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The Road Not Taken

So over in the Daily News, Andy Martino says [1] 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 [2]¬†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.