Some Thoughts on Ryan Dempster

By Nathan Petrashek

Atlanta Braves v Chicago CubsI get the sense that Doug Melvin is one of those newfangled GMs that love advanced baseball statistics but also reserves a place for old-school baseball judgment.  Given that, and his past history with veterans like Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf, it doesn’t exactly surprise me that he’s interested in Ryan Dempster.  Dempster has always dominated the Brewers at Miller Park, throwing over 100 innings of 2.66 ERA ball while holding opposing batters to a .221 average and striking out 8.6 per nine.  MLB Trade Rumors reported today that the sides had mutual interest, although the Suppan and Wolf experiments no doubt convinced Melvin that three or more years on aging pitchers is too great a risk.

Dempster, age 35, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2012.  Everything about that should scream “red flag.”  His other really good seasons came in 2000 and 2008, but sandwiched between them, he pitched just 790 innings over 7 years (an average of about 113 innings per season).  His fastball has been slowly but steadily losing velocity.  Dempster compensated by throwing fewer of them (which seems to have increased the effectiveness of those he does throw); he’s also developed a pretty good split-finger and, just this past year, a cutter (which was pretty awful).  There’s no sense in diminishing how well he pitched for the Cubs in 2012 (2.25 ERA over 104 IP and a career-low 2.3 BB/9), but Dempster fans also have to acknowledge how poorly he pitched after being traded to the Texas Rangers (69 IP, 5.09 ERA, 1.44 WHIP).  This looks for all the world like a guy at the end of his career who is going to cash in on one more big contract.

And make no mistake, someone is going to give him three years.  Once you get past Zack Grienke, the free agent market is stocked with risky plays like Anibal Sanchez, Dan Haren, Kyle Lohse, and Carl Pavano.  Dempster, particularly after his strong year, looks like a pretty good candidate when stacked up against the field.  Someone will overpay.  Someone always does.

This is not to say that Dempster is a bad pitcher; he’s really not.  But he’s not nearly as good as his 2012 season would suggest, and anyone signing him should expect more modest returns.  The Brewers are wise to limit their risk with him at two years.  I haven’t seen specifics regarding Dempster’s desired contract, but you can be sure that given the way the pitching market has developed the past few years, he’ll be looking at an average annual value exceeding what he earned with the Cubs in 2012 ($14M).  Given the Brewers stated desire to return to an $80M payroll in 2013, that would likely place him outside the Brewers’ price range.

If so, the team might well dodge a bullet.

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