When the Red Sox signed Ryan Dempster this offseason I was disappointed. After pitching brilliantly for a half year with the Chicago Cubs, the 35-year-old righthander posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for the Texas Rangers. Some claimed the Ballpark in Arlington was a factor, yet Dempster had three starts of five or more runs on the road after joining Texas.
In fact, Fenway Park actually had a higher park factor than the Rangers stadium did in 2012.
The move reminded me of 2005. When after winning their first World Series in 86 years, Boston’s front office chose not to sign key championship cogs Pedro Martinez and Orlanda Cabrera. Instead, they spent more money combined on Edgar Renteria, David Wells and Matt Clement. After only two seasons each player was off the team, and the Sox had a measly 8.3 total WAR to show for it.
But the real reason I was upset was the signing meant a rotation spot would not be going to Rubby De La Rosa. Only 24, De La Rosa reminds many of a young Pedro Martinez; he has an electric fastball and ever-improving curveball and changeup, the latter pitch's grip learned from the Dominican legend himself. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2011, De La Rosa put up a 3.71 ERA in 60.2 innings, including 10 starts.
The comparison between Pedro and De La Rosa is even more fitting this year, as neither was allowed a chance to start early in their careers. It’s known that Tommy Lasorda thought Martinez was too small to be a member of the rotation, and he gave Pedro the chance to start only two games in 1993 despite a 2.61 ERA in 107 innings. The Sox are doing the same because of De La Rosa’s injury and his history of never throwing more than 110 innings.
De La Rosa has been healthy since being recalled to the Dodgers last August, as it’s been 18 months since he went under the knife. Yet because of the trade and the corresponding waiver rules, De La Rosa could not technically be traded until after the season ended. So he pitched just one inning after the trade and was held in limbo. De La Rosa did not enjoy his time, which he shared with Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston:
At Double-A, I couldn't do nothing. Just run, condition, work out. That was sad for me. I wanted to go home. I talked to my agent and said, 'I want to go home, because this is bad. Everybody is playing and I'm not playing.' So I needed to focus on other things. It was a bad experience for me.
He also communicated he felt ready to start, and that’s where he’d like to be.
Everything -- my body, my elbow -- feels great, he said. I feel very strong. That's my dream, to start. But that's not my decision. If the team wants me to relieve, I'll relieve.
Back in 1990 Martinez threw 77 innings in rookie ball as an 18-year-old. Then he went out for 177 the next year over three different levels. His career turned out just fine despite the 100-inning jump in one year. Furthermore, as Jeff Passan recently detailed at Yahoo! Sports, Tommy John surgery is nearly becoming a rite of passage at this point. The success rate is over 90 percent.
The Sox rotation looks set as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Dempster and John Lackey. One of them could certainly go down, and De La Rosa may be primed to take their spot. But that seems unlikely to happen.
Other than missing 2012 with Tommy John surgery, Lackey’s averaged 31 starts a season in his career. Lester and Dempster have both averaged 32 over the past five years. Buchholz had to miss a number of starts in 2011, but otherwise he’s been healthy.
The Sox rotation has a bright future. Matt Barnes has pitched exceptionally well in the minors, and Allen Webster may have a chance to impact Boston late in the year. But there’s currently a logjam in the rotation because of the Dempster signing, and on the staff overall after the Sox signed Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehera.
As Mike Newman of Fangraphs points out, solid performers such as Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales—both of whom could have taken over a fifth rotation spot until De La Rosa was deemed ready—may be left off the staff.
GM Ben Cherington is now in control of this team. The decision on De La Rosa will be made by him, likely after consoling with manager John Farrell and special assistant Martinez, among other instructors.
But signings like Dempster are the ones that got the Red Sox in trouble in the first place. Rather than win through homegrown talent and smart acquisitions like they did in 2004, former GM Theo Epstein got too playful with Boston’s money and made a number of terrible signings. It’s resulted in thee straight years of the Sox missing the playoffs.
Dempster’s two-year, $27 million contract doesn’t seem like a lot, but consider that the Sox could have had Michael Bourn for less money than Shane Victorino and Dempster combined. With the amount of talent the Sox have coming through the minor league system, a couple of great signings could absolutely fuel a baseball resurgence in Beantown in a couple of years.
But overpaying for mediocre players when the answer was already in the clubhouse is a move that can’t be repeated if the Sox want to have success in the near future.
Stephen Sikora is a junior at Boston College. In addition to being a Red Sox FC, he also writes about BC sports for his school's student newspaper, The Heights.
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