There’s only one reason to trade a Cy Young Award winner

R.A. Dickey. (Photo by paul.hadsall via flickr)
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With the brief feel-good portion of the New York Mets' winter now behind us, the team appears to have returned in earnest to the business of trading R.A. Dickey.

Bill Madden of the Daily News reiterated what the paper has been reporting, that Dickey is willing to sign a two-year extension beyond his current deal for $20-24 million. That would mean the price tag for retaining Dickey, including his already-signed 2013 deal, checks in at three years, $29 million at the most.

That's far less than the years and annual salary some observers speculated Dickey would ask for, or what he could command on the free agent market.

Dickey, for the record, appears to be offering the Mets a hometown discount.

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So the Mets have the chance to retain the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner at less money over the next three years than Red Sox pitcher John Lackey will make over the next two years. Dickey is 38, but throws a pitch that puts less stress on his arm than most. And the decision to keep him would be enormously popular with a fan base that has fewer reasons to come to Citi Field all the time.

The decisions should be an easy one for the Mets, right?

As Buster Olney put it: "if their current financial circumstances prevent the Wilpon family from giving a well-earned extension to their breakout star and fan favorite, they should just unload the team to somebody who will operate it like the big-market club that it is."

If the Wilpon group does in fact let Dickey go, they'll rationalize it by suggesting that they weren't yet ready to contend, and that it didn't make sense to hang onto what amounts to a luxury item instead of exchanging him for an infusion of young talent.

But of course it'll be about money. The Mets' money problems are apparently what's keeping them from dealing seriously with Dickey. Those same money problems are what will keep the team from contending anytime soon.

It just isn't all that likely that the Mets will get something for Dickey that will be more valuable than Dickey himself at less than $10 million per season over the next three years.

It's been a long time since a reigning Cy Young Award winner was traded, but it isn't unprecedented. Back in 1998, 35-year-old Roger Clemens won 20 games and a Cy Young Award for the Toronto Blue Jays. But when the Yankees offered up David Wells, infield prospect Homer Bush and reliever Graeme Lloyd, the Blue Jays made the choice to improve at several positions.

That didn't work out so well. Wells pitched well in his two years with Toronto, though not as well as he had with the Yankees. Then Toronto traded him to the Chicago White Sox for a package of young players, none of whom worked out.

Clemens, meanwhile, struggled somewhat in his first season with the Yankees, but posted two excellent and two merely solid seasons in New York before signing with the Houston Astros and dominating for another three seasons, finally returning to New York for the second half of 2007 and delivering perfectly competent work.

As for Bush and Lloyd? They provided the Blue Jays with little production at all.

That trade came one season after the Montreal Expos, unable to afford Pedro Martinez, traded him to the Boston Red Sox for pitching prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. While Martinez went on to become the most dominant pitcher in the sport over the subsequent decade, with a peak as good as any pitcher ever, Pavano put up five mediocre seasons in Montreal before getting traded in a deal that ironically included Lloyd for Cliff Floyd. Armas Jr. provided eight seasons of roughly league average pitching for the Expos, and then the Nationals, some as a starter, others as a swingman.

To say that the deal was not a good one for the Expos would be an understatement.

What the Mets face is essentially a mixture of the Clemens and Martinez situations. Dickey is at the Clemens, rather than Martinez stage of his career. But the Mets would certainly be looking for a player return more like the prospects the Expos got for Martinez than the veteran-laden package the Blue Jays got for Clemens.

And remember, Pavano was considered the best pitching prospect in baseball at the time. That still didn't work out. Dickey, much older than Martinez and clearly not in his league as a pitcher (which is no insult of Dickey, simply a reflection of the greatness that was in-prime Pedro), won't fetch as much.

In the cases of both the Martinez trade and the potential Dickey deal, the inherent value in keeping them was clear, and most teams simply would have extended them without a second thought. Martinez because he was the best pitcher in baseball, Dickey because he'll cost a relative pittance, considering his on-field value alone and how hard it will be to find similar production in the short-term or beyond.

And a pair of franchises, for reasons that are either self-imposed austerity or financial limitations of ownership, aren't able or willing to take the basic steps necessary to field their best teams.