A week ago, around the time the Texas Rangers first expressed interest in Ryan Dempster, there was virtually no chance they would get him, little chance he would be their primary target.
Think of all that had to happen, every domino that had to fall, for the Rangers to be in the position they were in Tuesday, scrambling to acquire the right-handed pitcher in the final minutes before the non-waiver deadline at 4 p.m. ET.
It’s almost too dizzying to remember.
The Rangers wanted Cole Hamels, but the left-hander signed a six-year, $144 million contract extension with the Philadelphia Phillies. Texas wanted righty Zack Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers but was outbid for him by its biggest rival, the Los Angeles Angels.
At various points, at varying levels, the Rangers engaged in talks for virtually every other available starting pitcher — the Miami Marlins’ Josh Johnson and Tampa Bay Rays’ James Shields and Wade Davis. the Boston Red Sox’s Josh Beckett, Phillies’ Cliff Lee and Cubs’ Matt Garza. And others.
Here is how the process unfolded, according to major league sources:
As deadline day began, the Rangers were so frustrated with the search, some in the organization thought they might need to wait until August and perhaps grab a starter during the waiver period. The team had even struck out on a position player that it coveted to jump-start its offense, Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino.
But then, in the final half-hour, Dempster came to understand that the Chicago Cubs couldn’t pull off a trade with his preferred team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Earlier in the day, he had told the Cubs he would waive his no-trade rights for the Rangers or New York Yankees but to keep trying for the Dodgers.
Sitting in the Cubs offices — yes, he actually was there, watching club executives try to move him — Dempster saw how the Dodgers sought to exploit their leverage, refused to budge on talent, sought to make the Cubs blink.
One week earlier, he had declined to go to Atlanta after the Cubs had a trade agreement in place with the Braves. He could have chosen to stay with the Cubs for the rest of the season, then become a free agent. But he wanted to play for a contender.
In the final half-hour or so before the deadline, he finally allowed the Cubs to open up the process. The Cubs quickly engaged the Rangers and Yankees. And that is the abbreviated version of how Dempster went to the Rangers for Class A third baseman Christian Villanueva and Class A right-hander Kyle Hendricks.
There is plenty more to tell.
The Rangers, in ranking the potentially available starters, preferred Hamels to Greinke. Some with the club actually preferred Cliff Lee to both. But of the three, Greinke emerged as the most realistic possibility. And last Friday, when the talks accelerated, the Rangers would go only so far.
Greinke could have been theirs if they had been willing to part with any of their top three prospects — shortstop Jurickson Profar, third baseman Mike Olt or left-hander Martin Perez. But the Rangers viewed that as too high a price. Greinke is a free agent at the end of the season, and the Rangers probably would not have re-signed him.
Virtually every team hoards its prospects now, mindful not only of the game’s spiraling economics but also the new collective bargaining agreement that restricts spending on domestic and international amateurs.
This trading season was no different; few top prospects were moved. In fact, the best prospect traded might have been one who gave the Angels the edge over the Rangers in the bidding for Greinke — shortstop Jean Segura.
Some in the industry believe Segura eventually might end up at second base, but at the moment he is playing short, a position of need for the Brewers. To back away from that need, the Brewers wanted Perez, the Rangers’ top young pitcher.
The Rangers offered a three-player package that included righty Cody Buckel — their No. 6 prospect entering the season, according to Baseball America — and righty Justin Grimm, their No. 15 prospect. That was as far as they would go for a rental.
It wasn’t far enough.
The impact of the Rangers losing Greinke to the Angels will not be known until after the season. But as the deadline approached, the Rangers had no time to dwell upon what might have been.
They still lacked a proven ace who could start Game 1 of a postseason series. They had just lost their Opening Day pitcher, right-hander Colby Lewis, to season-ending elbow surgery. They were about to lose one of their most talented pitchers, right-hander Neftali Feliz, to a different type of elbow surgery — Tommy John. And their midseason free-agent pickup, righty Roy Oswalt, was struggling.
Meanwhile, the trade market was largely unappealing.
Johnson was a health risk and signed for $13.75 million next season. Shields was in a slump, and, perhaps not enough of an upgrade. Lee, whom the Rangers had lost to the Phillies in free agency after the 2010 season, was just too expensive.
To sign Lee, the Phillies had back-loaded his contract — he will be owed either $87.5 million over the next three seasons or $102.5 million over the next four, depending upon whether his vesting option becomes guaranteed. The Phillies and Rangers discussed Lee briefly, but the Phils offered little financial relief in a trade.
Heck, even if the Phillies had offered to kick in the tens of millions necessary to turn Lee into, say, a $16 million pitcher, the Rangers still would have not wanted to part with top prospects. No team parts with premium talent while taking on major salaries — even those that are “discounted” the way Lee’s might have been.
Beckett was another possibility — and not just Beckett alone. The Red Sox, according to a report in WEEI.com, also discussed sending center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Kelly Shoppach to the Rangers in a blockbuster.
Ellsbury would have filled the role the Rangers also envisioned for Victorino, offering a dynamic threat at the top of the order. Shoppach would have been the catching upgrade that the Rangers were seeking over Yorvit Torrealba; the team eventually acquired Geovany Soto from the Cubs instead.
Such a massive deal would have been difficult to complete, and the talks never got serious, a source said Wednesday morning. The talks for Beckett alone never got all that serious, either.
Beckett is a difficult player to move, given his past medical issues, full no-trade rights and $15.75 million salaries through 2014. The Red Sox, though, might have missed their best chance to trade him.
The Rangers, given their need for a starter, were in a vulnerable position.
The Cubs, during their long, fruitless discussions with the Dodgers, let it be known they could keep Dempster if no trade could be worked out. That threat was largely a bluff.
Under the rules of the new CBA, the Cubs would have needed to make Dempster a one-year qualifying offer to qualify for draft-pick compensation if he left as a free agent.
The team had little desire to do that.
The size of the qualifying offer is predetermined — it is the average of the highest 125 salaries from the previous season. Executives initially believed the number would be around $12 million. They now think it will be $13.3 million-$13.4 million.
Dempster, 35, very well might have accepted such an offer to stay with the Cubs.
Teams drafting in the first 10 positions cannot lose their first-round pick for signing a free agent, but teams from 11 to 30 face that risk. Few will make such a sacrifice to invest long-term in an older pitcher, even a good one.
So for Dempster, the one-year deal at a high salary would have been appealing. (And yes, the Rangers could decline to make him a qualifying offer at the end of the season out of the same fear that he will accept.)
The Cubs had virtually no choice.
They had to trade Dempster, or ultimately be left with nothing for him.
They had spoken extensively with the Rangers, completing the trade for Soto and discussing another for Garza. The teams actually were talking about Dempster and Garza at the same time as the deadline approached, negotiating on parallel tracks. The Rangers preferred Dempster; Garza has not pitched since July 21 because of a triceps injury and would have come at a higher acquisition cost because he is under club control for one more season.
Dempster, meanwhile, had his own preferences as the possibility of him going to the Dodgers all but disappeared.
He was close with Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild and special assistant Jim Hendry from his days with the Cubs; Hendry, the Cubs’ former GM, had awarded Dempster a four-year, $52 million free-agent contract after the 2008 season.
But Dempster also had a connection with the Rangers; Greg Maddux, his former Cubs teammate, is a special assistant in the team’s front office. What’s more, the Rangers are the two-time defending AL champions and currently own the second-best record in the league. That didn’t hurt.
In the end, the Rangers were more aggressive than the Yankees. They were willing to take on the more than $5 million remaining on Dempster’s contract. They also were willing to include Villanueva, who was their No. 8 prospect entering the season, according to Baseball America, but behind Adrian Beltre and Olt on Texas’ organizational depth chart.
Time will tell if Dempster made the right decision by rejecting the Braves and switching leagues just months before he enters the free-agent market — he not only is moving to the more hitter-friendly AL but also to hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark.
Time also will tell if the Rangers made the right decision by declining to meet the price for Greinke and other available starters. But as the deadline approached, they needed someone. That someone turned out to be a Cub who said no to the Braves and, for a considerable time, wanted only the Dodgers.
He is quite the unlikely Ranger, that Ryan Dempster.