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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.