11:20 am Aug. 10, 2012
The Mets have finally started treating R.A. Dickey like a meaningful part of their future again. And on Thursday, Dickey returned the favor.
Just hours after Terry Collins announced that the Mets were scrapping an ill-advised plan to start Dickey on short rest repeatedly, Dickey went out and shut down the Marlins, 6-1. His complete-game victory was the first home win for the Mets in just over a month.
His success illustrates a challenge for the Mets: Dickey is an undeniably valuable commodity, but his long-term role, for a team unlikely to contend in 2013, has everything to do with what they can afford and when they can afford it.
Perhaps the smartest move Sandy Alderson has made (with the trade of Carlos Beltran for prospect Zack Wheeler a close second) was the signing of R.A. Dickey to a massively discounted contract after his breakout 2010 season. Dickey earned $2.75 million in 2011, $4.25 million this year, and the team holds a $5 million option on him for 2013, a no-brainer to pick up. For that money, he's been 16th in the major leagues in ERA+ among full-time starters since the start of the 2011 season. He's gotten more attention for 2012, but he's been a plus starter for three seasons now.
Where the difficulty comes in is evaluating exactly how aggressively the Mets want to or can push to keep Dickey around. Arguably, the major leverage they have would be in signing him to an extension this coming winter. Dickey would earn far more than $5 million in 2013 on the free agent market; a long-term extension that includes a significant bump up in 2013 could be enough to convince Dickey to stay with the Mets.
But 2013 looms as a season without much room for the Mets to bump up anyone's salaries. The payroll is at $91.6 million in 2012, down from $143 million in 2011. As it stands now, if the Mets simply pick up Dickey's option, along with David Wright's, they'll have more than $73.6 million committed to six players: Dickey, Wright, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, Jonathon Niese and Frank Francisco. If you consider the $5.5 million it will cost the Mets to buy out Santana's 2014 option and the $3 million to do the same with Bay 2013 costs, that elevates the already-committed 2013 money to just over $82 million for six players.
So if the Mets simply filled out the roster with entirely league-minimum players, payroll would remain the same in 2013 as it was in 2012. And there's no reason to think that number is going up to any significant degree. Bay and Santana come off the books in 2014, but if the Mets wait until the winter of 2013 to try and sign Wright and Dickey, they'll be going up against every other team that could use a star third baseman and frontline pitcher. The reasons to act now are significant; the reasons to wait are self-inflicted.
So it isn't any wonder that even though Dickey has been open to negotiating an extension, it hasn't happened. Instead, we are treated to another "talks to begin in the near future" column that simply recycles the team line on Jose Reyes and David Wright.
But the Mets run a real risk that if Dickey is simply allowed to play through his 2013 option, he'll hit the open market as a reliable, top-shelf starting pitcher. His market value will be diminished somewhat be his age (he'll have just completed his age-38 season) but even that is mitigated by his role as a knuckeball pitcher. His comps are people like Phil Niekro, who threw 12 200-inning seasons from age 35 on, and others who pitched well into their 40s, like Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield.
The Mets know what kind of valuable pitcher they have in R.A. Dickey, just as they know what they have in David Wright, and had in Jose Reyes. But the plan appears to simply hope financial circumstances change before they are forced to give him up.