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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Road Not Taken

So over in the Daily News, Andy Martino says the Mets could have gotten Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard from the Blue Jays for Jonathon Niese instead of R.A. Dickey.

Talk about your fascinating what-ifs.

Full warning: The rest of this is going to be an unquantitative mess, red meat for a stats guys to tear apart without even trying hard. But so be it.

I loved R.A. Dickey. Not just because he was a great pitcher, though let’s not pretend that wasn’t the foundation for the rest of it. More than that, I loved him because I could barely believe he existed. He was everything that egghead young fans like me dream baseball players might be, only to quickly realize they’re anything but. Professional athletes are trained to be dull and surly, but Dickey was by turns philosophical, reflective, curious and goofy, a W.P. Kinsella character who not only escaped from the page but also romped off with 20 wins and a Cy Young award. I’d never dreamed of a player who might happily join a blogger in mythopoetic dorking out about baseball; Dickey not only thought that way but was a good bet to come up with richer, more evocative stuff than any of us pixel-wranglers could.

And just so we don’t get lost in the Ken Burns mist: 20-6, 2.73 ERA, 230 Ks.

Jon Niese, on the other hand, is basically what I’d come up with if you asked me to imagine a fictional athlete who was as dull and uninspiring as possible. Niese plays the central role in the finest art form ever created by humanity, and he inhabits that role with all the verve of a DMV clerk who’s got seven hours left on her shift. I’ve seen a lot of Mets that don’t exactly seem like they’d light up a room if the conversation strayed past attaboying, but no Met in recent memory has ever exuded wanting to be somewhere else more than Niese.

And that’s happened between the lines: The nadir of Nieseness came, ironically, against the Blue Jays who reportedly coveted him so much. Last summer the Jays gave Niese a truly vicious shellacking, after which Dan Warthen one-upped them, telling reporters that Niese needed to study more. Before his next start against the Pirates, Niese was hauled into a room for a mandatory review session with Warthen, Rickey Bones, Dickey and Johan Santana.

It was a Come to Jesus moment, and to be fair, after that it seemed like Niese found religion. He was 11-7 the rest of the way, a particularly impressive turnaround considering the Mets went in the tank and Niese had gotten a reputation for faltering in second halves. It felt like he figured something out, and Niese deserves a good chunk of the credit for that.

And, to stick with the whole being fair thing, Niese’s job begins and ends with winning games. He’s under no orders to be introspective about his profession or to open up about his private life. He’s not obligated to supply beat writers with good copy. There’s no commandment that he entertain me in any way that doesn’t involve throwing a baseball. If he wins games, that’s enough — and hey, nothing would make me happier than getting to write a post grousing about how boring Niese was when hoisting the World Series trophy.

If that trophy is the goal (which it obviously is), Niese is a better bet for getting there than Dickey. He’s a 26-year-old lefty with great stuff and a team-friendly contract covering what should be his prime years. You build around players like that, not 38-year-old knuckleballers with vanished ligaments, no matter how much they love Star Wars or what they name their bats.

I know this. But it doesn’t help. I miss R.A. Dickey every day, and for all his potential I struggle to remember Jon Niese is on the roster. Given the choice, the Mets traded the right guy. That’s obvious. But I was happier when I didn’t think there was a choice involved.

25 comments to The Road Not Taken

  • dmg

    jace, i don’t have the antipathy toward niese you raise here — i think that yes, it would be good if the mets good develop their own reliable lefty starter, i’m just not convinced niese is that guy.

    but as for the rest of your post, YES!! this is news i didn’t need to know. and i would’ve given niese instead of dickey any day of the week. still would — could the mets get a do-over?

  • 9th string catcher

    Don’t feel bad – there was never a real choice. This was a business decision, not a baseball one. Nobody would ever pick Niese, an OK lefty over a Cy Young winner. Niese costs the Mets 5M a year for the next 5, Dickey would cost 25M over the next 2. That might be why the Blue Jays wanted Niese. And, let’s face it, it’s a big cash difference. But who’s buying tickets to see Niese? Penny wise and dollar foolish, you ask me.

  • Dave

    Yeah, who do we keep…the inspiring, one-of-a-kind Cy Young/20 game winner who was the most interesting, talked about player in the game, whose scheduled starts were the only remaining box office attraction by last September, or a lefty version of Bobby Jones? Oy vey. Some stories are best left untold, Andy Martino.

    • Andee

      Not sure the Fresno Jones comparison is a felicitous one. Ol’ Frez always seemed to fade in the second half, but Niese didn’t do that last year. He was tough to hit all year, for once, and he probably hasn’t peaked yet. And while he’s not Clayton Kershaw (who is?), he did have a better age 25 season than Cliff Lee or Randy Johnson. Lefties tend to peak later.

      • Dave

        Could be something to that…some lefties improve with age,, but my comparison to Jones was more of an overall outcomes thing. I see Neise as a guy who’ll win 12 games in a typical season, 15 in a good one, 9 in a bad one, and any of those 3 scenarios are about equally likely to happen. On a strong major league staff, a #3 or 4 guy.

  • Andee

    Eh. Unless Alex Anthopoulos himself corroborates that he’d have taken Niese over Dickey and still given up D’Arnaud and Syndergaard, I give this rumor an extremely wide berth anyway.

    And it does make me swallow hard, for the same reasons it does you, but even given that choice, going strictly by on-field projections, Niese probably was the better choice to keep for this particular team. Dickey is 38, and even though he’s not a typical 38-year-old pitcher by any means, mileage is mileage whether it’s in Oklahoma City or New York. Dickey is the guy you want this year if you’re in win-now mode; if our division was as soft as Toronto’s has suddenly become, then it would have been a very different situation.

    But it’s true, ballplayers who actually have anything to “say” are as rare as hen’s teeth, and ballplayers with something to say who are really good at baseball rarer still. That is the combination of things that makes us love R.A. Dickey. Collin McHugh is quite possibly his equivalent in the content department, but so far he’s pitched (mostly) like crap, so most of us don’t have that attachment to him yet. But if he became as good as Jon Niese with the arm, that would change in a hurry.

    • McHugh’s a great example. I think he’s a thoughtful dude and a great writer, which makes him a natural for me to root for. But those things alone do not a folk hero make.

  • Have to say I’m surprised by the comments here.

    From a cold-hearted baseball standpoint, if you HAD to trade one of the two, would any of you actually trade 26-year-old lefty Niese, signed through 2016 at $5M per with non-Omarpalooza options after that, instead of 38-year-old knuckleballer Dickey?


    • Dennis

      Great piece Jason and I am one the few who agrees with you. Loved R.A., but I’m not 12 years old and depressed my favorite player was traded away. I want this team to be a contender on a yearly basis, and I hope that this trade will contribute to that goal. I wonder how many here would change their feelings if Dickey was here this season and went 9-15 with a 5.00 plus ERA, while Niese flourished with the Blue Jays? Best quote from this:

      “nothing would make me happier than getting to write a post grousing about how boring Niese was when hoisting the World Series trophy.”

      • Thanks Dennis. I’m kind of both, though — the 12-year-old depressed over his favorite player’s departure and the 43-year-old trying to be cold-eyed about it.

  • Not for nothing, but two un-named and un-affiliated sources talking in the periphery of a Niese shellacking sounds a little goofy to me.

    And the quote between the two — “Toronto has loved Niese for years. They absolutely would have done that.” — sounds highly “Toronto has loved Niese for years,” one source said. “They absolutely would have done that. — sounds highly speculative.

  • Let’s try that again without a wet keyboard.

    Not for nothing, but two un-named and un-affiliated sources talking in the periphery of a Niese shellacking sounds a little goofy to me.

    And the only quote between the two — “Toronto has loved Niese for years. They absolutely would have done that.” — sounds highly speculative.

    • Hear ya, but eh, it’s spring training. If we speculate and talk and what-if and spin yarns for a couple more weeks the damn thing will be over and we can be happy/sad/both about real stuff.

  • 9th string catcher

    Excellent discussion topic – Dickey vs. Niese. I would take RA, as my instict (not my hope by any means) is that Niese is an excellent #3 pitcher. Put him in #2 or #1, and his stats will probably decline, just like Pelfrey’s did when they expected more of him. Young does not always equal good – a front line #1 or #2 pitcher is rare. Dickey is one of those types of pitchers, a guy who can anchor a staff. It makes a difference on the entire team. And 38 is not 38 in knuckleballer years – I’m pretty sure he has 3 good years left, just in time for some of the younger guys to ascend to the anchor seat, and learning from a true #1. (I doubt that #1 will be Niese).

    • Yeah, as discussed before, Dickey’s future will be fascinating to watch, because it’s unknowable — and not just in the usual baseball way. 38 is nothing in knuckleball years, agreed, but Dickey is a knuckleballer of a kind no one has ever seen before, and he may age more like a conventional pitcher. We just don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s pitching effectively in seven years and I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls off a cliff.

      Still, Niese is a 26-year-old lefty who’s succeeded at the big-league level and whose potential ceiling is #2 starter. (Agree he’s not a #1.) That’s really rare, no matter how trance-inducingly boring the actual person may be.

  • This is NYDN troll Andy Martino — reluctantly covering the Mets, secretly coveting the Yankees — taking an opportunity to dish out an good ol’ “LOLMets” piece to liven up the dog days of March.

    To me, the topic is a non-starter…

  • Joe D.

    Hi Jason,

    Won’t deny that I thought I had gotten over my initial depression and anger as the months went on and we started talking about d’Arnaud and the memory of R.A. was starting to fade. But all that evaporated with the start of spring training and seeing R.A. on the mound again. I’m crying once more.

    And no matter how well d’Arnaud does – to the point that it was a steal of a deal for us – I’ll never forget the manner in which the Mets carted off probably the greatest individual in terms of good will and sincerity the team ever had. But that’s another story.

    • Another story we’ll unfortunately revisit again. Seeing Santana thrown under the bus this spring really bothered me … and it fits the pattern. This organization has got to stop publicly slagging its players, whether for attribution or through sneaky anonymity.

      If I may be blunt, it’s stupid and embarrassing and fucking indecent and I was tired of it years ago.

      • Dave

        Oh, I’m with you on that. Throughout history…years ago it was Cleon, Seaver via Grant’s lapdog Dick Young, Cashen dismantled a dominant team and had something unnecessary to say about several of them on their way out, then RA this winter, now Santana, and then we get word about the Mets and Piazza being pissed at each other. How vintage Steinbrennerian of them.

      • Andee

        Question, though: is there any way this team could privately slag (i.e reprimand) its players without word getting out about it, given how many people in the media have their knives sharpened for them? If not, what are they supposed to do, not ever reprimand them or question anything they do at all?

        And really, I don’t think Sandy was saying Johan sat on his butt and played video games all winter. He’s saying that nobody really knew what to do here, because there has never been a rehab case equivalent to Santana’s. I don’t see how this is equivalent to Seaver or Cleon Jones at all. Santana is making an unbelievable amount of money, almost a third of the team’s payroll. If he can’t pitch, are they really supposed to just smile and say everything is fabulous? It’s not like anyone would believe them.

        • Well said. Thing is, Sandy seemed surprised. Which would indicate something went wrong. And frankly, at this point they have to straighten out and fly right for a few years before my first instinct isn’t to suspect they’re Walter Reeding another high-profile player….

  • Joe D.

    Hi Jason,

    I actually was going to take Sandy off the hook for his text for it just seemed observation more than criticism. However, the rest of the Met organization took care of that and if anything, Sandy could put a stop to these things and hasn’t.

    Let us be fair to Sandy on one point, he didn’t start this – we saw it happening a few years after the Wilpons took over, beginning with the indefensible manner in which the fired Willie Randolf and made Omar the scapegoat for them. Sandy just fits in with them for we’ve seen first hand how his deceptive words addressed to the fans has come back to show how insincere he really was.

    I remember the humiliation the Mets made Cleon’s wife go through. It was an agonizing personal ordeal made worse by the lack of respect and concern of what was tearing at her insides with pressuring her to be put on display for the media because M. Donald Grant (he was there at the press conference) was concerned about the Mets tarnishing their family image. The came Seaver and Kingman.

    This nonsense seemed to go away. Now, it is worse than ever.

  • RADeva

    I have two words: STILL PISSED

  • Mike

    I don’t know; I’m not really sure this is legit. We may have gotten a nice package for Niese, but I don’t think we’d have gotten Syndergaard and D’Arnaud — especially D’Arnaud — for him. After the haul they got from the Marlins, it’s clear the Blue Jays were in “win now” mode. And Dickey fits better with that mindset than Niese. D’Arnaud and Syndergaard seem like the kind of prospects you trade in a “we must win right now, and holy cow, a reigning Cy Young winner sure would help our chances” type of deal, not in a “this guy’s young and very good, and I think he could be great” type of deal. The fact that Niese is signed to a long-term, team-friendly deal is probably of little interest to the Blue Jays at this point in time. I just simply don’t think they’d have given us for Niese what they gave us for Dickey.

    And frankly, it’ll take more than an anonymous source saying “they totally would have done that!” to convince me otherwise.

  • […] I needed, what we all needed, but most definitely what my kid needed. There was Jon Niese, looking not at all dull with a baseball or a bat in his hands. There was Daniel Murphy, swinging the bat on his birthday […]