The Mets got involved in contract extension negotiations with R.A. Dickey, and Dickey’s requested price seemed to be reasonable, but for whatever reason, the Mets didn’t want to pay it. Possibly because they don’t trust Dickey in the longer term, possibly because they don’t think they’re ready to win, possibly because of a blend of those reasons, or for neither of those reasons. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are happy to pay it, as they’ve agreed to give Dickey a two-year extension. So Dickey is just about officially a member of the Blue Jays, at the cost of some of their top prospects.
The Blue Jays might trust Dickey more, and based on their offseason, they certainly think they’re more ready to win. From the looks of things, they’re the current American League East favorites. There are those major differences between this trade and the Royals’ James Shields trade — the Blue Jays are better than the Royals are, and the Blue Jays didn’t trade someone who could’ve been of immediate use. Yet, because the Blue Jays aren’t proven and because people love top prospects, there’s a sentiment that the Jays might’ve overpaid. This depends on the weight you put on trying to win in the short term, but when looking at the Dickey deal, it makes sense to look at similar previous deals.
Granted, every trade is different, and we can’t just justify one trade because a similar trade was made before. That would be like saying the Royals set a reasonable precedent, when it’s the opinion of this website, I think, that they did not. But anyway. The Dickey trade from New York to Toronto was contingent upon the Jays and Dickey agreeing to a contract extension within an exclusive negotiating window. For the Mets, Dickey had one year left; for the Jays, he now has three years left. So the Jays did not trade for a one-year rental.
We can look at some other recent trades involving high-profile players and contract-extension windows. The three that immediately come to mind are the Johan Santana trade to the Mets, the Roy Halladay trade to the Phillies, and the Adrian Gonzalez trade to the Red Sox. All those guys technically had one year left, but then they reached longer-term agreements. Gonzalez didn’t officially reach an agreement until months after the fact, but the Red Sox came out of the negotiating window feeling confident a deal could be struck. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have agreed to send players to the Padres.
Santana went from the Twins to the Mets in February 2008. At the time, Santana was an ace, and he brought back Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber. Hardly an impressive package in retrospect, but Baseball America ranked those guys the Mets’ #2, #3, #4, and #7 prospects. Guerra was ranked #35 overall. Gomez came in at #52, and Mulvey had just pitched well as a starter in double-A. That wasn’t a bad haul for the Twins; it just didn’t work out for the Twins.
Halladay went from the Blue Jays to the Phillies in December 2009. At the time, Halladay was an ace, and he brought back Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and a certain Travis d’Arnaud. The Jays probably haven’t gotten out of that what they were hoping for, but BA ranked those players the Phillies’ #2, #3, and #4 prospects. Drabek was ranked #25 overall, Taylor was ranked #29, and d’Arnaud was ranked #81. These were some non-elite blue-chippers, and of course the Jays just managed to turn d’Arnaud into R.A. Dickey, in part.
Gonzalez went from the Padres to the Red Sox in December 2010. At the time, Gonzalez was one of the more feared hitters in baseball, and he brought back Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, Reymond Fuentes, and (eventually) Eric Patterson. Let’s just go ahead and skip the Eric Patterson part. BA ranked Kelly, Rizzo, and Fuentes the Red Sox’s #1, #3, and #6 prospects. Kelly was ranked #31 overall, and Rizzo was #75. In all three of these packages, we see highly-ranked prospects moving around. They’re just highly-ranked, non-elite prospects.
The main pieces going from the Blue Jays to the Mets for Dickey are d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. A year ago, BA ranked d’Arnaud the #17 prospect overall, and then he hit well in Las Vegas, but you also hit well in Las Vegas, you hit well there without realizing you had even played, and d’Arnaud missed a big chunk of the season due to knee surgery. Knee surgery, for a catcher. In the upper levels he’s struck out three times as often as he’s walked. The point being that d’Arnaud is a good prospect with question marks. Syndergaard is very young and so far very successful, but he also hasn’t pitched above single-A. He’s a guy who currently scouts better than his odds, if that makes sense.
What the Blue Jays are giving up is a very comparable package to what the Mets, Phillies, and Red Sox gave up. They all chose to surrender some of their best prospects in order to improve their chances of winning in the short-term. That might seem problematic if you don’t think that Dickey is comparable to Santana, Halladay, or Gonzalez, but over three years Dickey has been right there with Gonzalez in terms of value, and last season Dickey turned in a performance that would’ve fit well into a Halladay or Santana career peak. Last season Dickey seemed to develop the ability to strike batters out, and that’s a tough thing to fake.
Dickey is under contract with the Jays for less time than those other players were under contract with their new teams, and that’s true. But remember that the bulk of the value from a long-term contract to a star comes toward the front. And though Dickey is 38, which everybody points out, I don’t think it’s fair to say that other 38-year-olds represent an appropriate peer group. Other knuckleballers don’t represent an appropriate peer group, either, since Dickey throws harder than all of them have, but this peer group is closer than the 38-year-olds peer group, and this peer group has aged tremendously well. Despite Dickey’s age, there are reasons to believe he could remain effective for quite some time yet.
So the Blue Jays are paying steeply, sure. But they’re paying for not one year of R.A. Dickey, but three years of him, and they aren’t giving up a true can’t-miss prospect. They get a lot better now, which is the whole point, and we haven’t even touched on the surplus value from Dickey’s phenomenally low 2013 salary. Based on recent history, the Jays don’t seem to be overpaying, and based on the current setting of things, this should be a hell of a season for baseball in Toronto.