The Mets have reportedly agreed in principle to trade reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays, in exchange for highly-ranked catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud and almost-as-highly-ranked (if younger and further from ready) pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. If current reports are accurate, Toronto also gets catcher Josh Thole and another “non-elite” prospect, and sends Mets slightly better-hitting and older catcher John Buck and yet another still-unknown prospect. This is all still pending physicals and depends on Dickey agreeing to an extension with Toronto by Tuesday afternoon; if they can’t agree, the deal could change or even fall apart. As it stands now, though, the trade captures two teams at a crossroads: One betting everything on 2013, the other folding to wait for a better hand.
The trade is a smart if painful baseball move for New York, which is essentially throwing in the towel months before the season even starts -- and, in true Mets fashion, it is simultaneously a needless PR mess. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays now have one of the best rotations in the league and, adding Dickey to the pieces acquired from Miami earlier this fall and to their existing strengths, are prepared to go for glory in the AL East, where the Yankees and Red Sox are in uncharacteristic disarray.
For one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last three years, and one of the team’s few selling points for disgruntled Mets fans, Dickey was looking for a very reasonable contract extension. But the team is broke (the Mets could afford to extend face-of-the-franchise David Wright only by structuring the deal so that he actually takes a pay cut in 2013) and likely not particularly close to contending, so turning a 38-year-old looking for millions of dollars -- even a Cy Young winner, who deserves those millions and more -- into multiple highly regarded and dirt-cheap prospects is logical. It hurts now, but by 2014, should d’Arnaud and Syndergaard develop as hoped, it should be paying off.
Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, is in a unique position: He is severely hamstrung by the Mets’ immense debts and lack of ready cash, but his job is as safe as baseball jobs get, because commissioner Bud Selig requested him personally and the Wilpons, scrambling just to hold onto their team, are in no position to tick off Selig. So Alderson has limited resources but free reign to focus on the long view, and no need to worry too much about fan perception. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, on the other hand, clearly has permission to spend big … as well as the pressure to win, and win now, that comes with it.
Unfortunately, the Mets still cannot manage even a visit to comfort wounded veterans without turning it into a public-relations fiasco. And so rather than simply explain to their fans how this trade, while a loss right now, could be good for the team’s long-term health, they apparently felt the need to snipe at Dickey on his way out the door -- as if this were about his flaws or personality, rather than financial necessity and building for the future. They invited Dickey to be an elf at their holiday charity party, with media present, but when he answered the inevitable questions about his contract negotiations, anonymous team sources sniped that they were “not happy” and let it be known that the team had “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.”
Scarcely one negative word about Dickey’s ego or any issues with the team had been published over the course of his three years in New York, but Saturday as his trade was gathering steam, Ken Davidoff, generally a respected reporter and columnist, published a startling series of personal shots at Dickey in the New York Post. “Amazin’s won’t knuckle under Dickey’s laughable threats to leave,” was the headline, as if planning to leave a team that wouldn’t give you a contract was some sort of threat, instead of the way free agency generally works. The opening lines:
This past week at Citi Field, R.A. Dickey broke character -- as one of Santa’s elves, at a Mets holiday party centered around young victims of Hurricane Sandy -- to show his true character. All about himself once again, Dickey issued the laughable threat that, if the Mets didn’t extend his contract, he’d bolt the organization after 2013.
Yes, I’m sure those “young victims” were just scarred for life when they saw a man politely answering the questions of reporters (and now we can add “holiday party photo op with young hurricane victims” to “visit to wounded veterans” on the list of baffling Mets PR screw-ups). The article goes on from there, citing no sources and few specifics, but claiming that Dickey’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.”
These accusations are bizarre, and their timing is probably not a coincidence. Yes, R.A. Dickey published a memoir and co-starred in a documentary, which are generally not things you do if you don’t want attention. And … so what? Was their ace being “appreciated” rather than “beloved” by teammates what kept the Mets in fourth place in their division? It quite clearly didn’t hurt his performance on the field; in fact, at the height of his fame, he had his best season ever. If Dickey sought attention, well, the attention he brought was very nearly the only positive attention the Mets got all season. In September, Citi Field was largely empty, listless and hopeless -- except once every five days, when R.A. Dickey pitched. As he went for his 20th win and a Cy Young award, fans showed up solely to cheer him on, him and his weird pitch and his great story. On those days, the park was transformed from its usual crypt-like state and infused with good feeling. Perhaps the Mets organization is now so unused to positive attention that it frightens and confuses them.
There has indeed been a feeling among a number of baseball people this season that Dickey was overly self-promoting. It’s an industry that values conformity. But Dickey’s on-field performance never faltered, and his contract request -- two years in the neighborhood of $26 million -- was below market value. (Ryan Dempster made $14 million in 2012; Anibal Sanchez just signed a five-year deal worth $80 million. Neither of them was a Cy Young candidate.) The Mets had good reasons to trade Dickey now, but no need to drag him into the mud on his way out. And so a great story that benefitted both player and team immensely ends with a bitter taste, when it didn’t have to.
The Mets have not really contended since 2008, and fans are frustrated, even those that understand Alderson is making the best of a very difficult situation. But it’s been much longer than that for the Blue Jays.
Now, in a division that often seems downright hopeless, they’ve seen a chance, a door left open just a crack. That’s why they are prepared to let go of two prospects as highly regarded as d’Arnaud and Syndergaard, a decision just as painful to their fans as the Mets’ shipping Dickey off is to theirs. Prospects are never a sure thing, of course, but neither are 38-year-old pitchers, knuckleballers or not, and Toronto has been dreaming big on those players, especially d’Arnaud. But the Blue Jays don’t know how much longer that door will be unlocked, and they’re apparently tired of waiting. The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles and the Rays -- all of them are formidable teams still (… okay, maybe not the Orioles). But this year, at least, they don’t look invincible. So the Blue Jays are taking a big chance, pouring everything into this season.
And who better to lead a team against daunting odds than R.A. Dickey?