Earlier this week, R.A. Dickey made history by becoming the first full-time knuckleballer to win a Cy Young award, beating out Clayton Kershaw in a race that probably should have been closer than it was given the narrow differences between the two pitchers' performances. The narrative of a pitcher in his mid-to-late 30s coming back from the brink of oblivion, mastering a trick pitch and winning 20 games for a sub-.500 Mets club was difficult for voters to resist, and in a statistical dead heat, it was enough to carry him over the top.
For as much of a feel-good story as Dickey's accomplishment is, the reality is that his Cy Young award may drive him out of town. The Mets, who went 74-88, are amid a rebuilding process and still facing financial limitations after a season in which general manager Sandy Alderson was forced to cut payroll from $142.8 million to $94.5 million. They saved a few dollars by buying out Jason Bay, and have around $56 million committed to just five players (Johan Santana, David Wright, Frank Francisco, Dickey and Jon Niese) not including those under club control, with Alderson not expected to be allowed to go much higher than $90 million for the coming year. Dickey will make just $5 million via the club option that the Mets have already exercised, and the combination of that low cost and his current age (38) likely means that his trade value will never be higher. Even so, the Mets should resist dealing him unless they're blown away with an offer.
Psychologically, trading Dickey would be a crushing blow to Mets fans, who have endured not only two harrowing late-season collapses that cost them playoff berths followed by four straight losing seasons, but also the trade of Carlos Beltran, the free agency departure of Jose Reyes, the ups and downs of David Wright, the crash and burn of Oliver Perez, the demise of Mike Pelfrey, the ugly behavior of Francisco Rodriguez, the bad optics of the Omar Minaya/Jerry Manuel regime, the Wilpon/Katz ownership's connection to the Madoff scandal and so much more. Dickey, a former first-round-pick-turned-journeyman who joined the Mets organization in 2010 and soon became an ace, has been one of the few positives, providing a source of pride for the organization and its fans when he took the mound every fifth day.
After two solid seasons in which he proved he could survive and even thrive in a major league rotation with his fluttering pitch, Dickey's performance took a huge step forward this year. His strikeout rate jumped from 5.8 per nine to 8.9 while his walk rate fell slightly, and he flat-out dominated. That strikeout rate, as well as his strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.3, set records for knuckleballers, as did his league-leading 230 whiffs. Meanwhile, he also led in innings (230 2/3), complete games (five) and shutouts (three), ranked second in ERA (2.73) and third in Wins Above Replacement for pitchers (5.6). He reached double digits in strikeouts seven times, and in June he threw back-to-back one-hitters. His 20 wins made him the first knuckleballer since Joe Niekro in 1980 to reach the plateau.
Given that he has proven he's more than a flash in the pan by averaging 206 innings of 2.95 ERA ball over the past three years — the latter mark ranks 10th in the majors among pitchers with at least 500 innings — Dickey is due a large raise, and is said to be seeking something along the lines of a two-year deal worth $20-24 million. But thus far, the Mets have been unable to work out a contract extension with him, and the two sides are said to be far apart. The irony is that the same factors that worked in his favor for his Cy Young narrative — his age and his reliance on the knuckler — are working against him when it comes to his next contract. Despite so many data points for knuckleballers like Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm and Tim Wakefield pitching well into their 40s, the Mets front office is overly concerned that Dickey could break down or suddenly lose the feel for his signature offering — an "angry knuckleball" thrown harder than any other practitioner of the pitch — thus draining the value of one of their most precious assets.
So the team is exploring their trade options at the same time they're negotiating, though some observers feel that such an approach is simply a ploy to gain leverage over Dickey in negotiations and get him to accept a lesser deal. Given their abysmal track record in public relations over the past half-decade or so, the Mets ought to tread lightly here, lest they risk alienating both their star pitcher and their fan base.
Dickey could bring back a useful lineup regular or multiple prospects in a trade, but he won't bring a windfall; the reality is players in the final year of their deals don't net tremendous hauls of blue-chip prospects or mid-lineup hitters. Dealing him won't change the club's fortunes overnight, and if they receive prospects in return, there's at least as much risk that they won't pan out as there is that the pitcher declines on their watch. Losing him would also cost the team one of its few gate attractions. Paid attendance in Dickey's starts at Citi Field in 2012 was six percent higher on days he pitched (29,363) than overall (27,689), and 10 percent higher on weekends (32,501 to 29,666), with the team likely netting a extra secondary haul via StubHub ticket reselling — since it's not always clear until a few days beforehand how the schedule will align with his next turn — as well. Even moreso than David Wright -- whose own potential extension beyond 2013 is a can of worms unto itself -- the magnetic and marketable Dickey has become the face of the franchise. So there's at least as much, if not more, of an argument to be made that the Mets ought to hold onto Dickey for now as there is for trading him. Two years at $10-12 million apiece is a bargain for a mid-rotation pitcher, particularly for one in his late 30s; assuming $5 million per Win Above Replacement, his performance could be worth twice that even if he declines a bit. Quite frankly, if the Wilpon regime can't afford to pay him even that, they have no business owning the team anymore, and if they finally admit what many analysts have been saying in recent years given their abysmal financial straits —that they should definitely sell — having him under contract may increase the franchise's appeal to potential buyers. Keeping Dickey is the right call.