The Boston Red Sox needed to find a starting pitcher this winter, ideally somebody cheap with at least a decent career track record who could be successful in the AL East.
Instead, they got Ryan Dempster, a pitcher who epitomizes the word "meh."
Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com was the first to report that Dempster and the Red Sox were close to a deal, and he came through when the two sides shook hands as well. As for the terms of the deal, Rosenthal came up with those too:
Sources: Dempster close with #RedSox on two-year, $26.5 million free-agent contract.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 13, 2012
If at first you don't succeed, try again. The Red Sox had already made one spirited effort to sign Dempster, but Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com reported that a two-year, $25 million offer wasn't good enough. By waiting the Red Sox out, Dempster got an extra $1.5 million.
Hats go off to Dempster, who has gotten precisely what he was looking for. The Red Sox, meanwhile, are crossing their fingers in hopes that Dempster can be a heck of a lot better for them than he was for the Texas Rangers in his first foray into the American League.
They shouldn't count on it. The Junior Circuit gave Dempster a harsh reality check, and the warning signs are there that his struggles were no fluke.
In 12 starts with the Rangers, Dempster posted a 5.09 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. He gave up 10 home runs in 69 innings pitched after giving up only nine home runs in 104 innings as a member of the Cubs.
Dempster did have a higher K/9 as a Ranger than he did as a Cub, which had something to do with a slight elevation in his swinging-strike rate. That's pretty much the extent of the bright side, though, as most of his other numbers took a turn for the worse as soon as he slipped into a Rangers uniform.
As a Cub, Dempster held hitters to a .210/.263/.324 line and a .244 BABIP. As a Ranger, hitters got him to the tune of a .276/.337/.470 slash line and a .335 BABIP. His strike percentage declined from 65 percent to 63 percent, and his walk rate went from 2.34 per nine innings to 3.26 per nine innings.
There were many who predicted that Dempster's act wouldn't fly as well in the Junior Circuit as it had in the Senior Circuit, and that's exactly how things panned out. He wasn't fooling anyone and he got beat up, plain and simple.
Just as concerning is who Dempster got beat up by. The Los Angeles Angels, who finished fourth in baseball in runs scored, tagged Dempster on three separate occasions. The New York Yankees blasted him for eight runs in six innings. The Oakland A's, a highly underrated offensive club, had little trouble with him on the final day of the season.
Dempster's best starts as a Ranger came against the likes of Minnesota, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Baltimore and, naturally, Boston. Offensively, this group was a mixed bag in 2012. Some of them were downright poor—including the Red Sox by the end of the year—and others were hit-or-miss for much of the year (especially the Orioles).
His success against these clubs and his struggles against the others suggest pretty strongly that the best place for Dempster is back in the National League, where lineups are thinner and where pitchers kindly offer free outs.
The AL East, on the other hand, is one of the last places Dempster should be. It's a division where he'll have to make multiple starts against some of the most dangerous offensive clubs in the league.
The Toronto Blue Jays may be the most dangerous of the bunch, as they were among the most powerful teams in the league before everyone got hurt in 2012 and have since added Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to their lineup.
The Yankees are trending backward rather than forward this winter, but I'll believe their lineup is weak when I see it. Only the Rangers scored more runs than the Yanks did in 2012, and nobody even came close to hitting as many home runs.
The Orioles' offense was inconsistent for much of 2012, but they hit their stride once Manny Machado came aboard later in the year. In him, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy, they at least have the makings of a strong offense.
So do the Rays. They don't have a ton of firepower, but a healthy Evan Longoria would make a huge difference, and they have a potential Rookie of the Year hitter in Wil Myers to stash in their outfield.
Furthermore, Dempster will be pitching regularly at one of the top parks for hitters in the majors, and Fenway Park isn't the only AL East park that loves hitters. Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Rogers Centre tend to favor hitters, and Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch is always on the mind of a righty facing one of the Yankees' lefties.
Red Sox Nation must not expect Dempster to post a 2.25 ERA again, as he did in 16 starts with the Cubs in 2012. He had a 4.41 career ERA coming into 2012, and that's probably right where he'll be in 2013 as a member of the Red Sox.
To be fair to Dempster, the Red Sox presumably aren't looking for him to be an ace. At best, he's a No. 3 ahead of Felix Doubront and John Lackey. In a hitter-happy division like the AL East, an ERA in the mid-4.00s from your third starter is acceptable so long as it comes with around 200 innings.
That's a plateau Dempster could cross. He's logged close to 1,000 innings over the last five seasons, and he's the kind of guy who can give a team six innings every time out no matter how hard he's being hit.
The Red Sox haven't set the bar very high in bringing Dempster aboard, but it's not like they've made a crippling mistake. They still have plenty of payroll breathing room left, and the length of Dempster's deal puts him in the same boat as the other players Boston has signed this winter. If it turns into a nightmare, it will be a short-lived nightmare.
Indeed, the general feeling of Dempster's signing is similar to that of the other signings the Red Sox have made this winter. In David Ross, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Koji Uehara and now Dempster, the Red Sox have targeted solid players who should help, but not great players who are destined to make them a legitimate contender again.
It should now be abundantly clear what Boston has in mind. The Red Sox are constructing a decent team that will be able to wash away all the bad memories from 2012, but the real purpose of this decent team is to hold down the fort until the Red Sox can craft what will hopefully be a truly great team with the young stars they're developing.
The hired guns the Red Sox have brought aboard are mere placeholders. They'll either be gone in a few years or traded for more young players to aid Boston's rebuilding process, which has moved somewhat behind the scenes this winter.
Of course, there's the off chance that everything will work out perfectly for the Red Sox and they'll get back to contending for championships sooner rather than later. Maybe they know a heck of a lot more about the guns they're hiring than everyone else does.
Take that leap of faith at your own peril, Mr. John Q. Red Sox Fan.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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