Update: It looks like Dickey has agreed to an extension with the Jays! Look for this deal to be finalized and announced very shortly!
It's not often that you see a reigning Cy Young award winner traded, especially one who's working on a one-year, $5 million contract. Yet the Mets have reportedly dealt R.A. Dickey, along with Josh Thole and an unidentified "non-elite" prospect to the Toronto Blue Jays for catcher Travis d'Arnaud, pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard, John Buck, and another of those "non-elite" prospects. The deal is held up for now, pending an agreement on an extension with Dickey, but that won't stop us at Beyond the Box Score from trying to break down the ramifications of the deal as it stands.
For now, we'll discuss the established and potential values of the players going both ways in the deal, as well as what it means for two teams in different stages of the franchise lifecycle. Let's get into it.
The Blue Jays side
It all starts with Robert Alan Dickey, the 2012 Cy Young award winner, best-selling author, mountain climber, Star Wars fan, and knuckleball enthusiast. Most of our readers know Dickey's story by now: drafted as a power pitcher out of Tennessee, Dickey learned to throw a knuckler as part of a sojourn in the minor leagues. In 2010, he returned to the majors with the New York Mets as a solid mid-rotation starter, and has improved since then. His story culminated in 2012 with the aforementioned Cy Young award and a 2.73 ERA. Not too shabby.
Dickey, who will pitch his age-38 season in 2013, is entering the final year of a contract he signed with the Mets. This means that the Blue Jays, upon acquiring him, will be on the hook for just $5 million in 2013, after which, he will become a free agent. This would be a decent contract for a good #5 starter on the open market, so paying that amount for a top-of-the-rotation arm is pretty ridiculous. It is probably the primary reason why the Mets could ask for a great deal in return for their ace. The Jays will now get the chance to sign Dickey to a longer-term extension, a move on which this trade hinges.
But let's get down to brass tacks: how well can the Jays expect R.A. to pitch in 2013? It's a tough question, filled with a lot of uncertainty. But the most important factor looks to be in Dickey's favor: he's been consistently good over the last three seasons. R.A. has thrown 616 2/3 innings, with a 3.29 RA9 (which is like ERA, but accounts for all runs allowed, not just earned runs). That's pretty phenomenal.
Best of all, his best season was his most recent one. The biggest difference between "good middle-of-the-rotation" 2010-2011 R.A. Dickey and "Cy Young-winning" 2012 R.A. is a huge jump in strikeouts. R.A.'s K% shot up like a rocket for 2012, going from a 15.3% all the way to 24.8%. That's an enormous leap. And it compensated for Dickey inducing fewer ground balls.
Those strikeouts will play in any stadium, with any defense behind him. While the Jays should have an average (maybe better, maybe worse) defensive team behind him, those Ks minimize risk of high BABIP on balls in play -- something that Dickey's knuckler already keeps low. And, of course, the less fly balls he gives up in the homer-happy Rogers Centre, the better.
When predicting future performance, things like FIP, SIERA, and even Glenn DuPaul's pFIP can be used to get a clearer picture of a pitcher's likely ERA -- in most cases. But those stats, and the underlying peripherals that make them up like strikeout rate and walk rate, tend to undervalue knuckleball pitchers, who rely on inducing weak contact. In Dickey's case, his BABIP has consistently hit about .276 over the past three years, which is a good bit below league average. Expect this to continue, and not regress as much to league average due to luck.
Finally, Dickey is 38 years old. Most 38-year-old pitchers are due for serious performance declines, but again, Dickey doesn't fit the mold of a typical 38-year-old. Knuckleball pitchers age more gracefully than other starters, due to the fact that they throw with a bit less effort than your typical starter. His performance may decline, but will probably be a gentler decline than average.
Using these factors to project his future performance (albeit a little unscientifically), I'd expect Dickey to post something close to his three-year average from 2010 to 2012 -- something that's not quite as good as his stellar Cy Young campaign, but closer to his 2010 line. Moving to a tougher park and league won't be very helpful, but Dickey's repertoire and individual pitching style should mean an ERA right around 3.00 or a little above, an above-average K%, and loads of weak contact. He'll likely be the front-of-the-rotation starter the team is looking for ... at least for a year or two. And that means a two-to-five win upgrade over someone like J.A. Happ in the rotation. Nice.
It may be fair to say that Josh Thole is one of the least exciting players in baseball. I'll keep a description of Josh short, because he's rather ancillary to this deal. He's a high-contact, low-power hitter at catcher, and provides minimal defensive value behind the dish. Last season, Josh was pretty terrible at the plate, posting a 60 wRC+ as his OBP and slugging percentage both dipped even lower than usual.
Despite once being pegged as the Mets' catcher of the future, these days Josh looks like a functional backup wearing the tools of ignorance. He needs his bat to bounce back in order to stay in the league, as most backup catchers are defense-first players, and his is fair-to-poor. He won't unseat J.P. Arencibia, or add anything to the Jays' 2013 win total.
The Jays, rather inarguably, get the best immediate return on the deal. They also get the surest thing. The team parted ways with two major-league ready, but unproven, players in order to snag an inexpensive ace on a one-year deal. Most teams would make this deal, if they felt they were anywhere close to contending for a solid playoff run. They add someone who's pitching like a real #1 starter, with stuff that should translate to continued success in a tougher league, park, and division. In many ways, this trade is a no-brainer.
On the surface, this trade looks quite a lot like the James Shields / Wil Myers trade between Tampa Bay and Kansas City. One team gives up a top-tier position player prospect who's close to the majors, as well as a top-100 pitching prospect and other pieces, in exchange for a front-end starter and some other pieces. The thing is, the Blue Jays seem much better poised to surge to the playoffs as a result of this deal, primarily because of the other improvements they've made in the offseason.
Before adding Dickey, the rotation of Buehrle-Johnson-Morrow-Romero-Happ was probably better and deeper than the Royals' rotation ... even after the addition of James Shields. And I'd argue that, both defensively and offensively, the Jays offer a stronger position-player contingent than the still-young Royals. Adding Dickey gives this squad a front-of-the rotation starter.
Last season, the Jays only won one more game than the Royals, and the team's run differential was only two runs better than the Royals. But there's more reason for optimism in Toronto. The Jays made more substantive upgrades in the rotation. I mean, would you have rather added Dickey-Buehrle-Johnson to your rotation this off-season, or Shields-Guthrie-Santana? To me, that's a no-brainer, whether you use a WAR metric or ERA- or FIP- as a guide. While the Royals are understandably optimistic about the continued development of their young players, the Jays have reason to feel the same way about players like Brett Lawrie and Anthony Gose -- it's just that this is a team that also features potent veteran bats like Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion as well.
The Blue Jays aren't a perfect team, but they have far fewer holes than they did at the beginning of the season. This is the right move for a team in position to strike against a wounded AL East. Adding a three-to-six-win pitcher without giving up any of your active major-league assets of note is a sharp move -- even if it costs them some potential future value -- when you are this close to the playoffs.
Hot Sports Take
The Blue Jays are now the best team in the AL East, not to mention a team I would not want to face in the playoffs. R.A. Dickey probably won't win another Cy Young award, but he will thrive in Toronto. The Blue Jays never regret this deal.
The Mets side
While the Mets are losing a fan-favorite player, this deal has certainly found some traction with fans -- especially in the analytic community. While Dickey will be missed, the incoming players give the Mets front office and fans a lot to dream on.
Travis d'Arnaud is, probably, the top catching prospect in baseball, and only Mike Zunino of Seattle is a potential rival. After a huge 2011 (.311/.371/.542 in Double-A), Travis made his way to hitter-friendly Las Vegas. He raked in Vegas (even though almost everyone does), but a knee injury ended his season early in June. Weirdly, the Mets are moving their Triple-A affiliate to Las Vegas for the 2013 season, so there's a decent chance he'll have a chance to pick up, literally, where he left off at the beginning of the upcoming season.
d'Arnaud projects as a solid all-around catcher, and should be ready to contribute at the major-league level in early 2013. He projects to hit for both power (perhaps as many as 20 homers per season) and get on base thanks to a solid hit tool. Defensively, Travis projects as average or above-average, with good athleticism and instincts.
Travis has a high floor, as his defensive background should definitely put him as a major-leaguer behind the dish right at day one. A fair range for on wins for a regular basis is probably something between one and four, given the fact that other catchers with his profile usually fall somewhere in that category. If one were to project that d'Arnaud would be worth about two wins every year over the next six-to-seven years, well, that's a high-value player at a critical position. Better still, this is a player with the potential to be better than two wins.
The downside risk, of course, is that d'Arnaud gets injured, or he turns out to be only a replacement-level player at his position. If d'Arnaud needs to move off catcher, his value declines a great deal, as his bat doesn't really project at a corner position at this point. While I'd argue that somewhere between 10-15 wins is a fairly conservative projection for Travis's years of team control, there's still some potential for him to bust.
The value of d'Arnaud could be low, or it could be high. There's a lot of risk in acquiring any prospect, but catchers are especially tough to predict. But if everything breaks just right, Travis d'Arnaud could be about 75-80% of Buster Posey. And that would make this trade extremely worthwhile for the Mets. In fact, just being a two-win catcher before free agency would make this very worthwhile. Consistent, above-average production from a cost-controlled player in the middle of the diamond is incredibly valuable, and if the Mets get that, it could be comparable in value to that of one-to-three years of an effective R.A. Dickey.
While it's always tough to project pitching prospects, Syndergaard benefits from having top-flight potential. In most top prospect lists I've seen, Syndergaard usually rates out in the top three of Jays prospects. He usually lands below d'Arnaud, and either below or right next to "Master of Latin Cuisine" Aaron Sanchez, and could safely be considered a top-100 prospect by most talent evaluators.
Since I've not scouted Synderaard, here's what I'll do. I'll post links to a few respected prospect writers, and you can see what their thoughts on the big, hard-throwing righty are:
Basically, Syndergaard looks like a pitcher with a strong fastball, developing secondary offerings, a big-league body and a strong profile of minor-league stats. He projects to get ground balls and strikeouts, and needs to continue to develop and stay healthy. So yeah, basically, he's like most other high-ceiling young arms.
As for future projection, he could fit anywhere between a No. 2 and No.5 starter, or maybe he'll move into the bullpen if everything breaks wrong. But with an ETA of 2014 or so, he could eventually be part of a very young, very potent Mets rotation with Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. If he comes up as any kind of above-replacement-level starting pitcher, and the Mets get six or so years out of him, he'll be worth tremendous value, but pitching prospects are notoriously risky.
Like Josh Thole, Buck is both a catcher and a likely afterthought in this trade. Also like Thole, Buck had a very tough 2012, posting his worst wRC+ (75) of the past four years. Unlike Thole, though, Buck has real power, hitting double-digit homers in the past three seasons. While John is a swing-and-miss guy (though capable of taking a walk), he needs to hit better than .192/.297/.347 in order to be an asset as a catcher. His defense isn't good enough to offset a down bat.
In the end, Buck is just here to keep the position warm for d'Arnaud, in case he starts the season in Las Vegas. After d'Arnaud takes over, Buck can be a serviceable bat-first backup, and a bat off the bench with some pop. But I'd bet he's here mostly as salary ballast.
The Mets are, basically, selling high on R.A. Dickey in order to add impact for the future. This isn't a salary dump, this is a talent-for-talent deal where the team is dealing from a position of depth (starting pitching) to shore up a position of need (catcher), while moving expected wins from 2013 further forward in the future.
I think what the Mets are *expecting* out of this deal is one-to-two wins from 2013-2019 from d'Arnaud, and one-to-two wins from 2014-2020 from Syndergaard. What they'd want, however, is for d'Arnaud to emerge as a star catcher and Syndergaard to emerge as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. Given that the Mets aren't exactly poised to contend in 2013, it's understandable that they'd want to turn a player's 2013 production into future production, and that's exactly what they've done here.
Beyond that, the Mets won't be better in 2013 after this deal. They'll probably lose between three and five wins due to the loss of Dickey. If d'Arnaud comes up and plays up to expectations after the Super Two deadline, perhaps he'll defray one or two of those wins this season, but that's it. Fortunately, the Mets have enough depth in the rotation (perhaps Jenrry Mejia will step in, making his last chance to start) that the drop-off won't be too severe, and the upgrade from Thole/Shoppach to d'Arnaud will be real.
But the Mets and their fans should have a little more hope down the line. The team has pushed things forward, and (hopefully) solidified a position (or two) for the future. If the team turns five wins in 2013 into 20+ wins over the next seven years, the deal will be well worth it.
Hot Sports Take
The Mets not only dealt from a position of strength, but they got the right return for Dickey. d'Arnaud will be a franchise cornerstone will Syndergaard will become a real-live major league starting pitcher. The Mets return to playoff contention in 2014, and never regret this deal.
So there you have it. My take on the biggest trade of the offseason ... at least since the last big trade! Leave your thoughts and comments below!
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.