Trading a Cy Young-caliber starting pitcher

Originally posted on MLB Trade Rumors  |  By Tim Dierkes  |  Last updated 2/16/21

Less than three months after their first-round playoff defeat to the Marlins, the Cubs traded second place NL Cy Young finisher Yu Darvish to the Padres. This occurred after the Cubs won their division with a .567 winning percentage, which would have extrapolated to about 92 wins in a full season. I looked back through the last 20 years, and this has never been done: winning teams simply do not trade top-two Cy Young finishers.

As you might expect, teams prefer not to trade top-two Cy Young finishers at all. In the past 20 years, it’s only been done twice in the offseason: the Mets traded 38-year-old R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays after the 2012 season, and the Diamondbacks dealt 41-year-old Randy Johnson to the Yankees after Arizona’s abysmal 2004 campaign. Let’s see if the more recent Dickey trade bears any similarities to what the Cubs did.

Dec. 17, 2012: Mets trade Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey with Mike Nickeas and Josh Thole to the Blue Jays for Noah SyndergaardTravis d’ArnaudJohn Buck, and Wuilmer Becerra.

The 2012 Mets finished with a 74-88 record, good for fourth place in the NL East. Dickey, a knuckleballer, had quietly signed a minor-league deal with the Mets after an uninspiring 2009 season out of the Twins’ bullpen.  He flourished in the Mets’ rotation, finding another gear in 2012 en route to a 2.73 ERA over 233 2/3 innings. That effort resulted in 20 wins and the Cy Young award for the 38-year-old.  At that point, the Mets had one year of control left on Dickey at an affordable $5M.

Dickey hoped to stay longer. In May of his Cy Young-winning season, he told Mike Puma of the New York Post, “I like it here and I want to be here. I feel like the team is moving in the right direction, and I want to be a part of the solution. Now it’s up to them. If I’m in those plans, [addressing the contract] is one way to make it known.” As late as September of 2012, GM Sandy Alderson spoke of his intent to retain Dickey as well as David Wright long-term. They were the clear bright spots on the 2012 team. By November, however, a significant gap had emerged in contract talks between the Mets and Dickey, with the righty reportedly seeking a two-year extension worth $26M.

Once the Mets succeeded in locking up Wright, the PR hit of potentially trading Dickey diminished, and the trade rumors began in earnest. In 2021, the Cubs’ nod to the negative PR of the departures of Darvish and Theo Epstein, among others, seems to be the nostalgia signing of Jake Arrieta. Not quite on par with the Wright extension, though the Cubs do have Anthony RizzoJavy Baez, and Kris Bryant as extension candidates given their impending free agency.

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