Only three times in the history of baseball has a reigning Cy Young winner been traded away before the start of the next season. If the New York Mets want to reverse their losing ways, they should make R.A. Dickey the fourth.

The long-struggling Mets are far from contention. They just finished second-to-last in their division. They haven't won their division since 2006, and haven't had a winning season since 2008. Trading Dickey would replenish their farm system, and potentially stock the team with enough young talent to prepare the Mets for a playoff run in a few years.

With a shortage of available arms this offseason, the Mets could fetch a hefty return for Dickey. He's coming off a career year in which he led the league in strikeouts and innings pitched, while posting a stellar 2.73 ERA, fourth best among all starters. That he's guaranteed just $5 million next year — the last year of his contract — heightens his appeal; Zack Greinke, the other prized pitcher up for grabs this winter, just signed a six-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers worth an average $24.5 million per year.

Greinke's signing boosted New York's bargaining power. So too did the recent trade that sent Tampa Bay Rays starter James Shields to Kansas City. Dickey is now far and away the best pitcher still up for grabs. With increased leverage, the Mets can ask for elite prospects as a starting point in negotiations. Indeed, before Greinke came off the table, the Mets reportedly demanded Boston's top two prospects in exchange for Dickey. Now the Mets have even more leverage.

But you can bet the Mets won't deal Dickey. They'll keep their ace, and in doing so, probably prolong their fans' misery. 

The big sticking point? The gap between the value the Mets and other teams see in Dickey.

To suitors, Dickey is a Cy Young winner, but also a 38-year-old who stunk before reeling off three solid seasons beginning in 2010. He only throws one pitch well — the little-understood knuckle ball — and there's hardly a guarantee that Dickey will ever be able to even sniff at his 2012 level of success again.

To the Mets though, Dickey holds a unique, intangible value. Amid a season otherwise marked by underachievement and outright failure, Dickey became the Mets' first 20 game winner in two decades, released a best-selling autobiography and, in doing so, became the face of the franchise.

Mets fans and the boisterous local media have no patience for team management. Stumbling from a string of high-priced busts, the Mets, under new GM Sandy Alderson, let fan-favorite Jose Reyes walk last year in free agency, a move widely criticized as an admission that the team wouldn't compete in 2012.

With fans furious and attendance slumping — the Mets ranked 17th in attendance last year despite their impressive new stadium — jettisoning the new face of the franchise would be a PR disaster. The Mets would need a massive return to justify such a trade, and thus temper the backlash. That's why Alderson will likely bring Dickey back — the market doesn't value his aging knuckleballer enough to cough up real talent, and keeping Dickey in town will placate fans and fill seats.

Already, news leaked this week that the Mets were preparing to offer Dickey a two-year, $20 million contract extension. While Dickey has asked for roughly $26 million, the Mets could easily up their bid. As recent history has shown, the team isn't shy about handing out fat, sometimes questionable contracts.

The Mets haven't had a winning season in five years, and though dealing Dickey would likely extend that streak through 2013, it would better position them for long-term success. Who knows how many good years Dickey has left? Yet with few teams willing or able to meet the Mets' steep asking price, Dickey seems destined to remain, by default, in New York.