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Right pitcher at the right price: Why Ryan Dempster was a good fit for the Red Sox

12.13.12 at 12:01 pm ET
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Ryan Dempster

The Red Sox entered the offseason in need of at least one additional starter. But while sifting through options, sticker shock — whether in prospects or dollars/years — seemed a likely outcome.

That being the case, the Sox ended up pleasantly surprised to add right-hander Ryan Dempster — one of the more reliable pitchers on the market, and one who won’t cost the team a draft pick — for just two years, albeit on a top-of-the-market rate of $26.5 million ($13.25 million per year). The deal (first reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and confirmed by multiple industry sources) does not include any options.

At 35, Dempster represents something of a risk as he’s at a stage in his career when performance decline and/or diminished durability become concerns. Even so, the fact that he was open to a two-year deal and didn’t require a draft pick moved Dempster to the front of the line in terms of the pitchers whom the Sox wanted.

After all, Zack Greinke was clearly going to cost more in dollars and years than the team would consider a reasonable investment, particularly given that he never expressed any enthusiasm for Boston. The team might have been interested in Anibal Sanchez — the 28-year-old Tigers right-hander who, because he was traded in the middle of the 2012 season, could not receive a one-year qualifying offer from Detroit and thus would not cost a draft pick — but upon making the determination that he would get more than four years, the team’s enthusiasm for him vanished, particularly given that he has never delivered as many as 200 innings in a season and that his 3.72 ERA over the last four years was in no small part a product of playing in a tremendous pitcher’s park. Kyle Lohse will probably receive more than two years, and he’ll cost the team that signs him a draft pick. Edwin Jackson will likely command more than two years; at the least, if he’s going to settle for a one- or two-year deal, it won’t be until late in the offseason that he’d sign, so the team would run the risk of being shut out of a promising short-term deal if it passed on Dempster.

An industry source said last week that the Red Sox have expressed interest in the veteran, who was 12-8 with a 3.38 ERA in 173 innings in 2012 with the Cubs and Rangers, though he went 7-3 with a 5.09 ERA after Texas acquired him at the trade deadline. Though 35, Dempster has been durable with a strong track record since moving from the bullpen to the rotation with the Cubs in 2008. Over the last five years, he’s averaged 199 innings a year (2012, in fact, was the first time in that span during which he’d failed to log 200 innings) with a 65-49 record and 3.74 ERA.

Dempster is 3-1 with a 4.02 ERA in his career against the Sox, including 2-0 with 13 2/3 shutout innings in two starts against Boston (one while with the Cubs, another with the Rangers) last year. He was also dominant in a start against Baltimore last year, allowing one run in eight innings en route to a victory, but got hammered by the Yankees for eight runs in six innings in a loss. In five career starts in New York, he’s 0-4 with a 7.62 ERA, though given that three of those starts took place more than a decade ago, it’s fair to ask the degree to which that career line is salient.

Even so, there are questions about how Dempster will fare in his transition from the National League to the AL, particularly given that his ERA more than doubled, from 2.25 with the Cubs to 5.09 with the Rangers, after he relocated at the trade deadline.

One major league source suggested that the Sox should — and likely do — have “modest expectations” for the veteran, describing him as the best option available on a relatively short-term deal that permits the team to minimize risk, rather than a true impact starter who can transform a rotation.

“He’ll carve up weaker lineups and will be a positive clubhouse guy,” said the source. “[But it's] hard to expect much against the deeper lineups and I don’t think [the Sox] do.”

However, one of Dempster’s former teammates is bullish on his potential with the Sox.

“Dempster would be a GREAT addition to that clubhouse,” left-hander Rich Hill, Dempster’s teammate in Chicago from 2005-08 who pitched in Boston over the last three years, wrote in a text. “One of the best teammates I have played with!”

“No doubt that he would do extremely well in the East,” Hill added. “I look at how guys bounce back from outings that did not go so well and he does a great job of that. He has only gotten better as time has gone on. Also, playing in a city like Boston brings everyone’s game to their peak level. There is no question his stuff will play!”

Dempster’s track record of consistency bears mention. His 3.74 ERA over the last five seasons ranks 25th in the majors among pitchers who have averaged at least 150 innings per year — not far off of Jon Lester (3.63, 21st), and just ahead of Matt Garza (3.74, 26th), James Shields (3.79, 27th), Mark Buehrle (3.85, 28th) and Lohse (3.90, 32nd).

Given that Shields (and Wade Davis) just netted the Rays three top prospects from the Royals, including Wil Myers, that Buehrle will receive $48 million over the next three years from the Blue Jays (and also contributed to the prospect haul Miami netted for Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes) and that Lohse is in line for a multi-year deal as a free agent and will also come at the cost of a draft pick, the appeal of Dempster on a short-term deal seems evident.

Moreover, while Dempster’s experience with the Rangers raises questions about his ability to perform in the junior circuit, it’s possible to exaggerate his struggles in Texas, since he did log seven quality starts in 12 outings. That quality start percentage of 58.3 percent with the Rangers was better than that of any Red Sox starting pitcher last year. (Felix Doubront led the team with a 51.7 percent quality start rate.) On the year, Dempster turned in quality starts in 64.2 percent of his starts with the Cubs and Rangers, suggesting an ability to work relatively deep into games while giving his team a solid opportunity to win on a consistent basis.

The right-hander, according to a source familiar with his thinking, was seeking a three-year deal as of the winter meetings. When Dan Haren agreed to a one-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals, Dempster — who is coming off of a four-year, $52 million deal he signed with the Cubs after the 2008 season — identified that figure as a baseline for the average annual value he seeks. ESPNBoston.com reported last week that the right-hander rejected a two-year, $25 million offer from the Sox. However, he ended up bumping his salary slightly from that level, but without getting a third year — a key consideration for the Sox.

The Sox view Dempster as a solid mid- to back-of-the-rotation starter who has a demonstrated track record of supplying reliable innings and keeping his team in the game. He is also viewed as a tremendous teammate and a rotation leader, with a strong work ethic that is considered a potential positive in the clubhouse. And, while he’s shown declining strikeout rates in the last two years (going from 8.7 strikeouts per nine in 2010 to 8.5 in 2011 to 8.0 in 2012), he struck out more than a batter an inning with the Rangers at the end of the year.

Read More: james shields, kyle lohse, mark buehrle, matt garza
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