Commentary

Dickey's value rises with Blue Jays

Keep eye on catchers in trade; also impact on Dempster, Sanchez deals

Updated: December 17, 2012, 5:03 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

The New York Mets squeezed maximum value out of R.A. Dickey the past three seasons -- and especially this past season -- on the field.

Now they've done it off the field, by trading their most marketable chip at the peak of his value, swapping the 38-year-old knuckleballer in exchange for two top prospects who brighten the team's future considerably.

[+] EnlargeR.A. Dickey
AP Photo/Paul J. BereswillR.A. Dickey has a 39-28 record with a 2.95 ERA in three seasons with the Mets.

During the weekend the Mets reportedly agreed to trade Dickey and catcher Josh Thole to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for catchers John Buck and Travis d'Arnaud and right-hander Noah Syndergaard, with the two teams set to exchange unidentified, lower-caliber prospects as well. The Blue Jays then completed the deal by agreeing to terms with Dickey on a two-year, $25 million extension tacked to the end of his current $5 million agreement for 2013.

Dickey takes over as the Blue Jays' ace -- or No. 2 starter, if you prefer fellow trade acquisition Josh Johnson -- and with the role comes the inevitable question about the transition to the American League East, the most hitting-rich division in baseball the past half-decade. To that end, from 2008 to '12, AL East teams combined for a 4.20 ERA, 0.15 higher than the National League's average during that span (4.05); and AL East teams averaged 4.80 runs scored and a .761 OPS, each of those easily tops among the six divisions.

The answer: Don't sweat it. At least not too much.

Expectations for Dickey reside outside the norm; he's a knuckleballer, and a knuckleballer unlike any past knuckleballer. He threw his knuckler 87 percent of the time last season; the average velocity of the pitch was 77.1 mph, and 17 percent of his knucklers were at 80 mph or faster, a velocity that's historically rare from the pitch. Dickey's "hard knuckler" -- those clocked 80 mph or faster -- limited opposing hitters to .170 AVG/.177 OBP/.248 SLG rates the past three seasons combined, resulting in a 36.6 percent strikeout rate and 25 percent miss rate on swings.

In other words, Dickey isn't your typical "who the heck can predict a knuckleball" knuckleballer. His pitch ranks among the most effective in the game -- to compare, Justin Verlander's curveball has afforded opponents .137/.142/.192 rates, a 45.7 percent K rate and 25 percent miss rate -- and it's the pitchers with elite skills who tend to make the quickest, smoothest adjustments.

Besides, Dickey's own history supports his candidacy for the 2013 AL Cy Young Award, regardless of his league or division placement. Consider that, from 2010 to '12, he had 11 quality starts, a 2.82 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 15 starts combined versus the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, the five highest-scoring NL teams during that span. Dickey also had four quality starts, a 1.71 ERA and 0.74 WHIP in six starts versus AL East teams (New York Yankees three times, Baltimore Orioles twice, Tampa Bay Rays once) in the past three seasons combined.

And while Dickey's 20-win total from 2012 hardly makes it seem like he could win more in Toronto in 2013, there's no denying that leaving the Mets, potentially the last-place team in the NL East, and joining the Blue Jays, as good a contender for the AL East crown as there is in the division, won't hurt. Dickey's win total would've been far likelier to regress if he had stayed with the Mets.

Now that he's been traded, Dickey's prospects for continued success in 2013 increase, and it's for that reason he moves up one spot in my starting-pitching rankings, from 14th to 13th, and four spots overall, from 49th to 45th. As a knuckleballer, he's still somewhat too volatile to be trusted as a top-shelf fantasy ace, at least long term, but he's well worth an early-round pick.

Oddly enough, the player most significantly helped by the trade is a catcher, but it's not any of the three actually in the trade: It's Blue Jays incumbent J.P. Arencibia. At the time of John Buck's acquisition from the Miami Marlins on Nov. 19, Arencibia's future was clouded; Buck was the more experienced backstop and had a regular's 2013 salary ($6 million), while d'Arnaud figured to get a look in Toronto by year's end at the latest. With Buck and d'Arnaud now in New York, however, Arencibia has a clear path to everyday at-bats, putting him in the class of late-round bargain candidates among No. 2-catcher mixed league options.

As that class of No. 2 catchers is annually riddled with risks, has-beens and never-will-bes, Arencibia's power should be tantalizing. In his three-year major league career, his 18.62 rate of at-bats per home run as a catcher is second-best among those with at least 500 trips to the plate (Mike Napoli, 14.13), and Arencibia hits in one of the better home run environments in baseball, Rogers Centre. While he continues to have issues with breaking balls (curveballs and sliders) low and outside -- he has .193/.213/.359 career rates on pitches both in the lower and outside half of the plate -- Arencibia could be a smart, cheap source of 25 home runs. Just bet on a low batting average to go with it, but he still improves by two spots in my catcher rankings, rising to 18th.

tk
Julio Cortez /AP IamgesTravis d'Arnaud has yet to play a major league game but has already been parts of trades for two Cy Young winners.

Of the three catchers in the trade, Buck's fantasy appeal gets the most immediate boost, since the Mets might keep d'Arnaud in the minors to begin the season as a service-time-maintenance strategy. Marlins Park was an awful environment for the all-or-nothing slugger, as his .187/.302/.298 rates there last season exhibited, but at least Citi Field gives Buck more of a fighting chance to return to his .227-16-57 form of 2011. That's a poor fantasy backstop, but he might warrant consideration as a No. 2 option, at least in NL-only leagues.

D'Arnaud, another top-10-overall prospect on the move, batted .333/.380/.595 in 67 games for Triple-A Las Vegas, one of the best offensive environments in professional baseball, before tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Reports on the health of his knee have been positive, but he's highly likely to return to … Las Vegas, now the Mets' Triple-A affiliate, to begin the season. Redraft-league owners need not overrate d'Arnaud based upon his lofty minor league numbers, regarding him as more of a high-upside, No. 2 NL-only catcher, while keeper-league owners should stash him since he'll likely be up by year's end.

Thole, a .261/.331/.333 career hitter with a 12.4 percent strikeout rate, shouldn't be any more than a backup in Toronto, limiting his fantasy appeal to No. 2 status in AL-only leagues. He's a "shouldn't-hurt-you" player rather than someone you'd actively pursue, but at least he should get all of Dickey's starts.

There's a final name who might benefit as a result of the trade: Matt Harvey, who has a greater chance to win one of the Mets' five rotation spots. The Mets couldn't have made their rebuilding plans more obvious with the Dickey deal, and the club might need Harvey as the face of a pitching makeover. Also, since he debuted last July 26 and accrued nearly a half-season's worth of service time, the Mets probably can't return him to the minors in the hopes of maintaining an extra year of control. Harvey, who shocked the fantasy world with 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings in 2012, moves up two spots in my starting pitching rankings, from 61st to 59th.

Ryan Dempster joins Boston Red Sox

Dempster
Dempster

Dickey wasn't the only big-name starting pitcher to land in the AL East during the weekend, but the other one, Ryan Dempster, might not be so lucky to land there.

Signed to a two-year, $26.5 million deal by the Boston Red Sox, Dempster is the kind of matchups-caliber fantasy starter whose placement in the game's most offensively minded division should warrant concern. The simplistic view is this: Following his trade to the Texas Rangers last season, Dempster made five of his 12 starts against the Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels and Yankees, and he posted a 8.54 ERA in those starts compared to 2.95 in the other seven.

The broader-scope view is that Dempster's underlying numbers have been markedly consistent: The past five seasons (working forward), he has boasted FIPs (fielding independent pitching) of 3.41, 3.87, 3.99, 3.91 and 3.69, and xFIPs of 3.69, 3.76, 3.74, 3.70 and 3.77. Yet his ERA has varied by nearly two runs (low of 2.96 in 2008, high of 4.80 in 2011). He has a 6.06 ERA in three career starts at Fenway Park, a 7.62 ERA in five career starts versus the Yankees and a 10.93 ERA in 10 career games (six starts) at Coors Field.

That's not to say that Dempster is lacking in fantasy value, but his value drops with the Red Sox, resulting in his falling from my No. 43 spot among starting pitchers to 53. He has a chance at a mid-3s ERA and 180 strikeouts, but picking him in a standard ESPN league will mean careful matchups management.

Anibal Sanchez returns to Detroit

Sanchez
Sanchez

Another of the high-profile starters on the free-agent market, Anibal Sanchez, returned to the Detroit Tigers during the weekend after entertaining a multiyear offer from the Chicago Cubs. He signed a five-year, $80 million contract, despite having never amassed 200 innings pitched in a single year, only once posting a winning record (13-12 in 2010), and having never finished among the top 50 starting pitchers on our Player Rater.

Chalk it up as another instance of a team paying an inflated premium for one of the few available talents at a thin position, but it shouldn't encourage fantasy owners to follow suit and proclaim Sanchez a 2013 breakout candidate.

Sanchez indeed has room for improvement -- his WHIP, strikeouts-per-nine innings and strikeouts-per-walk ratios improved in each of the past two seasons. He also had a 3.32 ERA , 1.22 WHIP and 11 quality starts in 15 starts following his midseason trade to the Detroit Tigers, postseason included. Plus, he is in one of the game's weaker divisions and will pitch in a lower-pressure role as a No. 3 or 4 starter, perhaps enhancing his chances at boosting his 2012 numbers.

Still, Sanchez has yet to show us he has capitalized upon his once-great potential, and for that reason he checks in outside my top 50 starters, at No. 52.