Wilner on Jays: Right move for a contender

December 17, 2012, 6:25 AM

It was a pretty crazy weekend for Blue Jays fans, and the insanity is going to extend right into the work week.

Friday afternoon was when we first got word that the Jays were a major player for the services of defending National League Cy Young Award winner Robert Allen Dickey, and by Sunday afternoon the Blue Jays and New York Metropolitans appeared to have agreed on a seven-player deal that would send Dickey to Toronto in exchange for two of the Jays’ absolute best young prospects, neither of whom have enjoyed one second in the major leagues — Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. There would also be a swap of catchers — Josh Thole to Toronto, John Buck to Flushing — and a minor-leaguer would be coming from each side, not expected to be an elite prospect either way.

It’s a lot to take in because, if it’s all true, the Blue Jays are paying a massive price for the services of a 38- year-old who didn’t have his first good big-league season until the age of 35, and one who very, very few Jays fans had ever heard of prior to this year, except perhaps as a curiosity.

See, Dickey was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow — that’s the one that tears and makes people have to have Tommy John surgery — so he’s a bit of a medical freak. That was his claim to fame before he became a knuckleballer, wrote a book, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and won the Cy Young.

So Dickey seems to have emerged out of nowhere, and throws a trick pitch, leading many Blue Jays fans (on my Twitter feed, at least) to think of him as just a one-year fluke. D’Arnaud and Syndergaard, though, we’ve all heard of and are both studs.

D’Arnaud was one of the prizes the Jays received in the Roy Halladay trade with the Phillies — along with Kyle Drabek and, ultimately, Anthony Gose — and he rose through the system making scouts drool with his abilities both as a hitter and as a receiver and thrower. He would have played in the big leagues this past season had he not blown out his knee in June trying to break up a double play.

In the nearly half-season of work he did get in Vegas, d’Arnaud hit a whopping .333/.380/.595 with 16 home runs and 21 doubles. Those numbers, pro-rated over a full season, are astonishingly similar to J.P. Arencibia’s numbers in Vegas in 2010, when he was the Pacific Coast League MVP. Of course, Arencibia was repeating the level, and d’Arnaud is a year younger than J.P. was then.

Syndergaard was one of the “Lansing 3″ — the three young arms who were to come together to form the core of the Blue Jays’ rotation for years to come, starting in about 2015. He, Justin Nicolino (moved in the big deal with the Marlins) and sole survivor Aaron Sanchez were the elite triumvirate on which the hopes of future Jays’ success were pinned. All three spent this past season in Lansing (hence the nickname — they’d have been the “Dunedin 3″ in 2013 if they were all still around), and while Syndergaard posted the highest ERA of the group, it was a measly 2.60. His 1.080 WHIP was sparkling, as were his 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings with only 2.7 walks.

Just 19 years old, the youngest of the trio (by less than two months over Sanchez), Syndergaard was the one with whom the Blue Jays would absolutely not part in their negotiations with Oakland last winter about Gio Gonzalez, who just happened to finish third in N.L. Cy Young voting in 2012.

Of course, d’Arnaud was also the guy the Blue Jays would absolutely not part with in their negotiations with the Mets about Dickey two weeks ago at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.

Things change.

I’m not sure what changed as far as Alex Anthopoulos and his lieutenants’ thought process is concerned, but maybe it was along the same lines as my thought process in digesting this trade over the weekend.

Initially, I had a hard time believing the Blue Jays would deal d’Arnaud for Dickey. Too high of a price. Adding Syndergaard seemed insane. Then I thought about it for a while, and I’ve come around. It’s the right thing to do for a team that’s in contention.

The Blue Jays are no longer the team that hoards prospects and draft picks, building one of the best farm systems in the game, looking ahead to the point where they’re a powerhouse in some not-too-distant future. The Blue Jays are now that powerhouse.

It’s hardly “draft schmaft” or “damn the future, we want to win now”, it’s spending what you have to spend — in money and in prospects — in order to put the best possible team on the field IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES.

No one batted an eye when the Blue Jays traded Steve Karsay — who would be the 12th-ranked prospect in all of baseball the next spring — to the Oakland A’s at the deadline in 1993 to get Rickey Henderson, nor did any Jays fan sweat when Jeff Kent — who would become one of the best second basemen of all-time — was included in the deal with the Mets in late August of 1992 that brought David Cone to Toronto for the first time.

Not only did fans not care about the prospect loss in those deals, they were thrilled to let them go because in return the Blue Jays received key pieces that resulted in them winning a couple of championships.

It should be noted that when the Kent deal went down, the Jays were trading a huge young prospect with six years of control, who had already played in the majors, for just five weeks of Cone — and obviously with no guarantee they’d wind up winning the World Series that year. They hadn’t won one yet.

Once the Blue Jays made the big trade with Miami and signed Melky Cabrera, they became a legitimate championship contender. Even though they’re not the ’92 Jays, who were coming off nine consecutive winning seasons, three of which resulted in division titles, and who had been knocking on the door of a championship for years, they have put together a good enough group of players that a post-season berth should be almost expected. If the opportunity comes along to add to it with another piece that could help contribute towards a possible championship, it’s an opportunity on which such a team should pounce.

I said in analyzing the deal with Miami that trading Justin Nicolino was fine because the hope was that he’d one day become Mark Buehrle, dealing Henderson Alvarez was okay because if he reaches his full potential he might wind up being Josh Johnson, and even at their ultimate ceilings, neither Yunel Escobar nor Adeiny Hechavarria was ever going to be as good as Jose Reyes.

It’s basically the same situation here. Could d’Arnaud wind up being a perennial all-star catcher? Sure, he could be, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it happening.

Could Syndergaard win a Cy Young? He’s definitely got that potential right now, at 19 years old, but so many things can happen to a young pitcher on the way up the ladder. The Blue Jays are picking up a guy who just did win a Cy Young.

Don’t take this as a knock on d’Arnaud — he’s arguably the best catching prospect in the game and is very close to being major-league ready, if he isn’t already — but even if he’s going to wind up being great, it’s very likely going to take a while.

Buster Poseys are few and far between, and Matt Wieters came up in 2009 with basically as much hype as there has ever been for a young prospect since Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez (Keith Law famously said that “sliced bread is the greatest thing since Matt Wieters”). In his four years in the bigs, Wieters is still struggling to hit his stride. The tremendous hitting and power prospect has yet to hit 25 home runs in a major league season, has a career OPS+ of just 102 and a slash line of .260/.328/.421. He’ll be 27 in May.

Could Wieters still wind up being great? Absolutely. But he’s just one example of a can’t-miss, super-hyped prospect who took a while to get things going. To expect d’Arnaud to step into the majors and be a star immediately is to really set oneself up for some serious disappointment.

As for Syndergaard, he’s a lottery ticket. The road to the major leagues is littered with hard-throwing young studs who never achieved even close to what was expected of them, whether it was due to lack of performance or injury. He could wind up being a star, certainly, but the odds against it are incredibly high. No higher than the odds against Sanchez, of course, the sole survivor of the “Lansing 3″.

It’s interesting to take a look through Baseball America’s list of top 10 prospects (a list d’Arnaud may well make this year — he was ranked 17th on the 2012 list), and see just how many of these “can’t-miss” guys never made it all that big.

Some examples: 2007′s top 10 included Daisuke Matsuzaka (#1), Delmon Young, Phil Hughes, Brandon Wood and Andrew Miller. The year before featured Young, Wood, Miller, Lastings Milledge and Jeremy Hermida. In 2005, we saw Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, Andy Marte, Scott Kazmir and Casey Kotchman along with Young. The list from 2004 gave us Alex Rios, Kaz Matsui, Greg Miller and Young, along with B.J. Upton, Edwin Jackson and Rickie Weeks — solid major-leaguers, to be sure, but hardly perennial all-stars.

Again, this is not to disparage either d’Arnaud or Syndergaard. This is to say that they’re prospects, and the hope is that they have major-league success to the extent that R.A. Dickey is currently having. They might, they might not. Dickey already is.

But R.A. Dickey is a 38-year-old knuckleballer, and in the first nine years of his major-league career he was a journeyman who regularly rode the shuttle back and forth to the minors and put up a 5.43 ERA and 1.572 WHIP in the less than 450 innings he threw in the bigs.

The last three seasons in the Mets’ rotation, Dickey has posted a 2.95 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, averaging over 200 innings per season. But that’s just a fluke, right? And he’s so old!

Here’s the thing though, which should be pretty obvious: He’s a different guy now.

Dickey has completely reinvented himself as a knuckleballer. It’s only in these last three seasons that he’s thrown the knuckleball over 75 per cent of the time, and in his two truly dominant years of those three (2010 and ’12), he threw it over 83 per cent of the time. Dickey’s history prior to 2010 is completely meaningless.

It’s interesting to note, as well, that the average speed of his knuckleball has gone up every single season he’s thrown it — from starting to toy with it in 2005, when he threw it less than half the time at an average speed of 66.3 miles per hour, to his incredible Cy Young season of 2012, when Dickey’s average knuckleball butterflied its way through the air at an average speed of 77.1 miles per hour. It’s a good thing his catcher with the Mets, Thole, is reported to be coming over in this trade, too.

Dickey’s still old (for a pro athlete), but his performance clearly isn’t in decline, and knuckleballers age differently than conventional pitchers do. Tim Wakefield pitched until he was 45, and he had the second-best WHIP of his career (1.182) in his age-41 season. Charlie Hough lasted to the age of 46, and had a 1.282 WHIP when he was 44. Phil Niekro pitched (poorly) for the Blue Jays as a 48-year-old in 1987, but had a 1.235 WHIP combined in the five seasons from 1978-82 — and he turned 39 a week before Opening Day of ’78.

Alex Anthopoulos made a lot of Blue Jays fans very happy in September when he said that this winter, he would overpay for the right guy, be it in trade or free agency. If the reports are true, and Dickey winds up signing the extension that will allow the Jays and Mets to complete this trade (Dickey will make $5 million in 2013 and had been asking the Mets to add two years and $26 million to that deal), then Anthopoulos is paying a very, very high price in prospect value to add Dickey to a Blue Jays rotation that becomes arguably the best five-man unit in the game — it already has four once-or-present aces in it in Johnson, Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero — but those are the kind of deals teams make when they’re contending for a championship.

Anthopoulos also foreshadowed this sort of deal when he said that one of the most important pieces of advice he ever got was from Pat Gillick, who told him not to worry about what he was giving up in a trade, rather what was coming back to him.

This is far from an all-in move, though. The farm system is still well-stocked with highly-regarded pitchers such as Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Sean Nolin, Daniel Norris, Matt Smoral, John Stilson, Marcus Stroman and others. One of them might even wind up being a star in the big leagues. The core of the big-league team is still on the right side of 30, and every one of the starters and rotation save for Johnson, Cabrera, Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind is under control for at least three more years, if not longer.

And if some of you read Rasmus’ name and shook your head while also lamenting the losses of d’Arnaud and Syndergaard, just remember that Colby was the number five ranked prospect in all of baseball in 2008, and number three in 2009.

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