Dodger Interest in Ryan Dempster Apparently Strong, But Should it Be?

I suppose I can avoid the Ryan Dempster rumors no longer, given that they seem to become louder each & every day and now that ESPN’s Buster Olney is claiming that not only are the Dodgers & Red Sox both in on him, a trade could happen in the next 10-14 days. (Standard “I could make up a rumor that claims an unsourced person in the industry wants to trade a cat for Cliff Lee and have it go viral” disclaimer here.)

When we learned that the Dodgers had made an offer to Roy Oswalt and were showing at least some mild interest in John Lannan in recent weeks, I’d been pretty clear that I didn’t think the idea of getting another starter made sense, at least not ahead of getting a desperately needed corner infield bat. Given that Ted Lilly‘s injury didn’t seem to be serious and that Nathan Eovaldi‘s presence made the rotation six deep, spending prospects on pitching which is likely to be highly priced in the market seemed like a low priority.

While I think we all agree that offense is a bigger need, I’m starting to soften on that front. We’ve learned over the last few weeks that while Lilly isn’t likely to require surgery, he still doesn’t even have a timeline to begin throwing, much less return to the team. It seems clear that at this point, he’s not going to come back until at least the All-Star break, and potentially further than that. Given the ongoing concern about Clayton Kershaw‘s plantar fasciitis, the extensive injury histories of Chris Capuano & Aaron Harang, and everything else that’s happened to this team so far, it’s not alll that hard to see a situation where you have John Ely and/or Stephen Fife in the rotation, and that’s not a place anyone wants to be in.

Yet while there’s an argument to be made that added depth is worthwhile, that wouldn’t be my main goal in adding a starter. This Dodger rotation is built pretty well for the long haul of the season, as the top six starters can all give you a chance to win when they’re on the mound; there’s no “good lord, I can’t believe we’re really throwing out Ramon Ortiz or Brett Tomko or D.J. Houlton” situations here. But they may not be built as well for the playoffs, since I can’t say I’d feel really comfortable with any of the other guys after Kershaw matching up with the #2 starters they might see if they’re lucky enough to make the playoffs.

Does Dempster satisfy that need? I’m not sure that he does. At 35, he’s having a solid enough season, though not nearly as good as his 2.11 ERA would indicate (in much the same way he wasn’t nearly as bad as his 4.80 ERA last year would seem to say). As he’s aged, his velocity has declined and he’s attempted to make up for it by throwing his slider more than ever, though this has resulted in fewer swinging strikes than he’s ever had; he’s succeeding mostly this year on career-low and completely unsustainable levels of BABIP (.235) and HR/9 (0.67). It’s really, really hard to think he’s going to keep that up all season long, and there’s published reports (again, to be taken with an enormous grain of salt) that the Yankees may not see him as an upgrade on any of their five starters. That’s a New York squad which has Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, & Phil Hughes all showing FIP of 4.45 or above, by the way. If postseason experience is something that matters to you, Dempster’s lone October start in his long career lasted just 4.2 innings in the 2008 NLDS, during which he walked seven and allowed a grand slam to our good friend James Loney. (That alone should probably disqualify him, Dodger fans.)

That’s not to suggest I wouldn’t like Dempster at all, because I would; his 3.24 FIP would actually be the best of any Dodger starter right now. Obviously I don’t believe he’ll be that good going forward, but I’m a bit reluctant to go solely by his career stats, given that the guy in his early 20s who was routinely walking four or five per nine with the Marlins before he became a closer bears little resemblance to the Dempster we see now. Since returning to the rotation with the Cubs at age 31 in 2008, he’s been a 3.75-ish FIP pitcher, and there’s room for that in most any team’s rotation. (How exactly he’d fit into the current Dodger rotation, which has no one with a FIP worse than Lilly’s 3.86 and no obvious candidates for removal unless there’s a secret injury or you’re adding a Cole Hamels-like ace, is another discussion entirely.)

So while the idea of getting Dempster seems fine, it’d just have to be for the right price. That’s where the problem could be, since while I can’t pretend I have any inside knowledge of negotiations, I’d want to do exactly the opposite of what Chicago apparently wants. The Cubs, desperate to infuse talent into a largely barren farm system, are reportedly willing to eat a large portion of the approximately $8m remaining on Dempster’s contract in order to get better prospects. That may interest teams on a tight budget, but these are the new Dodgers, apparently flush with cash. If you must get him, I’d much rather simply pay Dempster while sending Chicago a lesser player, though of course who knows if the Cubs would even go for that.

While I like Dempster well enough, I just don’t see him as being enough of a difference maker or improvement on what the Dodgers already have that you absolutely have to outbid Boston and whomever else to send your top prospects to Chicago for half a season of his service. If you’re looking at a Cubs pitcher, Matt Garza is preferable, since he’s long been a favorite of mine, is coming off a strong season, and is signed through next year. But that all makes his price somewhat astronomical, and it’s hard to look past the fact that he hasn’t been better than Chad Billingsley either this year (3.73 FIP for Billingsley vs 3.88 for Garza) or over their careers, which both began in 2006 (3.71 for Billingsley, 3.97 for Garza).

As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind trading just about any prospect, no matter how highly rated, in the right deal for the right player. I see the motivation to add to the rotation, and I see the appeal of Ryan Dempster. I just don’t see the point in trading top prospects for another older pitcher who doesn’t seem to be an obvious and season-changing upgrade over what you have or someone who is going to match up with other #2s like Gio Gonzalez or Madison Bumgarner. If you want to trade for Dempster, fine. If you want to trade for an ace like Hamels or Zack Greinke, also fine. Let’s just keep in mind that these are two entirely separate paths that should require two strongly different levels of effort, interest and return, because while Dempster is nice, he’s unlikely to be the difference between this club winning and losing the World Series.