Braves sign 42-year-old knuckleballer Dickey for 1 year, $8 million

PHOENIX – The Braves kept up their strike-early strategy by signing 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to a one-year, $8 million contract that includes a one-year option for 2018.

They agreed to terms late Wednesday and announced the deal Thursday morning as the General Managers Meetings were concluding. Dickey will get $7.5 million in 2017, with the Braves holding an $8 million option for 2018 that includes a $500,000 buyout.

A National League Cy Young Award winner and Nashville native who grew up a Braves fan, was 10-15 with a 4.46 ERA in 30 games (29 starts) last season for Toronto and had 126 strikeouts in 169 2/3 innings. It was the first time since 2010 that he pitched fewer than 208 innings.

“It’s a Southern boy come home. Pretty exciting stuff,” said general manager John Coppolella, who had Hall of Famers Bobby Cox and knuckleballer Phil Niekro and manager Brian Snitker go to Nashville to visit Dickey. “This is a guy who averaged 211 innings over the last seven years. We said we wanted innings, we wanted short-term, and we were looking to strike early. So, all three things.”

The Braves, who also signed veteran starter/reliever Josh Collmenter to a one-year deal during the GM meetings, are still looking to add at least one more starting pitcher and possibly a catcher and a “super-utility” player, Coppolella said. They are pursuing players through free agency and trades.

Dickey’s innings dipped, and his homer and walks rate climbed last season, when he pitched 46 fewer innings than in 2015 but allowed two more walks (63) and three more home runs (28).

He made $12 million each of the past three seasons with the Blue Jays and had been projected to get $8 million to $10 million on a one-year deal entering free agency. Dickey briefly considered retirement in September, but after a conversation with his wife they agreed he was still too competitive and healthy to stop pitching.

“I knew from talking to my wife and our family situation, and where I am in my career — which has nothing to do with how I feel physically, but just where I am in my career with my family in particular — we had a very short list of teams that we were willing to consider, and the Braves were one of those teams at the top of the list,” said Dickey, a father of four kids aged 14 and younger. “So our hope was that we’d be able to have a chance with the Braves and pursue that. …

“She knows that I’ve grown up a Braves fan, and so this is a real special moment for me.”

Dickey rebounded from a 6.28 ERA in July with a 3.41 ERA in five August starts, but pitched in only three games (two starts) over the season’s final five weeks as the Blue Jays used other starters down the stretch.

“I feel great,” he said. “My knuckleball velocity was as high as it’s been since 2012 at the end of the season last year. And although I didn’t get a chance to showcase it in the playoffs or down the stretch in September because of how good our pitching staff was, how deep it is, I felt great in my (bullpen sessions).

“Pitching in the AL East is a little bit difficult. The parks are smaller, and you’re facing the DH. But I still feel like I competed well there. This year in particular I physically felt really good, and I don’t see any reason why that should stop. I’m very blessed that I’ve made every start in the last seven years of my career, and my hope and expectation — and I hope it’s the Braves’ expectation of me — is to pitch 200 innings and have 33 starts.”

He posted ERAs of 3.91 in 214 1/3 innings in 2015 and 3.71 in 215 1/3 innings in 2014, and Dickey won the 2012 NL Cy Young Award at age 37 when he went 20-6 with a career-best 2.73 ERA in his final season with the Mets, leading the NL in strikeouts (230) and innings pitched (233 2/3).

“He brings tremendous value on the field through his performance and durability,” Coppolella said. “He also brings tremendous value off the field as a leader who can help our young pitchers through his knowledge, experience and the adversity he has overcome.”

The Mets capitalized in a major way on Dickey’s 2012 Cy Young season, trading him that December to the Blue Jays as the principal piece in a seven-player deal that sent soon-to-be-ace Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud to the Mets.

Catcher Josh Thole also went to the Blue Jays in that trade and served as Dickey’s personal catcher most of the time in Toronto. Thole is a free agent, and the Braves are looking to add a catcher to pair with Flowers, but Thole hit an anemic .169 with one homer and a .474 OPS in 136 plate appearances before he was waived in late August.

Coppolella said there was no package deal in the works with Thole to join Dickey with the Braves. The GM also said he already had talked with incumbent Braves catcher Tyler Flowers about catching the knuckleballer Dickey, and that Flowers was eager to tackle the challenge.

Dickey has a 110-108 career record and 4.01 ERA in 369 games (269 starts) over 14 seasons with five teams including the Mets and American League teams Texas, Toronto, Minnesota and Seattle. His three seasons with the Mets in 2010-12 were his only NL seasons, and he went 39-28 with a 2.95 ERA in that span.

He was 39-37 with a 3.95 ERA in his first three seasons with the Blue Jays through 2015, totaling 214 or more innings in each of those seasons before the decline in 2015.

Dickey pitched for the University of Tennessee before he was selected in the first round (18th overall pick) of the 1996 draft by the Rangers. He debuted with Texas in 2001.