Before I get into the analyzing, just for completeness I should state that the rumors out there at this point suggest it will be D'Arnaud, Buck and Syndergaard plus, for Dickey, Thole plus. The truth is though, that the only thing that really seems to have any truth to it is that the deal will center around D'Arnaud (=TDA) for Dickey. All the rest, if you read the reports (or tweets) carefully, is pure speculation. Therefore, I'm going to just look at the idea of a TDA for Dickey trade, and assume (or at least hope) that whatever the other pieces are end up being relatively balanced in the end.
The way I see it, there are three important issues here. First, is Dickey really this good? Second, how should we evaluate deals where prospects are traded for proven players? Third, how valuable a prospect is TDA?
Let's deal with the first question first. While as recently as a week or two ago the majority of bloggers and writers seemed to focus on the fact that Dickey is no run of the mill Cy Young winner. He's 38 years old, throws a pitch whose effectiveness can fluctuate pretty easily, and he doesn't really have the track record of a "true ace". Yes, he's a nice pitcher, but nobody is going to mistake him for Justin Verlander.
Over the last few days, however, the tone seems to have changed significantly. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote an article that saw Dickey in a very favorable light. It compared him to David Price, showing (correctly) that their results over the last three seasons have been pretty similar to each other. A reasonable argument one could make is that if the Jays were getting 3 years of David Price in this trade rather than 3 years of Dickey, we would expect the return the Rays would demand would be much more than TDA, and we'd probably be happy to pay it. Well, the logic is simple. If Price>TDA, and Price=Dickey, then it follows that Dickey>TDA. Sounds like a good deal for the Jays, right?
The problem is that Cameron fails to realize that Dickey is not David Price. In 2010 when each posted similar results, Dickey was 36 years old, and nobody had heard of him. David Price was 24 years old, a hot-shot prospect in his first full season in the big leagues. Price's skills showed a linear improvement from 2010-2012 (as seen by his decreasing xFIP each year) in a demonstrable way, and he has the pedigree and the stuff that we're used to in an ace. He is still trending upward, and is just now entering his prime.
Dickey, on the other hand, is just a hard guy to pin down. Yes, he's been pretty consistently good over the past three seasons, but because of his pitch arsenal, he's not really somebody we can analyze using our go-to advanced metrics. He's not someone trending upward in the way Price is. He's certainly well past his prime even if aging isn't such a concern with knuckleballers, and he lacks the typical "ace pedigree/stuff" that we're used to. As someone who analyzes baseball players, Dickey just makes you feel uncomfortable.
So Dickey is not David Price. But that's fine. You don't need a David Price in return to be willing to give up a top prospect. Dickey is not David Price, but he's still a huge talent, even if we can't really understand him statistically. To get a top of the rotation guy for 3/$30M is a pretty rare opportunity, and that kind of haul has a lot of value. Is that worth TDA and Syndergaard? I'm not sure, but it's not so far off to say that it is.
Let's look at the second question quickly: how do we see prospects in trades. This has been discussed in many places, and I just think some simple balance is in order. I'm not saying anything really new here. Yes, prospects are question marks, and therefore when you can trade question marks for established players, that's generally a good thing. When what you give up in prospects has the potential to be better than what you're getting in return if things go right for the prospects is also normal and expected. Especially when you're in win-now mode which the Jays most certainly are. But this just has to be balanced with an eye to the future as well. Being in win-now mode shouldn't have to mean going all in and mortgaging the future. AA has put enough pieces in place that he should be able to continue with his plan of sustained long-term success. This trade would obviously hurt the Jays farm system. Between all that has happened this winter, if this deal goes through as rumored, the Jays will probably drop from having one of the best farms in the league, to having an average to below average one. Their farm isn't empty at all like how JPR left it, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that even after this deal the Jays would still have plenty of pieces they could make available in trade.
And that brings us to the final question: what is the value of TDA? It's here where I actually come to hope that this trade ends up falling through. I think that the value of a guy like TDA is actually underestimated, even by those who are overly enamored with prospects. And that's because contrary to popular belief, I actually think a big time catching prospect who is MLB ready has more value than a top pitching prospect, and perhaps even as much value as an established top of the rotation pitcher.
Now, if you turned to WAR or other such metrics that we often use to determine the value of players, it would come out that I'm wrong. Aces typically produce more WAR in a season that good catchers, as a general rule. The thing is though, even though WAR does take positional scarcity into account, I'm not sure it does so enough for catchers. Take a look as these facts:
This is a list of catchers who have accumulated 6.0 WAR or more over 2011-2012:
|1||Yadier Molina||Cardinals||277||1081||304||36||120||141||16||7.2 %||9.2 %||.173||.314||.310||.362||.484||.365||132||14.9||-9.9||11.2|
|2||Buster Posey||Giants||193||795||224||28||95||124||4||10.9 %||15.8 %||.188||.358||.324||.399||.512||.390||151||10.5||-4.5||9.8|
|3||Miguel Montero||Diamondbacks||281||1126||278||33||130||174||1||10.7 %||20.2 %||.170||.338||.284||.372||.454||.358||120||8.7||-9.3||9.3|
|4||Matt Wieters||Orioles||283||1144||262||45||139||151||4||9.4 %||17.1 %||.187||.275||.255||.329||.442||.335||108||21.0||-6.3||9.1|
|5||Carlos Ruiz||Phillies||246||893||237||22||105||108||5||8.6 %||11.0 %||.155||.322||.303||.382||.458||.364||129||4.8||-2.2||8.7|
|6||Mike Napoli||Rangers||221||849||198||54||125||131||5||13.4 %||24.7 %||.277||.312||.275||.379||.552||.398||146||-4.7||-3.0||7.6|
|7||Alex Avila||Tigers||257||985||226||28||105||130||5||13.6 %||23.9 %||.181||.343||.272||.372||.452||.358||125||-7.4||-4.1||7.4|
|8||Carlos Santana||Indians||298||1267||260||45||156||155||8||14.8 %||18.5 %||.194||.270||.246||.358||.439||.347||122||-9.3||-7.2||7.1|
|9||Joe Mauer||Twins||229||974||259||13||119||115||8||12.5 %||12.9 %||.111||.348||.308||.397||.419||.357||126||-2.8||-0.1||6.5|
|10||Brian McCann||Braves||249||1014||227||44||95||138||6||10.0 %||16.3 %||.182||.261||.251||.326||.433||.326||104||4.2||-6.2||6.1|
Now, after this past season it seems more likely that Avila was a one-year-wonder in 2011, Ruiz was on steroids, and Napoli isn't going to be a catcher anymore going forward (at least not full time), so we should remove them from the list. We can add Salvador Perez to the list, because he produced more than 3.0 WAR in 2012, his only semi full season. That leaves us with 8 catchers. Now, WAR is designed so that the league average player at a given position should produce about 2.0 WAR. So the fact that there are only 8 players of a position that produced more than 3.0 WAR per season is not so strange on its own. However, I don't think that tells the whole story here.
Look at that list of 8 catchers carefully. I think if we just used general scouting/opinion/knowledge about baseball players (forgetting about WAR), we'd say this list of 8 is a pretty accurate list of the catchers that we'd describe as being "good." These 8 can hold there own defensively (or better) at a tough position, and put up at least respectable wOBAs. Their bats are at least good enough that they could play another position and still be able to be a starter, even if a below average one. We're not talking 8 Pudge Rodriguez's or Mike Piazza's here. We're talking "good" here, not superstar. And 8 is not a lot when there are 30 teams. Yes, the players who didn't make this cut are still solid. There are Russel Martins and AJ Pierzinskys and Saltys and Avilas and Lucroys out there, but there really is a drop off that is at least somewhat significant. Just for the record, JPA comes in at 30th on this list, behind even Buck who comes in at #21... (Just saying)
Now take another look at our list of 8. What else do they all have in common? With the exception Brian McCann (who had a very bad 2012 and is now missing a chunk of 2013 due to surgery), all other 7 of these guys are locked up in long term deals on their teams, and they're all unlikely to go anywhere. And that for me, is the key point. There aren't many of these guys around. Most teams don't have them, and most teams have a lot of trouble developing them. And for that reason, when one of them does come along, they get locked up fast, and for the long term. And by the time their contracts expire, they're usually too old to be seen as full time catchers from then on (or at least not with the same skill level that they had at the beginning of their contracts). In other words, these guys are extremely hard to come by.
Compare that to pitchers. Pitchers stay productive for a lot longer than catchers, and there are also a lot more good pitchers out there than good catchers, simply because of demand. Teams need 5 pitchers, while they only need one catcher. And for these and probably other reasons, good top of the rotation pitching is actually (if surprisingly) available more than you might think, and certainly more often that top catchers are available. Last winter Yu Darvish and CJ Wilson were available, and Mat Latos and Gio Gonzales were traded. Latos was traded from the Padres because they got a good haul and they knew they weren't ready to contend yet. The A's traded Gio because they didn't expect to contend. This winter Greinke and Anibal Sanchez were available, and so was James Shields and now Dickey. David Price will almost certainly become available in the next year or two, and there will be others. There always are. Pitchers become free agents when they're still good. Teams trade good pitchers. And that's not even mentioning the myriad of solid middle of the rotation guys who are constantly available, and who are more than adequate for a team that already features Johnson and Morrow atop their rotation.
Catchers don't become available. Maybe McCann will be available next year. Maybe not. If he is, you can be sure teams like the Yankees and Dodgers will be in on the bidding, with lots of money to spend. There wasn't a single elite catcher to become available this winter, and there wasn't one last year either (okay, last year Jesus Montero was traded, but he was seen as more of a DH than a catcher anyways).
So, yes, I know TDA is still just a prospect. And yes, I know prospects are question marks. And yes, I remember that Jesus Montero was the top catching prospect last year, and he even had some MLB success under his belt, and he still completely flopped this year. But I also remember that Carlos Santana and Matt Weiters and Salvador Perez and Buster Posey were once prospects. And while they may not have become quite as elite as people might have hoped, they're still on our list of 8. These guys don't come to you in trades or as free agents, usually. They come in one way, and that's homegrown. They're so rare, that when a team actually gets one, they don't let go. And so, even though TDA is no sure thing, when you have a player who at least scouts think could make our list grow from 8 to 9, even if he won't be Joe Mauer or Buster Posey, even if he'll just be a bit above league average with the bat, and a bit above league average with the glove (and that's all it really takes to make our list when you're a catcher), you grab that player and you don't let him go. Because if July 31st comes and you find you need another pitcher, or if 2014 comes and you want another ace, one will be waiting there for you if you're willing to spend the money or the prospects (or both). But if those times come and you want to upgrade at catcher, you're gonna be left staring at a blank page of available options.