Ryan Dempster Sort of Retires But Not Really

From just missing out on the Marlins’ first World Series title to being a member of the Red Sox’s eighth, Ryan Dempster has experienced plenty in his big league career. He might have just had his final experiences as a player however, as the 36-year-old Canadian native announced on Sunday morning that he will be sitting out the 2014 season. If this is the end, it has been a good run for Dempster, who has achieved some notable things in his career. And while the announcement comes at the dawn of spring training, his retirement doesn’t create a panicked situation for Boston in a vacuum, as the team has several pitchers ready (or close) to graduate to major league duty.

Dempster certainly isn’t going to be mistaken for one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, but in a way, he was. Using our leaderboards, we can see the following:

- 8,811 people have pitched in a professional baseball game since 1876.
– 7,160 people have pitched at least 10 innings.
– 4,404 people have pitched at least 100 innings.
– 2,177 people have pitched at least 500 innings.
– 1,179 people have pitched at least 1,000 innings.
– 425 people have pitched at least 2,000 innings.

That Dempster has crossed that 2,000 innings threshold puts him in the top five percent of pitchers all-time in terms of innings pitched. And, as we have seen countless times before, it is that longevity that teams really value. Dempster had that. He wasn’t the beastiest of the beasties, but he did post seven 200-inning seasons. That ties him for 182nd place all-time in terms of 200-inning seasons. And that’s not really fair to him, either, because if it were up to him, he probably would have notched a couple more such seasons, since he wasn’t even a starting pitcher for his entire career.

Here we see the terrible wrath of Dusty Baker taking the starch out of a player’s career. Dempster, who had signed with the Cubs following his Tommy John surgery in 2003, had appeared solely out of the bullpen for the 2004 Cubs squad while working his way back into form late in the season. No harm, no foul there. Makes sense to work a guy back in slowly from surgery. When 2005 started, Dempster worked three good starts and three bad starts, but after the third bad start he was summarily dismissed to the bullpen. The last start wasn’t even that appalling. He didn’t do great, mind you, but he left in the seventh inning having only allowed three runs. His Game Score was 51. The Cubs would lose on a walk-off hit, and Dempster didn’t factor in the decision. Still, out went Dempster.

Baker didn’t even really have a replacement for him. Kerry Wood had recently landed on the shelf, and he and Dempster were replaced by Glendon Rusch for a few weeks. Baker gave Jon Leicester a spot start on May 9th, and then went with a four-man rotation of Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior and Rusch for a couple times through the rotation before adding Sergio Mitre to the mix on May 24. This way all in the name of replacing LaTroy Hawkins as closer. As we’ve seen, Hawkins has kept on, kept trucking ever since. As always, Baker did a lot of odd things. This is just one in a long line of them.

In any case, it presented Dempster with the unique opportunity to become one of the rare pitchers to excel as both a closer and a starting pitcher. He is one of just 20 pitchers in major league history to start 200 or more games and save 50 or more. And the majority of the pitchers on this list come from a time when the closer wasn’t as big of a thing. There’s only a few from these grand modern times, where the closer is in vogue.

There are just six who played in the Wild Card era who find themselves on the list — Dennis Eckersley, Kelvim Escobar, Tom Gordon, John Smoltz, Derek Lowe and Dempster. That’s some pretty decent company. As we can see in this custom leaderboard, Dempster finds himself the poor man of the group both a WAR and RA-9 WAR perspective, but it’s still a pretty nifty list on which to find yourself.

Still, all those accomplishments weren’t going to vault him into Boston’s starting rotation on Opening Day. He would have likely been the de facto sixth starter, which in reality meant he probably would have started the season as the long man in the bullpen, firmly behind the break in case of emergency safety glass. This is the role in which he finished the 2013 season. Had Clay Buchholz been healthy in the second half, Dempster might have lost his spot right when the team acquired Jake Peavy, who was acquired in part because Dempster had been so ineffective in the first half.

Dempster even managed to hold down his spot for two turns through the rotation once Buchholz did return in September, as the team gave Felix Doubront a little bit of a breather. But eventually, Dempster would find himself in the bullpen. He didn’t do that badly out the ‘pen either. In six outings from the ‘pen in September and October, he only allowed one run, and he struck out Matt Adams swinging to put the wraps on Game 1 of the World Series. That pitch, a 91-mph fastball on the outside half of the plate, currently stands as his last pitch in a major league uniform:

As he alluded to in his press conference on Sunday, if that’s the way he goes out, that’s not a bad capper to a great career. And while Dempster’s decision to sit out the season came as a surprise to the Red Sox, they won’t be lacking for options. In addition to Brandon Workman, who probably now assumes the sixth-starter/long man mantle, the team has three top prospects who should be able to contribute this year at the major league level in Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo and Matt Barnes, and another in Henry Owens who isn’t far behind them. Barnes and Owens both landed on Marc Hulet’s 2014 top 100 prospect list. That’s a plethora of arms, and with Chris Capuano and Ervin Santana still on the market, among others, the team could still take its $13.25 million and put the full-court press on one of them if they really felt that was warranted. It probably isn’t, but they have the option…which is nice.

Ryan Dempster wasn’t the best pitcher ever, but he was pretty good, and his longevity should count for something. He started 29 games for a team that went on to win the World Series in his (as of now) final season in the Show, and struck out the final batter he ever faced to finish a World Series game. That’s pretty nice. And while it’s disappointing that he is going to sit this season out, he isn’t leaving the Red Sox in an inescapable bind, which is also nice.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

24 Responses to “Ryan Dempster Sort of Retires But Not Really”

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  1. byron says:

    Someone who gives up $13.25 million seems likely to either be one of the happiest, best-adjusted people on earth, or the least. Here’s hoping Dempster enjoys his time off/retirement.

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    • TangoAlphaLima says:

      Gil Meche did this at the end of his career. It wasn’t as well publicized, presumably because he was on the Kansas City Royals and not the Boston Red Sox, but it was a similar situation. Meche had been injured the past few seasons of his career, and he only needed to report to spring training in 2011 and attempt to throw the ball to collect the final $12 million on his contract.


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    • pft says:

      I suspect the Red Sox foundation will be making a sizable contribution to the Dempster foundation. Nobdody gives up 13.5 million for 6 months of rest and rehab, most of which could be done at his home if he had legitimate family reasons.

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      • Joe R says:

        Agreed, hopefully they do. Dempster didn’t do much w/ the Sox, but I liked him anyway.

        From a financial POV, though, I wonder how this affects the Red Sox.

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      • Atreyu Jones says:

        It wouldn’t have been 6 months of rest and rehab at home. It would have been spring training in Florida, followed by 6 months consisting of a mix of major league starts, minor league rehab starts, travel, physical therapy and doctor’s visits, mixed with some days of pure rest at home.

        Compliments on the shininess of your tinfoil hat.

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  2. Jacob Jackson says:

    Not accusing Dempster of doing this, but baseball needs to find a way to close the loophole of players taking seasons and half-seasons off partially in part to avoid drug testing*. I would suggest a policy that requires a player to continually be subjected to random testing, even if he’s not currently affiliated with a team, until he officially submits retirement paperwork to the league.

    Roger Clemens was playing half-seasons of baseball in his mid-40s for a reason…and it wasn’t that his body magically felt fresh again by July/August.

    *this statement assumes that MLB actually wants the game to be clean, rather than just the appearance of the game being clean. It’s debatable whether or not they want that, given the holes in their current testing policy.

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    • Ed says:

      They are tested.

      And if you followed Clemens at all during his last few seasons, you’d realize that he really wore down as the seasons progressed. His body just couldn’t handle a full season workload anymore. He’d have leg issues every year toward the end of the season. The late starts helped with that, but even in his final season, his year ended with a leg injury.

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      • Jacob Jackson says:

        Players are tested when they aren’t currently under contract? Are you sure?

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      • pft says:

        That could have been age. I think the player not with a team has 7 days to report for a test after being notified. Not 100% sure but they don’t have to worry about collectors making random collections since they are not at the park. 7 days gives players plenty of time to clear their system unless they are using the wrong steroids (long lasting) and/or taking massive doses. This is the same as in the offseason which is why we find some significant body transformations (weight loss or gain) in relatively short times (3-4 months_

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  3. D.Baker says:

    Sorry but when the article suddenly started talking about one of his former managers, it almost feels like a “hot take” at that point. If I remember right, Hawkins had been blown a few saves for the Cubs that season and the fans had turned on him…I’m sure his manager was just doing what he had to do. Not sure why Dempster’s epitaph warrants 2 paragraphs of biased narrative.

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  4. pft says:

    So after 2013. if Dempster comes back, he has to come back with the Red Sox for 13.5 million, right? If the Red Sox don’t want to pay him 13.5 million he can be a free agent and they don’t have to pay? How’s this work?

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    • walt526 says:

      He has no contractual obligation with the Red Sox and would essentially be a free agent. They definitely don’t have to pay him the $13.25M.

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      • pft says:

        After checking on B-ref the Red Sox still control his rights, but would need to pay him 13.25 million next year if they exercised it. They can waive their rights next year and he would be a free agent, but he won’t get 13.25 million

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    • Ian R. says:

      The Red Sox will place him on the restricted list, which means they don’t have to pay him (as he’s not playing) and he can’t up and sign with another team. If he decides to come back during the season, they’ll pay him a prorated portion of his salary. I believe he’s a free agent following the season regardless.

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  5. pft says:

    “Dempster might have lost his spot right when the team acquired Jake Peavy, who was acquired in part because Dempster had been so ineffective in the first half. ”

    I think Peavy was acquired mainly because Lester had been so ineffective, and Doubront had a track record of fading in the 2nd half, and Lackey was in his first year back after TJ Surgery and expected to fade a bit. Dempster actually had a good 1st half, although he also has a history (2012) of fading in the 2nd half. He only gave up more than 3 runs in 4 of his 17 starts through July, which is what you want from a 4th starter.

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  6. Cardinology says:

    I’m not sure which possibility makes me want hulk smash everything more: the possibility that Dempster has an under the table deal with the Red Sox to take this year off in exchange for a contract next year or a front office or managerial role down the line, or the possibility that he has earned so much money already that he really prefers taking a year off to getting paid $13 million this year to suck or get put on the DL (or both).

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    • Dan Greer says:

      Dempster has a daughter with a serious medical condition. I’m sure he won’t say anything about that being a reason for taking the year off, but I’d be shocked if it wasn’t the actual reason.

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      • pft says:

        I believe his daughter was born with a treatable genetic condition, and its been an issue for 5 yrs. Not sure she has taken a turn for the worse, impossible to say. Since I imagine he would spend quite a bit of time resting and rehabbing, I find it hard to believe the Red Sox would not allow him to do so at home and his only option is to sacrifice 13 million. He has a foundation for his daughters condition which could use the money.

        While he can return next year, I doubt the Red Sox have to take him back at 13 million a year. They can relinquish their rights and let Dempster try free agency. Good luck with that.

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    • pinch says:


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  7. Paul Wilson says:

    Barry Zito seems to be taking a similar approach to his free agency.

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  8. Sparkles Peterson says:

    I don’t remember a whole lot of criticism about Dusty wasting Dempster in the bullpen at the time. Dempster had mostly been terrible as a starting pitcher through his career to that point.

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