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Trade Retrospective: Mets trade R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays for Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard

The Mets received an incredible haul for an aging knuckleballer.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

For the third straight offseason, BtBS is looking back on some of the biggest trades from years past. Check out all the entries here.

In the final installment of the 2018 Trade Retrospective series, we will take a look at one of the most impactful trades of 2012 offseason. The Blue Jays acquired R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole, and Mike Nickeas from the Mets in exchange for Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, John Buck, and Wuilmer Becerra. The deal included a two-year, $25 million extension for Dickey with a $12 million club option.

In this trade retrospective series, trades will be evaluated based on what was known at the time. That is the only fair, logical way to evaluate trades and strip luck out of the equation: process over results. Having said that, we will still take a look at how the trade worked out for both parties.

The Deal

The Blue Jays were coming off a fantastic trade where they upgraded the team substantially. Tired of constantly finishing in fourth place, they bought traded for Mark Buehrle, José Reyes, Josh Johnson, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio. They needed an ace, though, and GM Alex Anthopoulos believed that the first ever knuckleballer to win the Cy Young award would be the right choice.

R.A Dickey was coming off a special season. He pitched 233 23 innings over 33 starts with a 3.00 RA9 and 25 K%. He walked less than six percent of batters faced as a knuckleballer. He had no help from the Mets’ defense either, which makes his performance as a knuckleballer even more impressive. Dickey was unique even as far as knuckleballers go. He threw the pitch exceptionally hard and with remarkable command. He was even one of the best fielding pitchers, too, and continued to be through last season.

There were certainly downsides to acquiring Dickey. There was little chance that he would repeat his 2012 season. With knuckleballers, you are always guessing when it comes to future performance. Their projections likely come with wide error bars, and they are unscoutable. Dickey’s 2012 season, however, was such an anomaly.

Dickey was also going into his age-38 season. If he were a conventional pitcher, that would be a gigantic red flag. But knuckleballers are exceptionally durable. Still, Dickey did throw his knuckleball harder than any pitcher in history. At least the Blue Jays would not ever have to worry about him needing Tommy John surgery.

The money spent on the extension was not much, so the Jays had that going for them, but they gave up a massive haul in prospects. d’Arnaud was considered to be the best catching prospect in baseball, and a top-20 prospect overall. He was considered untouchable by the Jays in previous trade attempts. He alone was more than enough for Dickey, but they also included Syndergaard, Buck, and Becerra.

Characterizing Becerra as a throw-in would be unfair because he was more than that. Though not a highly regarded prospect, he was seen as a right fielder with potential at the plate. Buck was actually part of the Blue Jays/Marlins trade, and he was probably a minor downgrade over Thole. Since he was discussed in that trade retrospective, I will not discuss him any further here.

Catchers who can handle knuckleballers are hard to come by, so it made sense to send Dickey’s personal catcher to Toronto with him. The Jays avoided arbitration and signed him to a two-year, $2.5 million deal with a $1.75 million team option.

Nickeas was a throw-in. He was a catcher, but no amount of positional and defensive value can make up for a career 35 wRC+.

Of course, nobody knew what Thor was going to become. At the time of the trade, he was seen as just a back-end starter. He had the size, the effortless delivery, and the 80-grade fastball. What he did not have was a decent breaking ball. Even if he developed a good breaking ball — which he did — prospect analysts saw his ceiling as a number two starting pitcher. Nobody predicted that he would become one of the best pitchers in the league.

As with the Blue Jays, the Mets were coming off yet another fourth place finish. Unlike the Jays, the Mets did not have a strong farm system on which they could cash in to go for it, nor was there another farcical franchise available to trade them proven veterans for just money.

The Mets’ system was not weak by any means. Kevin Goldstein rated it as roughly middle of the pack. They needed to rebuild, and the Jays presented them with the opportunity to substantially accelerate that rebuild.

This trade was a complete no-brainer. Travis d’Arnaud was one of the best prospects in baseball. Noah Syndergaard was a prospect who barely cracked top 100 lists a year earlier, but then saw his stock skyrocket in 2013. All of this for one year of a player whom the Mets were in no way were going to re-sign.

Despite the fact that this was a massive overpay, it did make some sense for the Blue Jays to do. The team was suffering through what was then the longest playoff drought in baseball, having not made the postseason since they won it all in 1993. That being said, I doubt many GMs, front office types, or baseball analysts would have made this trade. It was such a high price in talent for the most unknowable commodity in baseball: a knuckleballer.

The Mets do not exactly have a stellar track record of great baseball decisions, but this was definitely one of the. It is arguably the best value returned for what was paid of any trade that year.

The Results

I covered the results in the last Blue Jays trade, but in short, the Jays had poor seasons in 2013 and 2014. They finally broke their playoff drought in 2015 by finishing in first place.

Dickey regressed heavily, as expected. He was still an effective pitcher who made every start through 2016. A 4.28 RA9 over a three-year period is more or less average, but being “average” is better than most give it credit for.

The Blue Jays picked up Dickey’s club option, but they did not get much for it. He had a a 5.15 RA9 and was barely above replacement level in 2016. He signed a one-year deal with the Braves in 2017 and actually had a nice bounce-back season. He had a 4.69 RA9 over 31 starts. The Braves still decided to decline his $8 million club option for 2018. He is currently a free agent.

Despite the fact that Josh Thole could not hit, he was kept during the entirety of Dickey’s four years in Toronto. They actually signed him to a fourth year even though he hit only .212/.283/.258 in Toronto, albeit for only $800,000. Mike Nickeas spent 2013 and 2014 in the minors before retiring.

Travis d’Arnaud debuted in August 2013. He it a lowly .202/.286/.263 over 31 games. His career since then has been marred by major injuries and ineffectiveness. He was quite good in 2015, hitting .268/.340/.485, but he played in only 67 games. He recently had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2018 season. It is possible that he has played his last game as a Met.

Wuilmer Becerra still has yet to make the majors. He has not even made it to Double A.

As for Noah Syndergaard, he has been nothing short of a Norse god of thunder. Mets fans had to wait until 2015, but it was worth the wait. Over 24 starts, he had a 3.60 RA9 and struck out 27.5 percent of batters faced against a walk rate of only 5.1 percent. He has been and continues to be one of the hardest throwers in baseball. I’ll never forget the time he threw a 95 MPH slider.

Thor followed up his dynamic rookie season with an even better sophomore season. He had a 2.99 RA9 and improved his strike rate while maintaining his excellent control. Unfortunately, he missed almost all of 2017 due to a torn lat muscle.

Syndergaard is off to a great start in 2018, striking out third of hitters faced. His 3.63 RA9 might not look too impressive, but it is still early. He has had some bad luck with strand rates and that defense is not doing him any favors. As long as his arm does not explode from throwing so many high velocity pitches, he should have a bright future.

Blue Jays Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
R.A. Dickey 4 7.3 $41.0
Josh Thole 3 -1.6 $4.3
Total 7 5.7 $45.3
Baseball Reference

Nickeas was omitted because he never made the majors. Thole’s fourth year was excluded because it was not part of the trade.

That is not a bad performance going purely by dollars paid. Factor in the price paid in talent, and it starts to look a lot worse, and Syndergaard is not done yet.

Mets Results

Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Remaining Control WAR Salary (M)
Noah Syndergaard 6 8.4 $5.1
Travis d'Arnaud 6 2.2 $7.0
John Buck 1 0.4 $5.4
Total 13 11 $17.5
Baseball Reference, Spotrac

I now know the joy that BtBS Managing Editor Ryan Romano felt when I wrote the Chris Davis trade retrospective last year. And Syndergaard is still going, too!

Even considering that d’Arnaud has been a bust as a result of an inability to stay healthy, the results are greatly in the Mets’ favor. That feels so weird to write.

Anthopoulos did a great job with the Marlins trade, but it appears his impatience got the best of him. Quite frankly, the Blue Jays are lucky this was not worse. d’Arnaud could have turned into a star and the aging knuckleballer’s performance could have fallen off a cliff immediately.

As I sit here in my mother’s basement, I just want to say it has been a blast writing the Trade Retrospective series for the second year in a row. If you happen to be going the Baseball Prospectus ballpark event at Citifield in August, I’ll be the big guy at the event wearing a Syndergaard shirsey.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.