Eric Mack
Thursday March 3rd, 2011

JUPITER, Fla. -- It is the curious case of R.A. Dickey. A Benjamin Button-like tale: Dickey keeps getting older, but looking younger as he ages. Younger in his pitching prospects, that is.

In a year's time, Dickey, the Nashville, Tenn., product with a Grizzly Adams beard has gone from being the first pitcher cut from spring camp in 2010 to being one of the Mets' most reliable arms. It says a lot about the state of the Mets pitching, sure, but it also says a whole bunch about how the journeyman has become relevant to fantasy owners -- even if not everybody has completely bought in yet.

"It is truly one of the great stories in this game," manager Terry Collins said after the Dickey made his spring debut Wednesday against the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. "It tells you the kind of makeup he has, to go from being the first man cut last spring."

Dickey remade his career after one-time, big-time hype as a high school prospect almost two decades ago, becoming a knuckleballer when it was discovered he doesn't have an ulnar collateral ligament in his right (throwing) elbow, either by genetics or degeneration.

That is the Tommy John surgery ligament, by the way. Pitchers get shut down for 12-18 months, like Adam Wainwright last week, for tearing that critical piece of elbow material.

Dickey pitches without it entirely.

It has taken awhile for him to catch on, but it took hold last year. Dickey said last spring he "was the first man into the manager's office" to hear the news he was getting sent to minor-league camp. But in 2010 he went 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA and 1.189 WHIP, numbers that made him the 57th highest-scoring pitcher in fantasy baseball. He isn't going anywhere but north with the club now.

"He showed me all I needed to see last year," Collins said Wednesday.

The 36-year-old journeyman finally signed a guaranteed contract, a two-year deal, for the first time of his long, challenging career this winter.

"There is no sense of entitlement," he admits. "Confidence is something you can't manufacture.

"I am here to win."

Pitchers' careers should be over at his advanced age, particularly ones without an elbow ligament. Dickey had never posted an ERA below 4.63, but his sub-3.00 ERA in the spacious CitiField last season has him getting drafted as the 80th starting Rotisserie pitcher in CBSSports.com's Average Draft Position (ADP), 87th in head-to-head points leagues. Yours truly at SI.com still has left him out of the top 100 starting pitchers, though.

But maybe it is time to come around a little. Dickey should at least be ranked above Freddy Garcia, who was slotted in at No. 100 when Wainwright dropped out last week. This writer just hates knuckleballers. They are frustratingly inconsistent, and when they aren't coaxing that ball just perfectly erratically (if that makes any sense whatsoever), they are among the most hittable pitches in baseball. A bad knuckleball is like placing the baseball on a tee for a slugger.

But, the reality is, Dickey was the 57th most-valuable starting pitcher in fantasy last year in his age-35 breakthrough season. He is already downgraded by the masses by going after the top 80 in average draft position this spring. That seems to be a reasonable tax on his age, uncertainly and lack of power stuff.

He is a strike thrower and can keep hitters off balance. It is time to just buy into what he has become -- a viable late-round fantasy pick.

Take Wednesday's spring game, in which Dickey went an effective three innings and needed added work out in the bullpen just to get his pitch count where it should be for a first spring outing: He fanned Sir Albert Pujols -- one of the toughest men in baseball to whiff -- not once, but twice on dancing, knuckling floaters on a wind-blown day.

It was supposed to be a tough day for his knuckler, Collins said. Nope.

Hey, if he can fan Pujols, there must still in some magic in that right elbow, even if there isn't a ligament that might have disappeared as he has aged.

• Jason Bay, coming off post-concussion syndrome, just might have kicked the cobwebs off. "Jason Bay looks pretty darn good," Collins said after Bay sliced a liner to right earlier in the game. Agreed. Bay is SI.com's 36th-ranked outfielder and is has an ADP of 36 in H2H and 38 in Roto. He certainly has room to move up those rankings with a healthy and productive spring. David Wright had a strong '10, coming off a serious head trauma. Bay could do it, too, although he is doing it at a more advanced age.

• Carlos Beltran, who has announced he will move to right field full time to save wear on his chronic knees, will make his spring debut Sunday vs. the Red Sox in Port St. Lucie. We will be there for that game and follow up on it via Twitter. He is another potential injury-risk sleeper after the top 35 outfielders are off the board.

• Angel Pagan looks like a physical marvel now. He has grown big and remained fast. He is the one playing center now and he probably should be getting more respect than the 46th position, one spot after Beltran, in SI.com's outfielder rankings. His ADP is 47th in H2H and 46th in Rotisserie. A strong spring warrants moving him up, particularly in Roto. He is in his prime and looks physically ready to make good on at least repeating, if not bettering, last year's breakthrough.

• Lance Lynn made a solid spring debut Wednesday. He is the first-round pick in the race to be the No. 5 starter now that Wainwright is out. Kyle McClellan, who is trying to transition from relief, debuts Saturday. Both could be in the rotation, though, if Kyle Lohse (elbow) cannot prove healthy.

• The bad news for the Cardinals pitchers continued with Chris Carpenter early this week. He came out of his spring debut with a hammy strain. It will cause him to miss a spring start, not a real worry, but he was listed in our potential busts story for reasons exactly such as this. Watch him closely. He is at the age of when breakdowns occur more frequently.

• Tsuyoshi Nishioka's official designation as a second baseman gets him taken out of the shortstop ranks. He lists 17th at his new position in SI.com's rankings, right behind Howard Kendrick, Chone Figgins and Neil Walker. Those might be more proven options, but Nishioka looks real quick and capable of slapping his way to .300 and stealing 25-plus bases as the No. 2 hitter in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. That's a real comfy spot. He could be a real good rookie pick late, especially for Rotisserie owners. His swing we saw at his debut in Fort Myers on Sunday night against the Red Sox makes him look a little of a mix of Ichiro Suzuki and Kaz Matsui.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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