Heavily rumoured all weekend has been an impending trade between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Mets. In their most recent permutations, rumours have the deal going as follows:
To the Blue Jays: RA Dickey (2012 NL Cy Young Award winner, 3 consecutive strong seasons, 38 years of age, only making $5M in 2013, and only asking for a 2-year, $26M extension), Josh Thole (major league catcher who has performed below average offensively and defensively) and an unnamed non-elite prospect.
To the Mets: Travis d’Arnaud (Jays #1 prospect; top-ranked catcher prospect in MLB), Noah Syndergaard (Jays #2 ranked prospect and #1 ranked pitching prospect; a very highly-touted pitching prospect with the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter), John Buck (catcher who has not been nearly as proficient as he was when he signed his current $6M/year contract, which is in its final year), and an unnamed non-elite prospect. I’ve also heard talk of the Jays sending a few million dollars the Mets’ way to help cover Buck’s salary.
The core of this trade is Dickey for d’Arnaud and Syndergaard. They will be the main focus in this post.
Should the Mets make this deal?
OF COURSE!!! This is a golden sell-high opportunity for a team looking to build for the future rather than make a big play this year.
Should the Jays make this deal?
That’s a much more complicated proposition.
Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard
RA Dickey is not coming cheap. Travis d’Arnaud (TDA) and Noah Syndergaard are top-flight prospects who could very well have bright futures ahead of them. d’Arnaud alone would represent a significant loss given that he is MLB-ready, has excelled at every level, and is a catcher – a premium position. He has consistently been rated as notably above average offensively and defensively, and many have projected him as seeing some All Star Game action in his future.
As a pitching prospect who is still several years away from The Show, Syndergaard is much further away from being a “sure thing” than is TDA – though, of course, there is no such thing as a “sure thing”, prospect or veteran. It has been said before that “there is no such thing as a pitching prospect” in reference to how unpredictable pitching prospects can be in the long run. This consideration is compounded by how far off Syndergaard is from being Major League ready. Lots of time for things to potentially go wrong. The unpredictability of prospects in general and pitching prospects in particular is why it is advisable to gain safety in numbers – to have lots of promising prospects so that you can comfortably depend on at least a few of them living up to their projections. TDA and Syndergaard are definitely the kinds of irons that you want to have in your fire.
What makes these prospects valuable is not simply that they’re good. As prospects, they are VERY CHEAP. Prospects are under relatively cheap team control for 5-6 years upon arrival to MLB, making notably less than they would command on the free agent market. What is more, during this 5-6 year period their team has exclusive right to offer them contract extensions. Contract extensions prior to a player’s free agency come at a discount because 1) the player’s team has zero competition from other teams, and 2) the player will usually accept less guaranteed money now rather than wait until free agency for a bigger pay day a few years later. Why? This way, the player guarantees that no matter what happens – including such unwanted possible occurrences as serious injury or drop in performance – the player will have guaranteed a certain, often very substantial, measure of long-term financial wellness.
Cheap players with high-performance potential are valuable to any team, but they are particularly valuable to the Blue Jays. Toronto’s being outside of America constitutes a significant handicap for the Blue Jays when it comes to attracting free agent players. The more prominent reasons for this include 1) Canada’s higher taxes, and 2) its notably impoverished coverage on US media – e.g., ESPN and Fox Sports. A loss of coverage by the American media can’t help but lower a player’s earning potential in the lucrative domains of product endorsements. On top of this, many players view having to constantly go through international customs as being an undesirable hassle. And then there’s the common desire to stay in the US, and not have to move to another country. These are well-recognized hurtles that the Jays, and only the Jays, must deal with. While US-based small market teams also face an uphill battle compared to larger market teams, they don’t face these same hurdles to the same degree as Toronto, the lone non-American team.
Because of this special handicap, it is extra important for the Jays to amass as many cheap, controllable players as they can. If they do not have these sorts of players, and if they cannot pull off favourable trades for players under team-friendly contracts, then the Jays typically have to overpay free agents to get them to come North of the Border.
RA Dickey is a 38 year old knuckleballer who absolutely dominated in 2012, eating up an NL-leading 233 2/3 innings and striking out an NL-leading 230 batters. He had an ERA well under 3, walked few batters, and performed very well according to various advanced baseball metrics (e.g., Fielding-Independent Play, or FIP). Contrary to the notion that his Cy Young 2012 season was a one-hit wonder, he also put up very strong seasons in 2010 and 2011, performing at the level of a solid number-2 starter. Yes, he is quite old, but knuckleballers tend to have longer careers than other pitchers given the reduced wear and tear on their throwing arms by low-velocity knuckleballs compared to fastball-based pitching repertoires. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs recently argued against notions of Dickey being a one-hit wonder, not only detailing his consistent success over the past 3 years, but also juxtaposing Dickey’s last 3 seasons with those of 2012 ALCy Young Winner, David Price. Over the past 3 years, Dickey and Price’s respective performance outcomes have been very similar, their methodological differences notwithstanding.
Dickey is not only good. He’s cheap.
Dickey is only making $5 million in 2013. Given his strong performance over the past 3 years, I have to assume that his true market value is probably $12-$15M higher than this. It would be higher still if not for his age and the comparative fickleness of knuckleballs compared to fastball-based repertoires.
After 2013, he is apparently only asking for a 2-year contract extension worth $26M. This seems to me to be a pretty reasonable request on his part. He might even be able to do a few million better.
At this moment, then, it would appear that RA Dickey represents an underpay of about $15M over three years.
Dickey is not only good and cheap, he’s just on time.
There has not been a better time in a long time for the Jays to be aggressive than this moment. Reasons:
1. Their primary division rivals, the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, are each uncharacteristically weak entering 2013. The Yankees are a year older and are more spendthrift than they’ve been in… well, years. The Red Sox look to have another year of attempting to find themselves ahead of them. And the Rays – my 2nd favourite team – just took a step back for 2013 by trading James Shields and Wade Davis for a slew of excellent prospects that will pay dividends for them year after year, but not until after this year. There has not been a better time for the Jays to pounce in years.
2. Hockey is on strike! Toronto, much to my infinite chagrin, is a city utterly devoted to one of the worst things in the universe: hockey. With the NHL thankfully on strike, the Jays have an EXCELLENT opportunity to attract new Torontonian, Ontarian and Canadian fans who, without hockey to suck up their cognitive, temporal and financial resources, may be more willing to attend to something infinitely better: an ascendant Toronto Blue Jays baseball team who recently re-branded themselves in a manner that is simultaneously nationalistic and nostalgic of the teams glory years.
3. Jose Bautista is not going to be in his prime forever. The longer the team bides it time, the more players like Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion will move past their prime years.
4. A few major opportunities presented themselves at once. The Marlins were in sell-mode. Melky Cabrera’s value had plummeted, making him gettable at a discount. The Jays had surpluses at several premium positions – catcher, shortstop, centre field, and young high-upside pitchers.
5. Adding Dickey would increase the team’s ability to tolerate possibly losing Josh Johnson after 2013, thereby modestly increasing their leverage in contract extension negotiations with JJ. Having RA Dickey on board for the next three years would also make the team that much more desirable a place for JJ and other free agents, making it easier to attract more and better players at lower cost. On a related note, some have speculated that the Jays addition of Johnson, Reyes, Buerhle et al may have helped them in signing Melky Cabrera…
6. RA Dickey helps keep the rotation performing while the Jays await the arrival of their remaining high-end pitching prospects (e.g., Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Matt Smoral, Derek Norris). While it is no small sorrow that this list will no longer include the likes of Justin Nicolino or Noah Syndergaard (or Joe Musgrove, for the matter), we can take some comfort from the expectation that with the Jays’ starting rotation having both depth and quality at the Major League level, the team will not be as inclined as they have been in recent years to rush prospects (Travis Snyder, anyone? – Fist bump to Xander for this point).
7. Last, and DEFINITELY not least: The Jays are ready to contend. If Dickey only stood to bring the Jays from a 4th place team to a 3rd place team, this deal would be asinine. For this reason, the recent Royals-Rays trade – in my opinion – was probably a serious misstep by the Royals (and another huge score for the brilliantly-run Rays). Dickey could represent those extra few wins that bring the Jays from also-ran to playoff team, or from wild-card team to AL East division champs. Toronto doesn’t want to be the 2013 Marlins, and it shows.
What 2013 could mean for the Jays’ future
Remember back in the early 90s, when the Blue Jays were the talk of the town. When every night was a sellout at the Dome. When a generation of Canada’s youth idolized Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Devon White, and John Olerud. When the Jays were able to attract big-ticket players like Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, Jack Morris, Rickey Henderson, and Tony Fernandez? The team was swimming in money but didn’t constantly have to overpay to get free agents because free agents wanted to come to Toronto – a team that was at the top of MLB, had arguably the best fans in the game, and a team that had captured the hearts and minds of not only one of North America’s biggest cities, but of millions and millions of people across Canada.
What Alex Anthopoulos is doing at this moment is capitalizing on the best opportunity in a very, very long time. An opportunity to convert Toronto back into a baseball city, and Canada into a Blue Jays nation. By going nearly all-in right now, he is bringing millions of eyes onto the Blue Jays, many of which are free from the unfortunate distraction that is hockey. By making them as competitive as they have been in 20 years, he is making them an increasingly desirable team for free agents, which could reduce overpays in the years to come.
The last thing that I will say is that, in my opinion, Alex Anthopoulos has shown himself to be one of the brightest, most studious GMs in baseball. His job was not insecure coming into this off-season, but the results of this season will undoubtedly have a huge impact on his ongoing job security, not to mention his legacy as Blue Jays GM. He easily could have played much more conservatively than he has this off-season and would have been respected for it. I’m inclined to think that when someone so bright who has so much at stake gets so unnecessarily – and uncharacteristically – aggressive, he’s probably got damned good reason for it.
This is one way of conceiving of the RA Dickey for TDA + Syndergaard trade talks. What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment.
(PS: Fist-bump to Drunk Jays Fans and Getting Blanked for their dependably excellent, timely, informative and entertaining coverage on this unfolding trade. I highly recommend checking them out. While you’re at it, check out MLBTradeRumors, FanGraphs, and MinorLeagueBall, possibly the best MLB sites around) .
UPDATE (8:35 AM PST, Monday, December 17, 2012): Blue Jays and RA Dickey have reportedly agreed to a contract extension pending clean bill of health for Dickey.