyler Kepner ably gets into details and sums the whole thing up. Suffice to say, the whole thing smacked of an ownership group with a history of caring a lot about their image that still does a lousy job of presenting a positive one.

From a baseball standpoint, the Mets handled this beautifully.
We’d heard for a while about how the Mets were being shortsighted in lowballing Dickey in contract offers. By doing so, they were not only risking Dickey leaving in anger at the end of next season due to contract negotiations, but even worse, weakening their bargaining position if they opted to trade him instead. This confused the hell out of me, even before details of this proposed Jays trade started leaking out.

For one thing, whatever version of events you want to believe regarding the finances of Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, we know that they’re not ideal, following the pair’s involvement in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal and a subsequent payment now owed to trustee Irving Picard. It might’ve seemed trivial to haggle over a few million dollars with a pitcher of Dickey’s caliber. But, aside from the notion that every team wouldn’t mind keeping a few extra million in their pockets, the Mets’ owners might’ve been more interested in those extra millions than most — even granting they just signed David Wright to a $138 million contract extension. None of this should’ve had any bearing on Dickey’s trade value. In theory, a team could approach Sandy Alderson and argue that if the Mets GM thinks Dickey’s worth such a small contract, he should be obtainable on the cheap in trade too. But that’s not how this works in real life. There, you’ve got a top starting pitcher signed ludicrously cheap for one more year, and amenable to a bargain extension. The Mets could have offered Dickey 14 cents and a Mackey Sasser Instructional Throwing DVD and pitching-hungry teams like the Jays were still going to rush in with big trade offers.

And that’s exactly what happened. d’Arnaud is 24, not young for a top prospect. He has injury concerns, compounded by tearing a knee ligament this spring. He also benefited greatly from playing in Las Vegas, hitting .333/.380/.595 with a .374 BABIP in a park that produced similar numbers for players like Yan Gomes. In his past three minor league seasons, d’Arnaud has struck out 222 times and walked just 72 times, in 252 games. But d’Arnaud’s still loaded with talent, blessed with a power bat and a strong arm. He was ranked the fifth-best prospect in all of baseball by ESPN.com’s Keith Law this summer as well as the top catching prospect, offering tens of millions of dollars in potential surplus value for the six years in which the Mets will control his rights. Syndergaard hasn’t pitched above the Midwest League, which means 10,000 things could go wrong between now and then. He’s also a talented, 20-year-old, 6-foot-5 righty who’s struck out 196 batters, walked 53, and allowed just 138 hits and four homers in his first 176 innings pitched in pro ball. Syndergaard projections range all the way up to potential no. 2 starter in the majors. Like d’Arnaud, he offers six years of potential team control.

So the trade more or less boils down to 12 years of these two prospects for three of Dickey, or one if the Mets hadn’t managed to re-sign him. In making the deal, the Mets will have traded from strength, trusting their rotation to the talented, young trio of Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, and Jon Niese. They’ll have upgraded at catcher, one of their weakest positions and one of the toughest to fill. They’ll free up money that could be used to acquire more talent down the road. And they’ll have better positioned themselves for long-term success.

Dickey was a great pitcher and a fan favorite, someone who’ll be missed in New York. But even if the Jays win the World Series with the knuckler on board, this could still turn out to be a win for the Mets.

Filed Under: MLB Hot Stove, New York Mets, R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri