by Kevin Kunzmann (@KevKunzmann)
“So I’ve grieved what I need to grieve. And now I am so excited. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be part of an organization that’s committed to winning and putting a product on the field that the fans can be excited coming to support.” -R.A Dickey on becoming a Toronto Blue Jay.
Five million dollars. That was the numerical difference between the offers of the New York Mets and that of Toronto in one of the most questionable offseason moves in Mets franchise history.
In 2012, Dickey became a Cy Young winner, a household name, a model for persistence and work ethic, an endearing figure in the world of sports and a self-proclaimed disciple of the Mets organization. And then he became a Blue Jay, because of five million dollars.
Something is off. This is the very same team that released its budget from the Vulcan grip of Jason Bay’s contract, declined to re-sign Mike Pelfrey, Andres Torres and Fred Lewis, and then made no apparent effort to shop its dozen trading pieces in the Winter Meetings. This is also the team that– in the last decade– has splurged on the big names looking for big money. Yes, the uncharacteristically quiet offseason pointed to one conclusion: the Mets finally liked where they were at.
David Wright’s re-signing and the growing noise of a potentially dominant pitching staff had Mr. Met doing his 7th Inning stretch jig, but then came Dickey and the five million dollars. And now it’s obvious that Mr. Wilpon and Mr. Anderson are exactly what they can’t be right now: afraid, oh so very afraid.
What are they afraid of? Well, everything they should’ve been afraid of about a decade ago: divisional competition were building through their farm leagues, developing potential into long-term solution. Meanwhile, the Amazin’s constantly shopped for the hottest free agent, hoping to catch a hint of that old Yankee glory with a Beltran or a Santana, or even a Bay (yeesh). Nothing entirely panned out to its monetary worth, and it’s easy to say that the only proven asset from their own system was Wright.
Meanwhile, teams like the Nationals and Braves have finally gotten theirs through the benefit of poor records and the upside of patience: those rosters were designed to win for years. Rather than comply with Dickey’s extension, they let him walk for two prospects, folded on the next hand, and made the statement, “We can win with what we have,” effectively tarnishing any presumption about the Mets front office.
What they also tarnished was their 2013 season.
Travis d’Arnaud was drafted by the Phillies in 2007. He was flipped to the Blue Jays in 2010 through the Roy Halladay trade, and spent two years with the AA affiliate. He won the 2011 award for Most Valuable Player in the AA Eastern League, before missing most of 2012 with a knee injury. Many regard him the best catching prospect in baseball, while others (such as myself) point to a few issues: he is a 23 year old catcher who has bad knees and has not completed a single season of AAA ball. And yet, his valued potential was enough to send Dickey, catcher Josh Thole, and Mike Nickeas to Toronto in exchange for himself, single-A righty Noah Snydergaard, veteran catcher John Buck, and another prospect. While it is true that the Mets have lacked a substantial backstop since Paul LoDuca, d’Arnaud makes little to no impact instantly, and the team is immediately deprived of an Opening Day pitcher and catcher, all because of five million dollars (Dickey signed with Toronto for $25 million, a week after the Mets offered $20 million).
What the front office needs to realize is that such a move is so careful and decisive that it is actually the stupidest thing they could have done in that given situation. They are avoiding the classic Mets team, but they are not building with their typical model. We are talking about a borderline .500 squad with one of the potentially most dangerous rotations in the NL (the team led the league in quality starts last season), a core of 20-something’s with a knack for contact hitting (the lineup was 11th in OBP) and a hitter who, at the end of his career, will be regarded as the best hitter in franchise history (Wright is on track for 400+ home runs and 1500+ RBI). That doesn’t sound like the Mets at all, does it?
Those qualities are reserved for playoff-bound teams that are just one piece away from making headlines. Well guess what? That’s exactly what the Mets were until the moment of the Dickey trade.
The harm of the trade goes well past the worth of Dickey. Beyond his 39 wins in three seasons and his sub-three ERA, the knuckleballer compensated for a horrible bullpen. He improved the play of everyone around him by eating innings at an incredible rate, averaging just about seven innings per start over that three year span. His 233 innings were tops in the NL, and that workload now must be distributed amongst Santana, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Matt Harvey.
Santana is a shade of his former self; injury and age has limited his brilliance to a handful of starts per season. Gee is a fourth starter at best, and Harvey is a young flamethrower who hasn’t proven ace status yet. That leaves Niese as the most capable to fill the workhorse’s void. Many would be surprised to know that the young lefty was in the top ten for Quality Starts last season (22) while nearly capping 200 innings (190). If anyone earned the Opening Day start, it is Niese– if not for just his durability.
Also left scathed was the lineup– Thole was never going to be better than a .250 slap-hitter, but he was just consistent and durable enough to make a home in the eighth spot. d’Arnaud is not starting Opening Day on the 25-man roster; he still has an entire class of talent to scale before breaking through. If all goes accordingly, the lineup’s first four will consist of Ruben Tejada, Dan Murphy, Wright, and Ike Davis.
It is enough production to fester 80 wins until we are saved by the next apparent Mike Piazza some time in 2014, but that’s unacceptable. One more bat is what I hoped for when I realized dealing Dickey was inevitable; a corner outfielder who can drive the ball is exactly what is stopping Davis from a .300/30/100 season, stopping Wright from being burdened with an entire offensive workload, stopping those close-game scenarios that give us no option beyond entrusting Jon Rauch with the bottom of the ninth, stopping the Mets from leaping from the cellar to snatch the second Wild Card spot with the fervor of 2000 all over again.
Just one single batter — maybe a Pence, even a Swisher or an Upton — was all that it took to justify the canning of the best pitcher we’ve had in twenty years. “Just one batter” was our mantra since 2001, and the moment that it actually earned truth, we went for anything except one batter. The deal went through, the 2013 season imploded, and the only fact left was that you could put a price on what winning means to another team: five million dollars.