Rare is the 38-year-old just entering his baseball prime. You could make an argument that R.A. Dickey is that rare commodity, but would you be so confident in that argument that you'd pin millions upon millions of dollars to it? That's the risk assessment the Mets are making right now, as they weigh the merits of a contract extension with the potential National League Cy Young Award winner versus the potential benefits of trading him after a stellar season. Truth is, the Mets possess neither the current competitive standing nor the financial flexibility to take on too much risk where Dickey is concerned. And so the trade route certainly seems the more attractive option of the two.
Dickey is an odd but intriguing asset -- a guy in his late 30s who has begun to master the game's most quirky and vexing pitch. Tim Wakefield pitched until he was 45. Joe Niekro hung 'em up at 43. His brother, Phil, lasted until he was 48. Early Wynn's arsenal included a knuckleball and he pitched until he was 43. Charlie Hough (46) and Hoyt Wilhelm (49) both pitched at ages in which they looked like geriatrics compared to their peers. The pitch has a penchant for preservation. But Father Time still has his effects. Look at Wakefield, the most modern example. He was 35 in the last season in which he pitched at a level rated significantly above the league average. That was in 2002, when he went 11-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 45 appearances (the vast majority of which came out of the bullpen) for the Red Sox. Wakefield's next seven seasons (all as a starter) were fairly consistent. In that time, he averaged 12 wins, a 4.44 ERA, 179 innings pitched and 29 games started. Wakefield was a dependable eater of innings who annoyed opponents -- not just on the days he pitched, but the day after, for a knuckleballer serves as quite the spanner in the works. But he obviously did not pitch at what you'd consider an elite level, and during his final two seasons, at the ages of 43 and 44, Wakefield strung together a decidedly less satisfactory 5.22 ERA. Dickey's evolution obviously might not follow that same path. He is studious about the pitch, its effects and how it can best be employed. I wouldn't put it past Dickey to continually come up with ways to refine it, to make the most of what his arm can deliver. Oh, and one added bonus to dealing with Dickey? You know he'll never need -- and you'll never have to pay for -- Tommy John surgery, because his right elbow has no ulnar collateral ligament. But Dickey does throw harder than the average knuckleballer, and so it is too soon to know or tell how well he'll age and advance. Maybe 2012, in which he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA in 233 2/3 innings, was his performance peak. Perhaps it's but the beginning. But any team holding the keys to Dickey for the foreseeable future must weigh that risk assessment to the best of its abilities. The Mets have the option of holding onto Dickey for 2013 at the incredibly reasonable rate of $5 million. Knowing that superior starting pitching is likely their only hope of competing in the NL East next season, they can retain Dickey and, if things don't pan out as hoped, shop him at next summer's Trade Deadline. Yet they also know that they are coming off a 74-88 season in which their holes were exposed in the second half, and they don't have the luxury of money or prospects to significantly improve that roster for 2013. Dickey's value -- in terms of the awe-inspiring season stats he just posted and his entirely affordable contract -- might never be higher. And with the free-agent starting pitching market woefully thin and expensive (as has become the norm), Dickey could be a prominent trade piece, should the Mets decide to go that route. At this juncture, going that route makes the most sense. The Mets' financial resources are better applied to a long-term deal to David Wright, the face of the franchise who, despite his back issues in 2011, seems a safer bet to perform at a level commensurate with his salary. It's not your typical value equation, of course. Dickey has the intellect and the ability to keep making magic into his 40s, and he might well be worth a long-term look. But if the Mets can get two or three attractive young pieces back in exchange for Dickey's services, they're better off letting some other team take that chance on the knuckler.