MLB Trade Deadline Rumors: Ryan Dempster

If the MLB trade rumor mill is to be believed, then the first significant piece of the July trading extravaganza is likely to happen this week and it would involve Chicago Cubs’ starting pitcher Ryan Dempster. According to ESPN’s Buster Olney the Cubs want to get Dempster moved now and then focus their efforts on dealing Matt Garza. While the latter is the more significant trading chip, if teams feel like Dempster is a consolation prize it might limit what the Cubs can get in return. Olney cites last year’s situation with San Diego, where the biggest surprise of the deadline was their inability to move closer Heath Bell and observers feel it was because setup man Mike Adams—who eventually landed in Texas—was seen as a more affordable consolation prize. Therefore it makes sense for Chicago general manager Theo Epstein to deal Dempster this week (preferably prior to his scheduled start on Friday) and then open the bidding on Garza. TheSportsNotebook evaluates Dempster and his suitability for possible trade partners.

Dempster has made 14 starts this season in a contact year where he’s had some injuries that are now behind him. He’s 5-3 and the ERA is a dazzling 1.86. Any pitcher with numbers like these would be outperforming career norms, but in the 35-year-old Dempster’s case the contrast is particularly striking. He came to the big leagues in 1998 with the Marlins, became a starter a year later and spent three mediocre years in South Beach. Two bad years in Cincinnati followed and he landed on the North Side of Chicago for the 2004 campaign. He was moved to the bullpen and by ’05 was the closer, although he was never particularly notable. In ’08 he went to the rotation and had his best year in the majors, winning 17 games with a 2.96 ERA for a team that had the best record in the National League before a playoff flameout. His ERA in the ensuing three seasons steadily climbed back up and hit 4.80 in 2011.

Does all this sound like a pitcher you want to depend on for too much? He’s had one notable year in the major leagues and a few other halfway decent ones, and now he’s on the market at a time when his value is artificially high. The counter to that argument is that perhaps he’s on a magical run for this season, and if a team is not committed beyond this season, they can ride the carpet with him through October. That’s the most anyone can possibly expect, so in that light let’s run through the most noted contenders who are interested…

Boston: The Red Sox are the most prominent rumor right now, although that might be due to an overrating of the importance of Epstein’s obvious knowledge of the farm system he built for his previous employer. On the one hand, the Sox wouldn’t want Dempster to be more than a fourth or fifth starter given they’d be counting on Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz to return to form. But should the team really part with any more prospects, particularly when Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales have done credible jobs at the back end of the rotation?

Cleveland: I can see the argument for Cleveland making a move. They’ve been in rebuilding mode since 2007 and it’s time to step up in an AL Central or wild-card race there for the taking and Dempster would be a clear upgrade over their 4-5 starters and is also pitching much better than Derek Lowe at #3. The real question, as we noted in yesterday’s discussion about Shane Victorino, is that the Tribe have bigger problems in the everyday lineup.

Baltimore: Yes, Dempster could help, but under no circumstances should the Orioles disrupt their rebuilding program for a two-month rental. This team should only be in the mix for a big name where the priority of the trading team is moving salary, rather than prospects. Baltimore’s got money, but they don’t need to deal prospects for a short-term move like this.

Chicago White Sox: They are said to be in the mix, but I don’t see where it makes a lot of sense. White Sox GM Kenny Williams is better off banking on a return to form by John Danks or Philip Humber than he is wasting even a modest resource on a 35-year-old whose success might not translate to the American League (the latter being a concern that obviously translates to the three teams above and two more below)

New York Yankees: If they were in serious threat of losing the AL East, I could see the logic, but the Yanks don’t have a deep farm system and money isn’t going to be on Epstein’s mind, given that the Cubs are flush themselves and the contract comes off the books in the offseason anyway. The most value Dempster has here is a possible Game 4 starter in the playoffs if the team is worried about Andy Pettite coming back, and what you give up for that won’t be enough to swing a deal.

Detroit: Of the American League candidates, the Tigers make the most sense. They’re all-in on this season so the two-month rental makes sense. Dempster immediately becomes #3 in the rotation behind Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, so he’s high impact here. The vast dimensions of Comerica Park contrast sharply to Wrigley Field and can counteract any negative translation in going from the NL to the AL. And if the top three of the pitching rotation stabilizes, the odds are extremely good for the Tigers to either win the AL Central or at least get a wild-card, which translates into a one-game shot with Verlander on the mound. So the reward is there.

St. Louis: With Chris Carpenter not coming back, Adam Wainwright struggling and Jaime Garcia still waiting to come off the disabled list, the Cards need pitching. In spite of their weaknesses, Pittsburgh is vulnerable and now Cincinnati is without Joey Votto. The problem? How much do the Cards want to give up of the future when the bullpen is still a mess and they’ve got some good will after last year’s World Series title? The Cubs will trade with their archrival because Epstein’s under no illusions about how close he is to contention. But do the Cards want to help him rebuild in exchange for just another so-so veteran? Dempster can help and I can see the temptation but don’t like this deal from St. Louis’ standpoint.

Washington: If the Nats are really serious about shutting down Stephen Strasburg, this makes tremendous sense. Dempster can give them the stability they need to hold off Atlanta in the NL East, and provide a little depth for the playoffs. Washington’s farm system is regarded as deep so investing something here to avoid the justifiable fan backlash over the Strasburg shutdown would be a good idea.

Pittsburgh: Similar to their Rustbelt neighbor Cleveland, I can see where Dempster helps the rotation depth, I can see the logic in a win-now approach and I can see where one extra arm gets them over the top. But the Pirates can’t lose focus on the everyday lineup and if a Dempster deal is as immediate as the rumor mill suggest, Pittsburgh would be wise to wait and let the rest of the market develop.

Atlanta: The Braves need more pitching to catch Washington or at least hang on and get the wild-card, and they’ve got the farm system depth to do a deal. But given that depth and given that better arms—from Garza to Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke to possibly Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels—are going to be on the market, I’d wait and take a run at one of the big guns. Particularly given that it’s the need for an ace who can win you a one-game wild-card showdown this year and anchor your rotation next year that’s the more glaring need for Atlanta.

To sum it up, I’d rank Detroit is clearly the team where Dempster fits the best with Washington ranking second as a solid fit. I can see the logic of him in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, only so long as those teams either fix everyday lineup problems or become convinced they can’t. The Cards and Yankees make a little bit of sense, but not nearly enough to move him to the top of a list where they can only be one winner. The White Sox, Braves, Red Sox and Orioles, for differing reasons, would be crazy to get involved here.