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Cubs' Dempster appeals to contenders
He is 35 now. His career line includes 114 wins, 87 saves, more than 2,000 major-league innings.
And one measly postseason start.
“I’ve been itching to get back to the playoffs,” Dempster said Thursday. “I just wanted another opportunity. I never got it. And we’ve struggled since then.”
Dempster doesn’t dwell upon the moment, but let’s just say it will inform his thinking when the Cubs ask him to waive his no-trade rights as a player with 10 years service, five with the same club, in the coming weeks.
The Cubs, who host the Red Sox this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 7:15 p.m.), are likely to make multiple trades before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And Dempster, who won the series opener on Friday, is the veteran they are most likely to move.
Dempster loves the Cubs, the team that gave him a chance in 2004 when he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. But he has told team president Theo Epstein that he would be happy to stay or go to a contender, whatever helps the team.
A class act to the end — and a pretty darned good pitcher, too.
Never mind that Dempster has won only two of his first 11 starts, a byproduct of pitching for the worst team in the National League.
He actually is on one of the best rolls of his 15-year career.
His 2.31 ERA ranks fifth in the NL. His 1.03 WHIP ranks eighth. True, his .245 opponents’ batting average on balls in play reflects a measure of good fortune, but his current walk rate would be the lowest of his career, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio the highest.
“I’m just not throwing pitches down the middle. I’m throwing ‘em where I want to throw ‘em, for the most part, getting ahead of a lot of guys,” Dempster said.
“You learn from the past. I found that most of the time I got into trouble it was my own doing. Falling behind in the count, walking guys. Walks are part of the game. They happen, just the same as hits. I can prevent that from being focused, executing pitches.”
This is an adult talking, not some wide-eyed kid. And that, of course, is part of Dempster’s appeal to contenders.
He is a pro’s pro, a clubhouse leader. And he has experienced so much, getting traded twice by the time he was 25, battling back from Tommy John, starting, closing and then starting again.
His remaining salary could be an issue in trade discussions, but the number will be down to less than $5 million by the deadline; the Cubs likely would pay a significant percentage of that to receive a better return. Dempster can ask for a bonus or contract extension to waive his no-trade rights. Or, he can simply accept the deal, knowing that joining a contender could boost his free-agent value
There also are other considerations.
Dempster and his wife Jenny have a son, Brady, 6, and two daughters, Riley, 3, and Finley, 1. Riley was born with DiGeorge Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affected her ability to swallow. She is now attending pre-school, “doing great,” Dempster said.
“Family-wise, I think anytime something like that (happens), it would be a little bit tough. It would be tough for my son because he’d have to cheer for another team. But it is what it is,” Dempster said.
“Whatever ends up happening, I don’t know . . . I just do my job. That’s honestly how I approach it. I’m not going to say, ‘I don’t pay attention.’ You know. You know the rumors are out there. You know that teams want you.
“That’s flattering. That’s awesome. It means you’re doing well, most importantly. But I’m just focused on every fifth day, preparing what I can do to do my job the best I can.”
Chicagoans are buzzing about the possibility of a crosstown trade to the White Sox, but an NL contender would seem to be the best fit for Dempster, who never has pitched in the AL — and has a 4.78 ERA in 222 1/3 career innings against AL competition.
The Dodgers, who also are interested in another Cubs righty, Matt Garza, make particular sense. Left-hander Ted Lilly is out with a shoulder injury. Most of the other NL contenders are less concerned with their starting pitching.
For a team in need of a starter, Dempster is better than any back-of-the-rotation type who will be available. He would come at a lower acquisition cost than Garza, who is 6 1/2 years younger and under club control through 2013. And he is certain to hit the market, unlike elite starters such as Phillies lefty Cole Hamels and Brewers righty Zack Greinke, who might not be traded at all.
The Cubs will figure it out. Dempster will, too. And just like that, a proud Cub will be gone.
Dempster tells a funny story from May 2007, when he blew a save at Shea Stadium and former manager Lou Piniella summoned him to the front of the team plane on the way back to Chicago.
“Hey son, you like to pitch, right?” Piniella asked Dempster.
Yes, Dempster said.
“I don’t mean throw, I mean pitch,” Piniella continued.
Yes, Dempster said again.
“Do you want to start?” Piniella asked.
Yes, Dempster said once more, explaining that he always wanted to start and would do whatever the team asked.
Piniella told Dempster, “I need you to close in the White Sox series, then you’ll start.” After the White Sox series, Piniella scratched that plan, and told Dempster he would close for the rest of that season.
But Piniella, true to his word, made Dempster a starter the following season. Dempster since has produced four straight 200-inning campaigns, and is on pace for a fifth.
“I’ve had a lot of really fun years — fun because we had some good baseball teams here,” Dempster said.
“In ’04, we lost the second-to-last day of the year and got knocked out of the playoffs. For me, coming over here hurt, being a part of everything … after ’03, it was really an exciting place to play. We kind of dipped down a little in ’05 and ’06. Then it ’07 and ’08, we won back-to-back divisions.
“The organization, the city, the fans have just been incredible to me and my family, the way they’ve supported our stuff with Riley, it’s been extremely humbling. I’m lucky to come here (to Wrigley Field). What a great place to come and be around.”
He gets it. He always has. He’ll be in an even better place soon.
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