That the Royals have contacted Ryan Dempster should be of no surprise. They’ve contacted every starting pitcher available just short of begging Bret Saberhagen to come out of retirement as they seek to find a pitcher to sit atop the rotation in 2013.
Dempster had pitched entirely in the National League until being traded to the Rangers last summer at the deadline. Prior to the trade, he’d pitched as well as anyone in the NL, posting a 2.25 ERA in 104 innings. Once he reached the American League, he put up a 5.09 ERA in 69 innings. Dempster went on the disabled list twice last season, first for a quad strain in April and later for right lat tightness in June. Dempster had Tommy John surgery in August of 2003 before joining the Cubs a full year later and pitching out of the bullpen. He returned to starting in 2008, starting the first of four straight seasons where he would accumulate at least 200 innings pitched.
The Royals had previously offered Dempster a two year deal, but the latest update suggests that if a team offers him three years, he’s theirs. He’d end up with a likely three year contract worth $39 million and as of yesterday, the Royals were still considering making such an offer.
There’s a fair amount of risk involved in such a move. Dempster will turn 36 in May and while he’s been durable, his two DL stints last season may be signs that he’s starting to break down. Even if he stays healthy all year, his performance may decline. Also he wasn’t very good in his time with Texas and, being exclusively an NL pitcher to that point, the shift to the AL may not suit him at all. He had a 4.88 ERA in five starts in the Ballpark at Arlington. He got roughed up at Yankee Stadium (eight runs in six innings), in Oakland (five runs allowed in three innings), and in Anaheim (five runs allowed in 3.1 innings). He still got rocked, but it was confined to three starts, so it may be too soon to panic and say he’ll never succeed in the AL. It’s still a concern though.
Dempster’s fastball has dropped a bit, from around 91 mph before 2012 to 89.7 mph last year. His control had been an issue when he was younger, but once the Cubs started putting him back into the rotation, his walkrate dropped under 10% of all batters faced for the first time and hasn’t risen above that mark since. All the while, he’s still been capable of striking out close to a batter an inning (8.2 K/9 from 2008 to 2012). He’s always been a big slider pitcher, which often kicks up concerns by teams who see it as an invitation to injury.
With his age, a sense of decline in the air, and the sheer price that a veteran starter with a good track record commands, it’s no wonder that teams have shied away from committing three years to Dempster. He could fall completely off from his previous performance with no chance to get it back. He could get hurt. Aging pitchers aren’t usually safe bets, especially when they’re put at the top of the rotation. If the Royals brought him on, they could be taking on three years of nagging injuries, lagging performance and disappointment.
Or, they could pick up a pitcher who’s been a strong workhorse over the last five years, who’s had stable peripherals (since 2008, his xFIP has settled into 3.69 to 3.77 range each season). There was a mention of how Dempster might be intrigued by the possibility of passing on the benefit of his experience to younger pitchers, as well, and with Jake Odorizzi, Danny Duffy and potentially Mike Montgomery, Kyle Zimmer and John Lamb coming up during the span of a hypothetical three year deal, Dempster would definitely have that chance.
Another way that the signing could be attractive to the Royals is that, as a free agent signing, the Royals surrender no prospects. That means Wil Myers likely stays put. Billy Butler stays put. The offensive nucleus stays in tact to continue developing around each other and the farm system can continue developing other prospects (who could be shipped off at another time to enhance another position if it becomes necessary). To get James Shields, the Royals would have to be adding to their payroll as it is, so if they’re going to have to pay more money, they may as well get the benefit of keeping a top prospect.
There’s a lot of risk to signing Dempster, and the Royals may do so knowing that the third year may need to be entirely written off if Dempster fades fast. If they could manage some sort of two-year deal with a mutual option for the third, that could be the best deal for them.