NEW YORK -- Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey climbed over one of his two primary offseason obstacles on Thursday, allowing him to turn his attention fully to the other.
Dickey underwent surgery in Philadelphia to repair a lower abdominal muscle tear, which he described in a tweet Wednesday as a "small surgery" that "should be no big deal." The Mets expect him to be back at full strength long before the start of Spring Training.
Though it may hint at potential pitfalls lurking in Dickey's future, the operation should play little role in his negotiations for another multi-year contract with the Mets, who hope to lock up both Dickey and third baseman David Wright to potentially career-long deals.
"Those are the two big issues," general manager Sandy Alderson said recently, when asked specifically about the possibility of extending Dickey. "Retaining our own players is one of the key tenets of the approach we're trying to take."
That process represents the knuckleballer's second and more significant offseason obstacle.
In the case of Wright, 29, negotiations should be relatively straightforward. Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals set the market for third basemen earlier this year with his six-year, $100-million deal, giving both sides a logical starting point to begin their negotiations. A player signing a long-term deal in the middle of his prime years is hardly unusual.
But things are not nearly so simple for Dickey, who is entering the $5-million club option season on the two-year, $7.8-million extension he signed with the Mets after the 2010 season -- an extraordinarily team-friendly contract, considering the knuckleballer's production over the life of it.
Since inking that deal, Dickey has gone 28-19 with a 2.99 ERA, striking out more than three times as many batters as he has walked and enjoying his first 20-win campaign this summer. He ranks sixth in the Majors with 442 1/3 innings pitched over the past two seasons, 10th with a 2.99 ERA, seventh with six complete games and eighth with three shutouts. Perhaps not surprisingly considering those statistics, he is the leading candidate to win the National League Cy Young award.
But Dickey is also about to turn 38, coming off a career year at an age when most players have long since begun declining. His situation does not compare to any in baseball history, given his success at an advanced age, the escalating price and limited availability of elite starting pitching, and the notion that knuckleballers can be successful well into their 40s.
That last bit is the trickiest to gauge, as Dickey throws his knuckleballs faster than anyone really ever has. In doing so, he clearly puts more stress on his arm than previous generations of knuckleballers, yet has nonetheless established himself as one of the most durable pitchers in baseball.
Even so, Dickey's abdominal injury underscores the fact that just because his arm might stay healthy, does not mean the rest of him will. Dickey tore the plantar fascia in his right foot early last season, for example, and relied on strong painkillers to make it through the rest of the summer. This year, he pitched through what he called a "dull" abdominal pain for at least five full months.
"I don't know how to equate it to what other guys experience," Dickey said after his last start. "I can only tell you that when it requires surgery, the pain can be fairly significant from time to time. We just did a good job of managing that."
It is only logical to expect more injuries as Dickey continues to age, especially considering his all-out style of play. He is an active fielder. He runs out every ground ball.
So the Mets must weigh those risks against Dickey's obvious ability, all while convincing him that the organization is set up to win before he retires. That could be a tougher sell for Dickey than for Wright, who is eight years younger, will sign a longer deal and should remain productive for a longer period of time. In short, Wright's window of opportunity is open wider.
Yet Dickey holds a measure of loyalty to the Mets and is not about to retire, either. Early guesses peg his value at somewhere around a three-year deal approaching $40 million, perhaps with team options beyond that. If the sides cannot agree to terms, the Mets could consider trading Dickey while his value is at an all-time high -- something that seems even more likely than simply exercising his 2013 option and letting him play out the season without a new deal.
But considering what Dickey has meant to the Mets since joining them in early 2010, extending his contract remains one of Alderson's top offseason priorities.