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What Is R.A. Dickey’s Trade Value?

The Mets have been talking to R.A. Dickey about a contract extension for months, and since he’s still unsigned, there are clearly some issues that aren’t so easy to resolve between the two sides. So, they’re weighing all of their options, and the primary option for a team with a player who is a year from free agency is to trade him. Given that Zack Greinke is the lone free agent hurler who is viewed as a clear impact starter, the Mets could theoretically take advantage of a seller’s market, and shopping Dickey as a fall-back plan for the teams who don’t get Greinke might end up bringing back real talent.

Word from Jayson Stark today is that the Mets have “gotten serious” about trading Dickey and he could potentially be moved during the meetings here in Nashville. That would probably require Greinke to sign here as well, as maximizing Dickey’s return would likely involve pulling a Greinke runner-up into the bidding. Assuming Greinke does choose between a large paycheck in LA or a large paycheck in Texas, what could the Mets reasonably ask for in return for one year of a 38-year-old knuckleball specialist?

In one sense, the value seems to be limited by the fact that he’s only under contract for one more year. However, it’s one ridiculously cheap year, and he is clearly willing to sign an extension at a price that he believes is fair, so this isn’t necessarily a rental. Instead, Dickey should be viewed more like Adrian Gonzalez, who was also traded in the final year of a bargain contract, and then re-signed with the Red Sox rather than hitting free agency the following year. In order to acquire Gonzalez, the Red Sox gave up their #1 and #3 prospects, plus another toolsy first round pick who was thought to have some upside. We shouldn’t just immediately assume that Dickey’s contract status is going to keep someone from making a significant offer.

Of course, Gonzalez was headed into his age-29 season, while Dickey just turned 38 at the end of the season. There is a significant difference in expected future value, as even if Dickey agrees to a two year extension after getting traded, a team is only looking at three years of team control, with one of those coming in Dickey’s age-40 season. Knuckleballer aging curves look nothing like normal pitcher aging curves, but there’s still going to be more hesitation about what Dickey can offer in the future than there was with Gonzalez. Additionally, the changes to the free agent compensation system reduce the original team’s leverage, as they are now looking at one supplemental round draft pick rather than two picks, one of which could have been a mid-first rounder. So, the Mets can’t ask for a Gonzalez-style package in exchange for Dickey.

But, extra years of team control goes both ways. While the Red Sox were obviously expecting significant value from Gonzalez for the first few years of that contract, the odds of him earning his paychecks at the back end weren’t very good. While years 1-4 were probably surplus value for Boston, years 5-7 were probably a net negative, and were included because Gonzalez had enough leverage to demand a seven year deal to avoid free agency. So, three years of team control for Dickey might not be so different in terms of overall value as seven years of Gonzalez, especially once you factor in the drastically different AAVs that are being discussed.

Gonzalez’s seven year deal paid him $154 million, while the rumored price for Dickey is somewhere in the range of $20-$30 million for two years. Even if we give him $30 million, the difference in the extensions is five years and $125 million – how much extra value do we really think Gonzalez is adding at that kind of price?

Especially when their recent performances aren’t actually all that different. From 2008 to 2010, Gonzalez produced +14.7 WAR for the Padres. From 2010 to 2012, Dickey has produced +14.8 RA9-WAR, which is a better measure of a knucklerballer’s value because of their ability to limit hits on balls in play. Even if you want to split the difference between his RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR, Dickey’s still coming in at +12 for the last three years. It’s hard to argue that Dickey has performed at a level demonstrably lower than what Gonzalez had performed at prior to the trade with Boston.

Dickey’s older, but is part of a group of players who age exceptionally well. He’s a pitcher, but he’s also going to come with a smaller, shorter commitment. The Mets don’t have as much leverage due to free agent compensation, but might have more leverage due to the scarcity of elite pitching available this winter. For every argument about Gonzalez having significantly more trade value, there’s a decent counter-argument for favoring Dickey. I don’t think New York can ask for the same kind of package, but that deal is probably a better benchmark than many of the other rent-a-star maneuvers of the past.

So, what does that translate into? If Greinke goes to one of the LA clubs, then maybe you’re asking Texas for Mike Olt and Leonys Martin. If he goes to Texas, then maybe you’re asking the Dodgers for Zach Lee and Joc Pederson. If the Mets are willing to move Dickey, this is the kind of price they should be asking. Even with just one year left on his deal, the expected cost of an extension and the history of knucklers suggest that he’s not just a one year player. And, for multiple years of an impact pitcher, the Mets should be able to land a significant package. Maybe it isn’t on par with what San Diego got for Adrian Gonzalez, but it should be in the ballpark. Dickey’s worth that kind of return.