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Dickey trade would boost Blue Jays, but also help Mets

R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays reportedly have until 2 p.m. Tuesday to agree on an extension. (AP) R.A. Dickey and the Blue Jays reportedly have until 2 p.m. Tuesday to agree to a contract extension. (AP)

After weeks of shopping R.A. Dickey around, the Mets have agreed in principle to trade the National League Cy Young winner to the Blue Jays as part of a seven-player blockbuster that includes Toronto's two top prospects, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and righthanded starter Noah Syndergaard. The deal is contingent upon Dickey and the Blue Jays hammering out a contract extension beyond 2013 within a 72-hour negotiating period that expires at 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

While the departure of the popular and relatively inexpensive 38-year-old knuckleballer will be a blow to Mets fans that will make the 2013 team a less compelling one, the return is an exceptional one that adds two blue-chip prospects, allowing team officials to save face after a tone-deaf campaign in which they complained about their highly visible star pitcher's demands.

On the other end of the trade, this is a bold win-now move by Toronto that solidifies its bid for contention in the AL East, particularly in the face of the underwhelming winter retoolings undertaken by the Yankees and Red Sox thus far, not to mention the inaction by this past season's surprise, the Orioles.

At this juncture, five of the seven players in the trade have been identified, with one non-elite prospect still to be included on each side of the ledger. What is known is that the Blue Jays will receive Dickey, 26-year-old catcher Josh Thole and a prospect, while the Mets will receive the 23-year-old d'Arnaud, the 20-year old Syndergaard, 32-year-old catcher John Buck and a non-elite prospect. Twenty-two-year-old outfielder Anthony Gose, who played 56 games for Toronto last year, is said to not be part of this deal.

For the Blue Jays, Dickey will front a remade rotation that has added Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle since the end of the season, as well as a lineup that now features Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera as upgrades over much less productive regulars. Johnson, Buehrle and Reyes were all acquired in last month's 12-player trade with the Marlins.

That blockbuster set the stage for this one, making the high cost of obtaining Dickey more easily justifiable than the Wil Myers-driven prospect package the Royals sent to the Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis last week. While Toronto won just one more game than Kansas City did during the 2012 season (73 to 72), its previous rounds of upgrades have already improved the team enough to make another substantial round of additions much more valuable based on the theory of the marginal win curve, which says that the incremental value of each additional win increases exponentially within a given range because of the way it raises a team's chance of making the playoffs. Here's a marginal win curve created by Nate Silver for the 2006 Baseball Prospectus book Between the Numbers:

An example of a marginal win curve. An example of a marginal win curve.

The dollar values are outdated due to inflation, but the point is that the value of each additional win rises sharply in the 82-90 win range. If Toronto's roster had the talent for 82 wins as of Friday, the addition of another three-to-five win improvement via Dickey pushes them into a range where they're more likely to contend for a wild-card spot, and the variance in player performance results in a much higher chance at making the playoffs.

For example, the Royals, prior to the Shields-Myers deal, did not look as though they had reached that 82-win threshold; if they were a 75 or even 78 win team before that trade, a five-win improvement would have much less impact on their postseason chances. Considering that Myers would have replaced one of the team's weakest lineup spots in Jeff Francoeur, it's less clear that they took that big a step forward with the trade. Even in a weaker AL Central, their range of outcomes due to variance makes their likelihood of reaching the playoffs significantly lower. They have also given up a more valuable prospect than the Blue Jays have. "D'Arnaud isn't in Wil Myers' class as a prospect," wrote Baseball America's Ben Badler via Twitter on Sunday, "But the compact swing, bat speed, strength and solid defense are all-star ingredients."

(Whether these offhand estimates of talent levels by the two teams are indeed accurate is an exercise for another day; much of this has to do with the widespread perception of the relative skills of Toronto's Alex Anthopoulos and Kansas City's Dayton Moore when it comes to filling out major league rosters during their time as general managers.)

Assuming the deal is completed, the Blue Jays will receive a pitcher whose performance took a huge step forward in 2012, his third year with the Mets. Thanks to impeccable control of his "angry knuckleball", Dickey's strikeout rate jumped from 5.8 per nine in 2011 to 8.9, in 2012; meanwhile, his already-low walk rate of 2.3 per nine in 2011 went down slightly, to 2.1 per nine. The resulting 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio set a record for knuckleballers, as did his strikeout rate and his league-leading total of 230 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, his 230 2/3 innings, five complete games and three shutouts also led the National League, while his 2.73 ERA ranked second and his 5.6 Wins Above Replacement ranked third among pitchers. 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 that plateau.

The Blue Jays obviously expect that Dickey won't have too much trouble adapting to the AL East, and they're said to be enticed by the possibility of Dickey pitching half his games under the roof of the Rogers Centre, where the knuckleballer can work under climate-controlled conditions. While much of the evidence is anecdotal regarding the tradeoff between a knuckleballer avoiding having to pitch in conditions of high wind and his ability to reduce the spin on the ball due to the increased air density via colder outdoor temperatures, one data point stands out: Dickey one-hit the Rays at the Tropicana Dome on June 13, striking out 12. He hasn't pitched in Toronto since re-emerging as a knuckleballer.

Dickey is under contract for just $5 million in 2013, via a club option that the Mets exercised at the end of October. He has sought a two-year extension in the range of $26 million, making for a very affordable three-year package. Since the season ended, the Royals have signed Jeremy Guthrie, who has a career 4.33 ERA, to a three-year, $25 million deal, while the Red Sox signed Ryan Dempster, also with a career 4.33 ERA, to a two-year, $26.5 million deal. Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda and Dan Haren have signed one-year deals in the $12 million to $15 million dollar range this offseason. None of those pitchers has a Cy Young award to their credit. While Dickey turned 38 on Oct. 29, the history books are full of knuckleballers who remained successful and durable well into their 40s, including Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield.

The rest of what the Toronto will get from the Mets is less impressive. Thole hit just .234/.294/.290 in 354 plate appearances as New York's first-string catcher. His best asset may be his familiarity with Dickey's knuckleball; he has caught 66 of Dickey's 94 appearances over the past three years. He has only thrown out 25 percent of would-be base thieves during his career, and has run up 34 passed balls over the past two years, including a league-leading 16 in 2011 — largely due to working with Dickey. Basically, he's backup material, a lefty-swinging complement to righty starter J.P. Arencibia, and even with his arbitration-eligibility as a Super-Two, he's a less expensive use of the roster spot than Buck, who will make $6 million in 2013.

Acquired from Miami in the November blockbuster, Buck is part of the return for the Mets, a light-hitting backstop coming off a terrible season (.192/.297/.347), but a career .235/.303/.405 hitter who can not only serve as a backup and mentor for d'Arnaud, but can keep the starting spot warm long enough to enable the Mets to squeeze an extra year of service out of d'Arnaud before he reaches free agency by keeping him in the minors for at least the first 20 days of the 2013 season.

D'Arnaud, who turns 24 on Feb. 10, is a former 2007 supplemental first-round pick by the Phillies who was sent to Toronto exactly three years ago on Sunday in the Roy Halladay trade. He has since made Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list three straight years, ranking as high as 17th coming into the 2012 season. Other sources ranked him even higher coming into the year; Baseball Prospectus put him at 16th, while ESPN's Keith Law placed him sixth.

This past season, he hit .333/.380/.595 with 16 homers in 303 plate appearances at hitter-friendly Las Vegas, but a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee ended his season on June 25; he didn't undergo surgery, but he didn't play again. Across the board, prospect experts view d'Arnaud as an above-average hitter for a catcher, with good contact and power potential. Defensively, he's a good receiver with a strong arm but an occasional tendency to rush his throws and lose accuracy (he threw out 30 percent of would-be base thieves in 2012, and was at 27 percent the year before). Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks, who recently ranked d'Arnaud as the team's top prospect, described him as major-league ready, with future potential as a "first-division player" who could develop into a "top shelf bat at [the] position, with .275-plus batting average and 17-25 HR power potential."

But wait, there's more. The Mets also get 20-year-old righty Noah Syndergaard, a 2010 first-round pick out of a Texas high school who ranked number two on BP's list, and number three on that of Baseball America. Syndergaard spent 2012 in the Low-A Midwest League, delivering a 2.60 ERA while striking out 10.6 per nine and walking just 2.7 per nine in 103 2/3 innings. More important than what he did at that level is what he could be: "a high-end no. 2 starter" down the road according to Parks. A 6-foot-5, 200-pounder, Syndergaard normally throws his fastball in the 94-96 mph range but can work in the low 90s as well as touch 100. As Parks notes, the heater is thrown on a steep plane and has heavy sink and boring action. He also offers a curveball and changeup that both show signs of becoming plus offerings.

Assuming his development stays on track, Syndergaard should eventually join a Mets rotation that will also include righties Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey. The 22-year-old Wheeler, obtained from the Giants in the 2011 Carlos Beltran trade, split last year between Double-A and Triple-A, and has top-of-the-rotation potential, an even higher ceiling than Syndergaard; he's viewed as a top 10 prospect in all of the minors. Harvey, the seventh pick of the 2010 draft, debuted in the majors in late July and struck out 10.6 per nine while delivering a 2.73 ERA in 10 starts.

That rotation, which could also include lefty Jon Niese, who's under contract through 2016, is a ways off, however. Wheeler won't debut until sometime in the 2013 season, while Syndegaard's ETA is 2014 at the earliest. There's no need for the Mets to rush any of those pitchers given the lack of similar promise on the position player side of their system at the moment. Their pitching depth — which as Baseball America editor Matt Eddy noted includes no less than seven power righties among their top 10 prospects — may eventually require a trade to better balance their assets. The arrival of d'Arnaud at least fills a key position with an above-average two-way player; such offense from up-the-middle spots is a cornerstone of a winning team, and to get it from a player with six years of club control remaining is a plum return.

Still, there's an unsettling element to New York's end of the deal. While David Wright's eight-year extension bought the cash-strapped Mets a significant amount of goodwill with their fans, unnamed officials have groused to the media about their star pitcher's high visibility during a time when the team has publicly wavered over whether to sign Dickey to an extension or trade him. Earlier this week, after Dickey spoke of his contract situation at the team's Christmas party, the New York Post's Joel Sherman and Mike Puma reported that team officials were unhappy with Dickey for a variety of reasons:

[T]he organization was, according to one official, “not happy” with Dickey’s message and his use of a Citi Field forum to express his criticism. . . . The Mets, meanwhile, have mounting concerns whether all of Dickey’s off-the-field endeavors could impact his on-field results or his standing in the clubhouse if the perception is that he has become too absorbed with his new celebrity. . . . The Mets already were annoyed, The Post has learned, Dickey last week turned down a personal appearance request from owner Fred Wilpon. Nevertheless, they knew he was in town for a business matter and asked him a few days ago to appear at Citi Field for yesterday’s holiday party. The Mets expected Dickey to be more diplomatic in his comments.

At the party, Dickey was quoted by the Post as saying, "If that’s the decision they feel like is best for the club [not to extend], and that’s the decision that they make, I feel like it would be unfortunate, because it probably is going to mean I’m not going to be back [in 2014]. . . . Things are emotional for me. . . . When people say it’s business, it’s not personal, that just means it’s not personal for them. It can be personal for me."

In an uncharacteristically scathing column on Saturday, the Post's Ken Davidoff called the likelihood of Dickey leaving via free agency if the Mets didn't extend him a "laughable threat" and a "bluff," adding that the pitcher's "gift for self-promotion and his love of attention don’t endear himself to most teammates. Instead, his durability and outstanding results led him to be appreciated but far from beloved."

The Mets have now completed four straight losing seasons marked by high-visibility organizational ineptitude, declining attendance and severe financial woes, including a connection to the Bernie Madoff scandal. Amid that mess, Dickey's improbable rise to prominence has stood as one of the few positive stories surrounding the franchise. Whatever their distance from the top of the NL East, he has kept them relevant every fifth day when he starts. His desire for a two-year extension in the range of $13 million a year is hardly out of line, and he has spent the past month under the microscope while general manager Sandy Alderson has explored the market for his ace. The front office hasn't kept many secrets throughout this process; for them to be upset that Dickey hasn't either isn't fair.

But beyond the distasteful handling of Dickey, the widespread sentiment is that New York will have made out like a bandit in trading him at the absolute peak of his value and obtaining two top prospects in return. "I admire & respect R.A. Dickey, but I wouldn't trade Travis d'Arnaud & Noah Syndergaard to get a 38-year-old knuckleballer," said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis via Twitter on Saturday night, further noting that he wouldn't want to give up the duo "especially when that potential all-star C & No. 2 SP would be under my control for six years each."

For the Blue Jays, who haven't made the playoffs since winning back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, the risk is one they're prepared to take as they empty a deep farm system to seize an opportunity. Among their AL East rivals, the Yankees are trying to upgrade an old and increasingly inflexible roster in the face of an organizational mandate to get below the luxury tax threshold for 2014, and the Red Sox are spending money in a weak free agent market to rebuild a team that sank to 69-93 in 2012. The Rays, with a surplus of pitching depth to offset the loss of Shields, have added Myers to a lineup desperately in need of more punch, but still have openings at first base and DH that will go a ways towards defining their capability of contending. The Orioles' biggest move this winter has been to re-sign Nate McLouth. You can sense why the Jays are going for it.

Assuming Dickey and the Blue Jays reach a contract agreement before Tuesday's deadline, this is a fascinating trade for both sides. It will take years before we can truly judge the winners and losers, though it will alter our expectations for both teams the moment it becomes official.

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