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The Strike Zone

Dempster an upgrade but won't be savior Red Sox rotation needs

Ryan Dempster's ERA was more than twice as high in the AL in 2012 (5.09) as it was in the NL (2.25). (AP) Ryan Dempster's ERA was more than twice as high in the AL in 2012 (5.09) as it was in the NL (2.25). (AP)

One week after reportedly turning down a two-year, $25 million contract from the Red Sox, Ryan Dempster reportedly agreed on Thursday to go to Boston on a two-year deal worth $26.5 million. That is not the only reason that this deal is a head-scratcher. Over the weekend, Peter Gammons reported that Dempster’s agent, Craig Landis, was hoping to get Dempster a three-year deal with a National League team that holds spring training in Arizona. Less than a week later, Dempster settled for none of those things.

That the market for Dempster’s services was so soft relative to his demands is one indication that he’s not going to be the rotation savior that Boston clearly needs. Prior to signing Dempster, the back of their projected rotation was populated by John Lackey and lefty Franklin Morales. Lackey missed the entire 2012 season following October 2011 Tommy John surgery and posted a 5.26 ERA (82 ERA+) and 1.50 WHIP in his two seasons with Boston prior to that surgery. Morales’s nine starts last year (in which he went 3-3 with a 4.14 ERA) were his first in the majors since 2009, and his 76 1/3 innings in 2012 were a career high.

Dempster is an easy up-grade on those two. In five seasons since returning to starting, Dempster has posted a 3.74 ERA (114 ERA+) and struck out 8.2 men per nine innings with a solid 2.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging one shy of 200 innings a season. He’s a very good pitcher, but he’s also an aging one -- he’ll turn 36 in early May -- who has shown some signs of decline. His 2011 season was the weakest of those last five, and he hit the disabled list twice in 2012.

Dempster is also a pitcher who spent his entire career prior to being traded to the Rangers at the 2012 trading deadline in the National League. In those last five seasons, prior to this past August, Dempster had faced a lineup with a designated hitter just seven times in 160 starts. Of his four quality outings in those seven starts, three came against weak-hitting teams (the 2010 Mariners, 2011 Royals and 2012 Twins). His 12 starts for the Rangers can also be evenly split into those against weak teams (6-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 10.3 K/9 against the Twins, Indians, Royals, Mariners and Red Sox) and contenders (1-3 with a 9.09 ERA, 1.82 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 against the Yankees, Angels, Orioles and A’s).

The American League East has no patsy teams, a sharp contrast to the National League Central of the last five years, which fed weak Pirates and Astros teams to Dempster with regularity. The Yankees scored the second-most runs in baseball last year, while the Orioles and Blue Jays were roughly league-average in scoring. Toronto has since added Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera and has big-bat catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud on the verge of the majors. Baltimore will get a full season from Manny Machado in 2013. The Rays were considerably below average, but also played most of the season without their best hitter, Evan Longoria, and have added Wil Myers, one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball, to their outfield picture for the coming season.

Dempster is good enough to hold his own against that tougher competition, but it’s a stretch to think he’s going to thrive in that situation in his age-36 and -37 seasons. That makes the Dempster signing another half-measure for the Red Sox, who have spent the offseason signing platoon players (Jonny Gomes and David Ross), a catcher with problematic medicals who will be asked to play first base (Mike Napoli, whose introductory press conference on Tuesday was cancelled amid speculation about his health and the team's effort to include language in his contract protecting itself against an extended disabled-list stay), an overrated and possibly washed-up centerfielder who will play in an outfield corner (Shane Victorino) and their 37-year-old designated hitter (David Ortiz, who is coming off an injury-shortened season).

The overall impression is that the Red Sox' new administration is so relieved to have rid themselves of the bad contracts (save Lackey’s) bequeathed to them by Theo Epstein that they’re being too cautious about spending that savings on new long-term deals. Indeed, the three-year, $39 million contracts extended to Napoli and Victorino are the only two Boston has handed out this offseason larger in years or total dollars than Dempster’s. Boston isn't wrong to be careful with its money, but these signings seem unlikely to thrust the club back into the thick of a still very competitive division.

-- By Cliff Corcoran
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