A Calculated Gamble

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No matter how the rest of his tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays plays out, I think it’s a safe bet that the phrase “afraid to make bold decisions” will not come up when Alex Anthopoulos departs. The magnitude of the trade last month with the Florida Marlins ensures that it will be remembered as Anthopoulos’s signature move, but the deal that was finalized at last today, after a weekend that left Jays news junkies feeling like their drip feed was set just a little too slow, may prove to be the one that seals his fate as either the saviour or pariah for the club.

For the uninitiated, the deal completed today sent top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets along with catcher John Buck (re-acquired in the Marlins deal) and outfield prospect Wuilmer Becerra for 2012 N.L. Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, catcher Josh Thole, and catcher Mike Nickeas.

Nickeas is a weak hitting 29-year-old catcher who has a handful of games under his belt at the major league level. He was likely included in the deal to provide depth for the Jays AAA team in Buffalo with d’Arnaud departing.

Becerra is a young outfield prospect from Venezuela. He is not presently considered a top prospect, but could conceivably develop into one considering his age.

Buck is known to Jays fans after spending the 2010 season with the club and having a career year. His production with the Marlins over the last two seasons has been disappointing and he hit just .192 with a .297 on base percentage and .347 slugging percentage last year.

Josh Thole is a light-hitting 26-year-old catcher who is accustomed to catching Dickey’s knuckleballs. Thole is eligible for salary arbitration, but is expected to make significantly less than the $6 million Buck is owed. I’m speculating at this point, but I’d imagine that the Jays were the ones who wanted to swap Buck for Thole in order to have someone who could catch Dickey on the roster, and that the Mets asked for Becerra since they were getting the raw end of that swap financially.

The crux of the deal, of course, sees Dickey coming to the Jays and d’Arnaud and Syndergaard joining the Mets organization. Initial reports of the deal had other names going to the Mets (J.P. Arencibia and Anthony Gose, specifically). When d’Arnaud and Syndergaard’s names finally surfaced my feeling was that it was a hefty price to pay. D’Arnaud was the Jays top prospect and he is believed to have the potential to be an all-star. Syndergaard is still a few years away, but he was one of two top pitching prospects remaining in the Jays system (along with Aaron Sanchez) after Justin Nicolino was included in the Marlins trade.

In the weeks leading up to the deal the Mets had made it known that they were willing to trade Dickey and that they were seeking two top prospects in return. The Jays were not the only suitor, but before Friday it seemed nobody was willing to fork over a second high-level prospect for the 38-year-old knuckleballer with one year left on his contract. Dickey was seeking a two-year extension, but even if that could be agreed upon it seemed to me that giving up two top prospects for three years from a 38-year-old pitcher was too much. Anthopoulos has consistently talked about building a perennial contender instead of selling the farm for a run at a championship and I agree with that philosophy. Developing talent from within would allow the team to replace departing or declining veterans with young, controllable, inexpensive assets rather than trying to compete on the free agent market. Reports have come out that baseball executives felt the same way. So why make this deal?

Some will say that the Jays made this deal because they are ‘going all-in’. Many of the Jays core players (Bautista, Buehrle, Encarnacion, Reyes, Johnson, Morrow) are in their prime and some will soon be entering their decline years, but the notion that Anthopoulos has cashed in his prospect chips to go for it now (while the Yankees and Red Sox are vulnerable) is overly simplistic.

The reason I believe this deal was made is because Alex Anthopoulos felt that R.A. Dickey is being undervalued by MLB general managers. And he’s almost certainly right. My initial concerns about the deal were based two things:

  1. Other GMs’ unwillingness to offer anything close to what Anthopoulos gave up.
  2. My sense that the Jays farm system could not afford to lose this much talent on top of the talent that had departed for Miami last month.

My first concern is probably a valid one. Viewed on it’s own, it appears that the Jays may have paid more than the market rate for R.A. Dickey. But this deal did not happen on its own and taken in combination with the other moves that have been made this offseason, I don’t think many Jays fans would rather be where the team was at the end of the 2012 season than where we are now. And while the price paid for Dickey may exceed the market rate, Anthopoulos is gambling that it is still well below his true value.

What is R.A. Dickey’s true value? According to Baseball Reference, Dickey has been worth 12.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over the last three years (roughly 4 WAR per year). By comparison, Anibal Sanchez has accumulated WAR of 9.0 (an average of 3 WAR per year) over the same time while Zack Greinke has produced 2.6 WAR per year. However, Greinke’s best years were 2008 and 2009, so if we go back 5 years, he’s been worth an average of 4.6 WAR.

Sanchez just signed a 5-year deal that will pay him $80 million (an average of $16 million per year) and Greinke signed a 6-year, $147 million deal ($24.5 million/year). So the Tigers are paying about $5.33 million per expected WAR (based solely on past performance) while the Dodgers are paying somewhere between $5.11 million and $8.94 million per expected WAR. This of course, doesn’t attempt to predict for future performance, but generally illustrates that Dickey’s extension could be considered at below market rate.

Conservatively then, let’s say a win is worth $5 million (the generally accepted value is actually somewhere between $5-5.5 million). If he could replicate his 5.6 WAR production from last year Dickey would be worth $28 million to the Jays. Based on Dickey’s last 3 seasons we would expect him to make just over $20 million per year. Even if we ignore his Cy Young season in 2012 and only look at 2010 and 2011 he would be worth $16.25 million per season. Dickey will make $5 million in 2013 and he agreed to a two-year extension for $12 million per year with a team option in 2016 for another $12 million.

Why the discrepancy? The truth is that nobody really knows what R.A. Dickey is worth. There are models that can be used to predict what players will be worth, but there’s not a lot of data on knuckleballers and there’s no data on knuckleballers that throw as hard as Dickey was throwing last year. Players in their late 30s tend to decline quickly, but what little data there is on knuckleballers suggests they can be effective into their 40’s. Rany Jazayerli covers this topic well here.

If the past three years are any indication, R.A. Dickey will be worth somewhere between $65 million and $112 million over the next 4 years while making $42 million (the deal includes a $1 million buyout). But that’s a big if (one, it appears, that rival GMs weren’t willing to gamble on). If d’Arnaud ends up being an All-Star and Syndergaard becomes a top 2 pitcher for The Mets they’ll likely be worth even more to their team (in which case Anthopoulos may not be a popular man in Toronto). But the history of prospects has shown that those are probably even bigger ifs.

Given the other moves the team had already made this season they apparently decided that it was a gamble worth taking. But let’s not overstate the stakes of the gamble either. The Blue Jays have assembled a team that appears poised to compete with the best in baseball. But, unlike the Yankees, they haven’t acquired these players by paying them more than anybody else valued them at on the free agent market. And, unlike the Dodgers, they haven’t done it by picking up the tab on other people’s mistakes. While it’s true the Jays have swapped some of their best talent of the future for a player whose talent will help them now, it’s also important to realize that in today’s MLB you can always reverse that type of swap as long as your present talent is on a reasonable contract. It seems likely that the contract R.A. Dickey signed yesterday falls under that category.

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Comments
3 Responses to “A Calculated Gamble”
  1. Dave Hargreaves says:

    Nice summary Matt. Really like the balanced insight.
    I’m really excited (although I’m pretty optimistic every spring) to see how the 2013 Jays come together.
    Keep those fingers crossed for a rebound year for R. Romero, a healthy rotation and the bats should take care of their business!
    Thanks
    Dave

  2. Sean McCallum says:

    - Scott Norwood
    - Brett Hull
    - Alex Anthopoulos

    Just when the City of Buffalo had a promising young team coming to town, A.A. goes and screws The Queen City again! Not only does he trade away most of the marquee names that would have been playing in Buffalo this year, but he has the audacity to make the Jays so competitive that no one will be paying any attention to the farm club just down the road in that little jewel of a ballpark!

    In all seriousness, this was a pretty gutsy move by A.A. But you need big balls to make big babies, and I’m all in with any book publishing knuckleballer that climbs snow-capped volcanoes for charity.

    • Kieran Roy says:

      Sean – I had the same thoughts re: Buffalo.

      The Bisons, because of the recent moves, will be without Adeiny Hechavarria, Travis d’Arnaud, Mike McDade as well as Jake Marisnick, who may have got to the AAA level by about mid-season. It’s looking like Gose will be the main attraction. Depending when Hutchison and Drabek return from injury, it’s quite likely they’ll see some time in AAA.

      I’m still game for a road-trip. It ain’t Vegas, but it’s a lot closer, and I’ve heard the park is nice.

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