As he closes in on his 43rd birthday, Braves knuckler R.A. Dickey has shown no signs of slowing down. He has settled in as an average starter, sure, but he’s not your average “average starter,” either.
Dickey is no longer close to being the Cy Young winner he was in 2012. Since then, though, he has emerged as the game’s preeminent provider of league-average innings. From 2013 through the present, Dickey has averaged 200 frames annually. And he has not strayed more than five percentage points in either direction from the mean ERA in any of those years.
That’s what Atlanta thought it was signing up for when it inked the Tennessee native to a one-year, $7.5MM deal with a $8MM club option ($500K buyout) for 2018. And that’s just what the club got. Until a few rough outings in September, Dickey was allowing less than four earned per nine; now, though, he’s right back at a 4.41 ERA through 175 1/3 frames on the year — nearly identical to his results last year and good for a 101 ERA-. Dickey carries 6.6 K/9 against 3.4 BB/9 on the season, right in line with his recent work.
All told, it seems mostly reasonable to anticipate that Dickey will produce similar results next year. Fielding-independent pitching metrics have long suggested good fortune, but Dickey has consistently outperformed them and generated low batting averages on balls in play. It doesn’t take much imagination to view him as an outlier whose value isn’t appropriate measured by those metrics and who can also be expected to defy aging curves.
Dickey can be retained for the same rate of pay. So, do the Braves still want and need him?
Atlanta has already parted with the two other veterans it acquired last winter, Jaime Garcia and Bartolo Colon, though both were set for free agency regardless. The team probably has identified three younger starters to carry in the rotation next year, with Sean Newcomb joining holdovers Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz. None of that trio has been consistently excellent, though all have had their moments and ought to retain their roles. (Newcomb owns the best ERA of the bunch at 4.32, but he has only been asked/able to throw 89 2/3 innings over 17 starts.) Otherwise, the Braves could give a bigger opportunity to Lucas Sims or hope that Max Fried and/or Luiz Gohara win jobs in camp.
There are other arms coming behind this group, too, and Atlanta is rumored yet again to be eyeing more established but still-controllable starters on the trade market. In honesty, though, the club needs reliable innings — if for no other reason than to avoid a situation where the club is forced either to press its young arms too hard or instead find marginal big leaguers to plug any rotation gaps that may arise (as they are wont to do). If the organization really hopes to move toward true contention, then it’s hard to imagine it relying on what’s available in-house.
While other short-term free agent targets may offer more upside, even the best bounceback targets are just that — pitchers with talent but injury or other questions that weigh down their value and appeal. If the Braves prefer to roll the dice, they can send Dickey packing and try their luck on someone else. Or, perhaps, they can bid adieu to the grizzled veteran and aim much higher in trade and/or free agency — though the roster arguably isn’t ready enough for the club to take the kinds of long-term financial risks that led to the most recent rebuild.
Ultimately, there are some pretty compelling reasons for Atlanta to retain the steady veteran. But it’s not quite a slam dunk, with some imaginable scenarios in which the team might simply prefer to take a different course. Some may consider the possibility that the Braves could pick up the option and trade Dickey; while that’s not out of the question, it seems unlikely a team would do that with a veteran whose contract doesn’t carry significant surplus value and who signed with that team due in no small part to geographical considerations. So, that option won’t be broken out in the poll.
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