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Toronto bets high on R.A. Dickey

12/17/2012
Travis d'Arnaud is a major prospect, but not without questions, as health has been an issue. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

In a finally-completed trade, the Blue Jays got a No. 1 starter, probably, but paid dearly for that return in prospects -- they really just acquired one year of R.A. Dickey's services. In extending him at a very reasonable salary for the next two years (with a club option), the Blue Jays limit their downside if Dickey can't repeat his historic 2012 season.

Dickey's 2012 season was historic, perhaps the best year ever by a knuckleballer, and certainly the best year ever by a pitcher without an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. He would give the Jays a bona fide front-of-the-rotation starter if he repeats it or comes close. Dickey throws an unusually hard knuckler and throws it for strikes, something not generally associated with the pitch. His knuckleball finds the zone more often, misses more bats, and stays in the park at a decent clip as well, all highly attractive factors that should give the Jays reason to believe he won't regress too badly simply by switching to one of the majors' strongest divisions. Toronto acquiring him at such a high cost in prospects seems to imply that it believes he'll continue to rack up innings and pitch somewhere near the level he showed in 2012, which are two big assumptions -- one sound, one a little shaky.

Dickey's durability, even with his limited track record as a successful major league starter, shouldn't be a major worry. Phil Niekro reached 200 innings seven times after his 40th birthday, throwing an amazing 342 innings in his age-40 season in 1979. (By that standard, Dickey's kind of a wuss.) Charlie Hough reached 200 innings three times after reaching age 40, and Tom Candiotti, Joe Niekro, and Johnny Niggeling each did it once -- so 12 of the 59 such seasons in baseball history were achieved by knuckleballers, of which there aren't many. In fact, the two common threads among the 30 pitchers to reach 200 innings after age 40 is that each was either a large-bodied power pitcher, like Nolan Ryan (four times) or Randy Johnson (three), or was a no-effort soft-tosser, like the knuckleballers mentioned above -- spitballers like Jack Quinn (four) and Gaylord Perry (three) ... or Jamie Moyer (four), who threw batting practice during games and got away with it until his arm gave out. If we can draw any general conclusions from the group, it's that Dickey should at least be durable, even if he can't repeat what he did in 2012. (It might also make Yankee fans feel better about CC Sabathia for the long term.)

The problem with assuming Dickey will continue to pitch as an ace -- or even at a level close to it -- is that he's such an atypical case. Three years ago, he was barely a big leaguer, and while he was among the best pitchers in baseball in 2012, he's also entering his age-38 season and has just that one year of elite-level pitching behind him. He could continue pitching this way for five more years, or he could revert to what he was in 2010-11, which will be a definite help to Toronto, but far from Cy Young-caliber. There's no way to predict which version will show up -- not based on his history, and not based on other knuckleballers' histories -- since his own profile differs so greatly from those of the Niekros, Tim Wakefield, or Hough.

Toronto's rationale for the deal looks better if you consider the status of the club before the deal was consummated. This is a huge quantity of young talent to give up to gain 3-4 wins in a single season, but the Jays' starting pitching was so bad in 2012 that even the 2011 version of Dickey would be worth at least that much in 2013. It only makes sense in the context of the current AL East, in which they were already at least a fringe playoff contender, and are now, at least on paper, on par with the Tampa Bay Rays, the best team (again, on paper) in the division at this point in the offseason. If Dickey's 3-4 added wins are the ones that put the Jays into the playoffs -- which they may very well be -- the return on their investment will look substantially better. Flags fly forever, and the Jays are facing an unusual opportunity -- the two traditional AL East powers, the Yankees and Red Sox, are weaker than they've been in some time, and the most popular sports team in Toronto, the Maple Leafs, is busy watching its commissioner try to drive the sport into oblivion. If the Jays start strong in April with no Leafs and the NBA's Raptors in the tank, there's a very good chance they'll see their 2013 attendance catch up to their performance (something that often lags for teams having their first good season in a while, like Baltimore saw in 2012), leading to a revenue boost before the season is out, to say nothing of the substantial revenue boost all teams see when they reach the postseason. It's an unusual confluence of factors that makes the Jays' sudden shift to go for it in 2013 more logical than it would be for other sub-.500 teams.

For just one year of Dickey's services, the Mets get a ridiculously large haul. Travis d'Arnaud has been among the top catching prospects in the game for two years, and, if he can stay healthy, will give the Mets a centerpiece position player who fills a critical spot on the field while producing enough to be among the top 3-4 catchers in the league, if not better.

That caveat about health is particularly relevant to d'Arnaud, who has already missed time as a pro with back and knee problems, as well as acute injuries like a broken finger, leaving him with an average of just 88 games played over his five full seasons in pro ball, and never more than 126 in a single year. Catchers are more susceptible to injury because of the nature of their job, and if d'Arnaud is injury-prone to begin with, he might have a hard time developing or playing enough to reach his potential.

The Mets also get a wild-card pitching prospect in Noah Syndergaard, a big kid who looks the part of a starter but doesn't have the repertoire to be more than a back-end guy yet. Syndergaard has touched 100 mph as a starter, and will comfortably work from 92-97, flashing an average to above-average changeup and showing a very smooth, easy arm stroke that he can repeat without much difficulty. The Jays have worked with him for two-plus years to develop an average breaking ball, but he has yet to find one; you could grade his curveball as potentially above-average, and he has the high slot for it, but if he doesn't have that laxity in his wrist there's a good chance the pitch never gets there. He's a solid acquisition for the Mets because of his size, delivery, and easy velocity, but he's also very high-beta and could end up a back-end guy or even a reliever if that third pitch doesn't make some major strides.

The third prospect turns out to be significant, which is counter to early rumors that he was a throw-in. Wuilmer Becerra got $1.4 million from Toronto out of Venezuela in 2011, and he's had just 39 pro at-bats, with his 2012 season shortened by a broken jaw after being hit in the face by a pitch. He has a sweet-looking right-handed swing with strong hands, keeping his head steady with great hip rotation and loft for future power as his body matures. He should have the arm for right field, although I'd like to see the Mets work out this slight hesitation he has before release. There's no way a player like Becerra, who will be lucky to see the majors before 2016, could stand in the way of the Jays making this trade, but his inclusion makes the return all the better for the Mets.

The Jays did get a backup catcher back in the deal in Josh Thole and rid themselves of John Buck, a small net gain because Thole, who has decent plate discipline but not much else, is cheap, with four years of team control remaining. Overall, however, this deal is three prospects for a year of R.A. Dickey, followed by a cheap two-year-plus option extension. For the Mets, it's an absolute no-brainer, a move that carries some risk but that would have made sense for them if they were only receiving d'Arnaud for Dickey. For the Jays, it makes sense given its context, with a weaker division and a chance to grab mindshare that can be converted into loonies before the year is out. It's also the kind of deal that could haunt the Jays in 2016 if d'Arnaud is in the All-Star Game and Berrera is high at the top of my prospect rankings, but that will sting less if Dickey brings them to the playoffs before he's through.