The offseason priority for the New York Mets and general manager Sandy Alderson is signing third baseman David Wright and pitcher R.A. Dickey to long-term contract extensions beyond their options for 2013.
For Wright, it's about keeping the face of the franchise in a Mets uniform for the rest of his career. Every team needs a cornerstone player. Fans can attach their hopes and rooting interests to such a figure. Front offices can build a roster around that kind of talent.
Does Dickey fit that profile for the Mets? The 38-year-old knuckleballer is undoubtedly a popular player after posting a 20-6 record and 2.73 record in 2012. Those numbers are even more impressive considering that the Mets won only 74 games this season and finished fourth in the NL East.
But to paraphrase Branch Rickey's famous quote to Ralph Kiner, the Mets finished in fourth place with Dickey, and they can finish in fourth without him. (This might not quite hold up since Dickey may have been the one thing that kept the Mets out of last place.)
So would Alderson actually be better off trading a pitcher that would be in high demand throughout MLB? Dickey's option for 2013 is worth $5 million. Plenty of teams would be eager to make a deal for a 20-game winner who will cost that much next season.
According to the New York Daily News' Andy Martino, as many as 12 clubs would show interest in Dickey if the Mets put him on the trade block.
Teams might not be willing to give up as much for a player who can be a free agent after the season, however. Getting full value in a trade might depend on whether or not Dickey signs a contract with his new employer. Additionally, Martino spoke to one MLB executive who expressed concern about having a catcher who could probably handle Dickey's knuckleball.
The Mets would presumably get a prospect or two in return to stock their minor league system, perhaps a young arm that could join Jonathon Niese, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler in the rotation of the future.
Meanwhile, Dickey's 2013 salary—and the value of his future contract—could be put toward upgrading the team's outfield, bullpen and/or catcher.
How much of a raise could Dickey get over $5 million per season in a multi-year extension? FanGraphs' Eno Sarris looked at starting pitchers Dickey compares to in terms of age and statistics and determined that he is worth $10 million per year on the open market.
Is that a salary the Mets are prepared to pay over the next two or three years? How much of a commitment will the team want to make to a 38-year-old pitcher, even if throwing a knuckleball puts less wear and tear on his arm?
A lowball offer risks alienating Dickey and would turn off fans skeptical of the Mets' interest in putting together a playoff contender. If Alderson has doubts about Dickey's ability to maintain his performance over a two- to three-year span, he should definitely deal him while his value will never be higher.
However, there's nothing to suggest that Dickey is a one-year fluke. The 20-6 record is certainly a career-best, but he pitched in 60 games during his previous two seasons with the Mets. In 2010, his ERA was 2.84. Last season, it was 3.28.
The one question mark might be Dickey's strikeout numbers. He led the National League with 230 strikeouts this season, averaging 8.9 K's per nine innings. That's a huge jump from 2011, when Dickey racked up 134 strikeouts in 208.2 innings (a rate of 5.8 K's per nine). Can he continue to strike out batters with that frequency?
It's certainly possible that 2012 was the year it just all came together for Dickey. After years of working with the knuckleball, he finally mastered it.
Not only was he able to control the pitch in terms of keeping it in the strike zone, but he was also able to change speeds. According to the New York Times, the pitch varied from 54 mph to 83 mph. A "hard" knuckleball—or an "angry knuckleball," as Dickey calls it—is something opposing batters have rarely seen. That translated into Dickey's breakout success.
But these are all baseball reasons to keep Dickey. With the Mets, it's about more than what happens on the field.
Despite the team's performance this year, fans bought in when the Mets were in the NL East race during the first half of the season. After falling out of contention, Dickey was the only reason many bothered to watch the Mets.
People became captivated by Dickey's life story, the journey of a late bloomer who had every reason to give up but finally persevered after years of following his dream. It's the kind of story we all love to hear—if for no other reason than we hope a similar payoff awaits us in our lives.
Mets fans followed Dickey's triumphant rise over the past three seasons. Ending the story by trading him to another team would be quite a slap in the face to those who supported the Mets throughout their financial difficulties and steady slide down the NL East standings.
But if Alderson thinks he can make the Mets better by trading Dickey, he'll surely take the public relations hit and accept handshakes later when his team develops into a contender again.
Yet keeping Dickey around could buy some time with fans as they try to assemble a competitive team. I realize that's a somewhat cynical view. Hopefully, Alderson and owner Fred Wilpon have greater ambitions in mind.
This might be one instance where the better move for the Mets might be to go with popular opinion. Teams have to give fans something to root for, a reason to support the team and come to the ballpark.
Well, at least they should.
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