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December 17, 2012

Transaction Analysis

The Mets Deal Dickey to Toronto? UPDATED

by Ben Lindbergh and Jason Parks

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Reportedly traded C-R Travis D'Arnaud, RHP Noah Syndergaard, C-R John Buck and OF-R Wuilmer Becerra to the Mets for RHP R.A. Dickey, C-L Josh Thole, and C-R Mike Nickeas. [12/17]

The November trade that brought Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and friends to Toronto made it clear that the Blue Jays were going for it. The Dickey trade—whether it’s finalized today, finalized tomorrow, or falls apart completely—reveals the lengths to which they’re willing to go.

There were some signs late last season that the honeymoon period for Alex Anthopoulos might be coming to a close, which might have put some pressure on him to stop stockpiling and start dealing from strength. In this case, though, it’s easy to make the case that the GM’s own interests line up well with his team’s.

Look around the AL East. The Red Sox have signed a few impact players, but they’ll have to have an even bigger bounceback than the Blue Jays to compete after a 69-win season. The suddenly cost-conscious Yankees lost a few key free agents and have largely limited their activity to re-signing old players (old both in the chronological sense and in the sense that they played for the Yankees last season). The Rays have lost B.J. Upton, James Shields, and Wade Davis and added Yunel Escobar, Wil Myers, and James Loney, which seems (in isolation) like a downgrade for 2013. The Orioles have done almost nothing to offset any regression that might be in store after their run-differential-defying 2012.

While most of their rivals have treaded water or worse, the Jays have added roughly 12 projected WARP from Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis, and Emilio Bonifacio (while subtracting roughly five projected WARP from the departures of Escobar and Kelly Johnson). The team that wins the winter doesn’t always win 90 games, so we shouldn’t let an active offseason blind us to the Blue Jays’ remaining needs. But plug in all the new players and factor in the likelihood of improved health for Jose Bautista and a pitching staff that couldn’t stay on the field in 2012, and Toronto looks like the pre-season favorite (or at least the pre-New Year’s favorite) in the AL East.

More than once (before today’s discussion of the deal with Jason Parks), Sam Miller and I have played the “Would you rather?” game with Dickey and a whole host of starters with worse results in 2012. It’s a good game to play with Dickey, since he combines recent results among the best in baseball with an unusually high uncertainty level for someone two months removed from a Cy Young season. As fantastic as Dickey has been at preventing runs over the past three years, and despite the big spike in strikeout rate last season with an accompanying improvement in control, he posted his first league-average ERA in 2010, turned 38 in October, and relies on a unique offering that he could conceivably lose his feel for as suddenly as he found it.

Given their pitchers’ struggles to stay healthy last season, Dickey’ recent durability has to appeal to Toronto: the righty led the National League in starts and innings in his Cy Young year and hasn’t hit the DL since 2005. Between Dickey and Buehrle, the Jays have added two innings eaters who should offer some security should the fragile Johnson prove as breakable as he has before, though banking on any pitcher to take the ball can backfire. PECOTA projected roughly 190 innings with a mid-3.00s ERA for Dickey in Queens; adjust those numbers accordingly for the AL East and a better hitter’s ballpark, and Dickey starts to look a little less special, albeit still an incredible bargain for the $5 million he’ll earn. But it’s hard to say how much a projection system based on comparables and several seasons of past performance can help us project a pitcher with no perfect comparables and a 2012 approach and performance completely out of character with the rest of his career.

Last week, I came down (maybe a little more softly than some) against the Royals’ decision to trade their top prospect (and some other prospects) for a pitcher. So why aren’t I blasting the Blue Jays for doing something similar? In short, because the Blue Jays are the better team. On the surface, their results from last season don’t look much different from the Royals’, but the Jays’ injury issues were so severe that it’s easier to believe that they weren’t playing up to their capabilities. More importantly, the Jays have already made one big trade this winter that put them in a position to win with one more major move. Even factoring in some expected improvement from the Royals’ young hitters, it’s tough to make the case that the Shields trade put them in the same position that the Dickey trade does Toronto.

One thing we’ve learned over the last week: as much as teams might value promising, cost-controlled prospects, they aren’t afraid to trade them. Whether because teams have gotten better at quantifying prospect value or (maybe more likely) because the second wild card has put a playoff spot within reach of most teams, many top prospects have shifted from “untouchable” to “trade chip.” D’Arnaud isn’t quite the prospect that Myers is, but he’s close to the prospect Bauer was before last season. Last week, I looked at how former top prospects who were traded early on in their careers from 1990-2004 fared in (roughly) their first few years of service time. The results weren’t pretty: top-10 prospects traded before losing their rookie eligibility accrued roughly 5.0 WARP in their team control years, compared to roughly 12 WARP for top-10 prospects who weren’t traded. D’Arnaud might not be a top-10 guy—according to our in-house prospect experts, he’s on the cusp, tentatively just missing the Top 10 but making the Top 15—but he’s close enough to give rise to a sneaking suspicion that the Jays sold high.

Regardless, d’Arnaud’s departure leaves the Jays with a weakness behind the plate. J.P. Arencibia’s power makes him an adequate offensive catcher, despite his lousy walk rate, but according to Max Marchi’s model, he was baseball’s worst receiver last season, costing the Jays over 20 runs due to framing. Thole is average in that respect, but he has little of Arencibia’s upside at the plate. Last year, he posted the worst TAv of any hitter who got at least 350 plate appearances: .206, 10 whole points below Clint Barmes.

There’s one more factor to consider before we move on. On our internal mailing list, Dan Evans advanced the idea that one reason for Toronto’s faith in Dickey might have been the belief that the knuckleball would be better in a dome:

The biggest component is that the knuckleballer has confidence that the environment won't mess with the path of the pitch, which reassures the pitcher and allows the guy to cast it without concern. Dickey's ability to throw strikes with his knuckleball was extraordinary in 2012…

The unpredictability of the pitch is both its strength and worst enemy. When the pitcher has comfort that the elements will not adversely affect it, the knuckleball suddenly becomes a better pitch. 

Knuckleballers are a small sample, and knuckleballers in domes are a smaller sample still, so it’s difficult to test this theory, at least by looking at the results of knuckleball pitchers. Comparing raw open-air stats to indoors stats wouldn’t do it: to come up with anything definitive, you’d need to account for how good the pitcher was when he pitched in those parks, what their park factors were, how good the opposing lineup was, etc. It would be a lot of work for a result that might prove ambiguous anyway (and it doesn’t help that the career in-dome split stats available online appear to be borked.) According to University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Alan M. Nathan, an expert on baseball physics (and a BP guest author), "there is anecdotal evidence of the knuckleball being more effective indoors." Nathan says a dome's "constant atmosphere conditions means the pitch is easier to control," but he knows of no "controlled experiments addressing the issue." What we do know is that Dickey believes that pitching in a dome helps him, or did as of 2009 when he signed with the Twins:

“I pitched there last year with the Mariners," Dickey explains, "and I found that that constant climate where you have a little bit of humidity in the Dome and a little bit of air conditioner in your face proves to be a real nice kind of controlled atmosphere to throw it in. Whereas if you're on the coasts somewhere and you get wind gusts up to 30 miles an hour, it could be a little more difficult sometimes."

Dickey may have changed his mind after posting a 4.76 ERA in 19 games in relief that season, but he’ll have another shot at indoor pitching next season (depending on the weather and the Blue Jays’ whims— whether the Rogers Centre’s roof is retracted during Dickey’s home starts might tell us whether the Jays think there’s something to the knuckleball dome theory.) And if he gets his extension, he’ll have two or three years beyond that to get accustomed to Canada, at a significantly more lucrative salary and an even higher risk to Toronto.

*Update* Ken Rosenthal reports that the Jays and Dicky have agreed to a two-year, $25 million extension, making a physical the only obstacle to the deal going through (hopefully Toronto already knows about the no-UCL thing). Two years on top of 2013 will take Dickey through his age-40 season, bringing his total earnings up to an affordable $30 million for three years with Toronto.

*Another update* The trade is now official, and the identities of the last two players have been revealed: Mike Nickeas went to Toronto, while prospect Wuilmer Becerra went to the Mets. This makes the deal even better for New York: Nickeas is a marginal backup catcher who's almost 30 and can't hit (though he appears to be a pretty good framer), while Becerra is a legitimate prospect. The Jays wanted another catcher with experience catching Dickey's knuckleball in case Thole gets hurt, but they had to give up a "potential stud," in the words of Jason Parks. Here's a sneak preview from the Mets Top 10 list, which will be up on Tuesday; Becerra made the "Prospects on the rise" section.

A seven-figure player signed by the Jays in the 2011 J2 market, 18-year-old Wuilmer Becerra has all the tools to climb prospect lists in 2013. His 2012 debut was cut short after getting hit in the face, but the Venezuelan outfielder has the type of size/speed/power potential that is rarely found in one package.

Ben Lindbergh

Whenever a team trades a top prospect, it’s natural to dig for reasons that exist below the soil of the obvious. The most common discovery is a narrative that the team is selling high on goods they believe to be faulty, or at the very least likely to fall short of the recognized projection. This is one of the benefits of an intimate developmental system, where teams can form evaluations that have more depth than a limited physical profile can offer; other teams might be quite familiar with the sketch of a prospect based on baseball performance from eyewitness accounts, but those evaluations will rarely paint the complete picture of the player.

This isn’t to suggest that all prospect trades have root in the grift; rather, just that it’s easy to form ulterior conclusions based on this premise. If someone is willing to trade you a major-league-ready prospect—one that has skills both at the plate and behind it—one can assume that the return for said prospect is substantial enough to warrant the move, or that the prospect might not be as special as the profile suggests. The latter leaves the blind searching for holes in the product and the sales pitch, scared of falling short of luxury and landing a lemon. ’Tis the nature of the barter, where coming out ahead has a sweeter taste than mutual benefit.

I’ve been thinking about the discussed Blue Jays/Mets trade since it took its first breath on Twitter, and I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t jump to conclusions beyond a mutually beneficial deal. My first thoughts were “Really? Both d’Arnaud and Syndergaard for Dickey? The Jays must not believe in d’Arnaud. I wonder if they fear his long-term stability behind the plate? What if his latest knee injury is a red flag being flown with a different shade? I wonder if they don’t believe in the bat? I wonder if they are more willing to trade him because they didn’t draft him and aren’t as emotionally invested in him?” Right or wrong, I assumed the worst, having convinced myself that smart teams don’t trade premium up-the-middle talent on the cusp of the majors. The Jays seem like a smart team. Something must be up.

Having profiled the Jays system only days before, I returned to my player notes, combing over the five outside sources I had asked about Travis d’Arnaud, a prospect that Baseball Prospectus ended up ranking number one in the Toronto system. The notes featured far more superlatives than stains, with every source giving d’Arnaud a floor of a major-league regular, with his ceiling ranging anywhere from first-division starter to perennial all-star. The bat has some impact potential, with a hit tool that graded out in the average to plus range, with his power potential receiving similar scores.

With a steady (but not spectacular) defensive skill-set, the total package, at least on paper, made d’Arnaud look like a can’t-miss talent, a cost-controlled major-league catcher with substantial upside. I started calling around, asking about the knee, asking about potential makeup issues that could limit his ceiling, about weaknesses that would cause him to fall flat at the highest level. The reports remained positive. Despite some injury setbacks, I couldn’t find one source that thought prior injuries to his back and his knee would derail his ability to function at the position, and despite some minor deficiencies in his game, I couldn’t find one source that thought he would fall flat.

The secondary prospect in the deal is right-hander Noah Syndergaard, a tall Texan with big stuff and a good feel for pitching.  The scouting report can make the lip quiver, thanks to a plus-plus fastball and two plus potential secondary offerings, but the inherent risk of pitching prospects and the professional resume that concludes at the Low-A level create a profile that is anything but a sure thing. Despite this uncertainty, Syndergaard has the type of promise that can haunt a team should he develop to maturity. In combination with d’Arnaud, the Jays are playing Russian roulette with Amityville Horror, a potential fright-fest that only winning at the major-league level can diminish should it appear. 

I gave up my pursuit of a narrative and settled in comfortably with the notion that the Blue Jays felt adding a top-of-the-rotation arm was worth trading away such a promising prospect package, and after taking another look at their projected 2013 roster, I not only understood the move, I started to appreciate the approach taken by the Jays front office. They feel they have a chance to win, and they are willing to part with some of the currency they’ve been saving up to enhance their odds. It’s a risk, but you can’t always rest on the accomplishments of your farm system when the product at the highest level is paramount to your own survival. Eventually, you have to play your hand. —Jason Parks

Programming noteLook for the Mets Top 10 Prospects list, featuring d'Arnaud and Syndergaard, this week at BP. Jason will also update the Blue Jays Top 10 to reflect the trade later this winter.

NEW YORK METS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Reportedly traded RHP R.A. Dickey, C-L Josh Thole, and C-R Mike Nickeas to the Blue Jays in exchange for C-R Travis D'Arnaud, RHP Noah Syndergaard, C-R John Buck and OF-R Wuilmer Becerra. [12/17]

True to form, the Mets mucked up the PR aspects of trading their most popular pitcher, making much of their contract negotiation process public, lowballing the ace with below-market extension offers, and complaining about Dickey’s comments at a team function last week. That’s a shame, since the team was wise to trade Dickey when it did. If the Red Sox-style verbal backstabbing on the way out was intended to make fans sympathize with the team, it likely had the opposite effect. It was also entirely unnecessary: the perception that Dickey’s departure had anything to do with his penchant for running his mouth to the media, writing best-selling books, and climbing Kilimanjaro obscures how much sense it made on a talent level alone. It was a win both for the franchise and for Mets fans who were willing to look beyond 2013, which they should have been doing even before the deal.

Earlier this month, Tom Verducci reported that the Blue Jays “weren’t enamored with the basic math” of a Dickey-for-Arencibia-and-Anthony Gose deal, but the Mets ended up with an even better return, importing two impact players instead of settling for stopgaps. They weren’t going to win any more with Dickey next season than they had in 2012, they’d already appeased the fans by extending David Wright, and they filled holes for the future. D’Arnaud is ready to compete for a starting job right now, with Buck (an average framer and declining hitter) serving as his veteran caddy. And Syndergaard gives forward-looking Mets fans license to dream of a Wheeler-Harvey-Syndergaard front of a future rotation that could still include Jon Niese.

Sandy Alderson has perhaps been guilty of letting opportunities to improve his team pass by: How much better would the Mets’ system look with another top prospect or two from a much-rumored but never-materialized Jose Reyes deal? But when he has pulled the trigger on a trade for an in-demand veteran—first with Carlos Beltran, who brought back Wheeler, and now with Dickey—he's made the Mets much better. —Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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