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July 24, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Dempster the Brave?

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

National League

Many sources have reported that the Chicago Cubs are on the verge of trading right-handed starter Ryan Dempster to the Atlanta Braves for fellow right-handed starter Randall Delgado and salary relief. However, the trade hasn’t been confirmed, as Dempster himself was quick to point out on Twitter:

As a 10-and-5 player, Dempster has to approve the deal. If it does go down as reported, the following analysis stands. If it doesn’t, consider this a look at what would have been.

ATLANTA BRAVES
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Agree to acquire RHP Ryan Dempster and cash considerations from the Chicago Cubs for RHP Randall Delgado. The deal is pending approval from Dempster, who has 10-5 rights.

This is how quickly an area of strength can turn into an area of need:

Not long ago, the Braves had such a surplus of starting pitching that they were the ones always rumored to be dealing hurlers for offensive help. They had a rotation stocked with established arms, and nearly another rotation’s worth of high-profile pitching prospects on the way. Then the attrition started. Jo-Jo Reyes went to Toronto in the Yunel Escobar trade. Derek Lowe went to Cleveland in a salary dump. Jair Jurrjens lost his fastball and his ability to miss bats. Arodys Vizcaino and Brandon Beachy had Tommy John surgeries. Kris Medlen was moved to the bullpen. Every Mike Minor start is a Chris Berman call away from turning into its own Home Run Derby. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado have failed to make smooth transitions to the majors. A trio of fringier prospects—Brett Oberholtzer, J.J. Hoover, and Todd Redmond—were moved for Michael Bourn and warm bodies Juan Francisco and Paul Janish, respectively.

Just like that, the Braves were reduced to one above-average starter (Tim Hudson), one disappointing-but-durable one (Tommy Hanson), and a back three no one wanted to see. But the team remained in contention: as of today, Atlanta sits just 3 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the NL East, tied with the Pirates for the Wild Card lead. A deficit that small demands that moves be made, and the Braves have made them. First, they stooped to the scrap heap to sign Ben Sheets, which has worked better than the Braves could have hoped through the injury-prone pitcher’s first two starts. And now, the team that could hardly count its untouchable pitching prospects on one hand has been forced to unclench its fist and part with one of them in exchange for a veteran rental.

Say it with me: there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect. And you can never have enough pitching.

If you’re going to trade a top prospect for a pitcher who who’ll hit free agency in a few months—and who won’t bring back a draft pick if he leaves, thanks to the new CBA—you might as well make it the major-league ERA leader. Of course, there are only two reasons Ryan Dempster fits that description. The first is that he has a .246 BABIP, the third-lowest among qualified starters this season. The other arms in the bottom five—Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, and Ryan Vogelsong—have a history of suppressing hits on balls in play. Dempster doesn’t.

The second reason is that Dempster missed a few weeks late last month and early this month with a lat strain. That cost him some counting stats, but it also saved him some time to regress. When Dempster went down, it seemed like the timing of his injury could cost the Cubs. As it turned out, the right-hander came back early enough to establish his health, but late enough to preserve his impressive ERA. That’s a formula for maximum return in trade.

Even when he isn’t lucking into the big leagues’ lowest ERA, though, Dempster is a productive pitcher. We’ve seen a number of pitchers flame out or fail to be effective as starters after leaving the bullpen, whether for psychological reasons or workload-related ones. But Dempster—who began his major-league life as a starter, struggled, entered the bullpen, and then proved that some players can go back again by reverting to the rotation—has been far better in his second act as a starter. Since his return to the starting staff in 2008, Dempster has been the 18th-most valuable pitcher in baseball by WARP, and he’s never failed to reach the 200-inning threshold. (Former rotation-mate Matt Garza, who could be the next to go, ranks only 46th in WARP over the same period.) He’ll fall short of that innings mark this season, thanks to the lat strain and a thigh strain that put him on the shelf for 15 days in April. Those injuries could be a sign that Dempster is breaking down a bit at age 35, but how he holds up after this year won’t be Atlanta’s problem.

A more worrisome sign is that Dempster—who’s refined a quality cutter and used it more often this season, according to Brooks Baseball—has also seen his strikeout rate, which was formerly a strength, decline significantly since last season, especially after May. That could have something to do with the lat strain, though Dempster’s velo has held steady. As long as his strikeout rate doesn’t decline further, he should be able to give the Braves the innings they need. It won’t hurt that the fly-ball pitcher will be moving from Wrigley Field to the more pitcher-friendly Turner Field, and from an outfield featuring Alfonso Soriano and Bryan LaHair to one that boasts better fielders in Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward.

The benefits of the park and team switches shouldn’t be overstated, though. Braves pitchers have actually seen a higher percentage of their fly balls leave the park than Cubs pitchers this season, and the difference in outcomes on balls in play is slight. Excluding pitcher batters, the Braves have allowed a .378 SLGBIP (13th-highest in MLB), only 10 points lower than the Cubs’ collective .388 (10th-highest).

The Braves are within striking distance of the Nationals, and with Wild Card winners now forced to play their way into a best-of-five series, winning the division crown has assumed some added value. Giving up five years of a team-controlled starter for three months of an impending free agent is always an exchange that can come back to haunt a team, but the Braves have sufficient incentive, and they’ve already spent plenty of time—perhaps too much time, in one or two cases—sitting and waiting for their prospects to produce.

CHICAGO CUBS
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Agree to acquire RHP Randall Delgado from the Atlanta Brave for RHP Ryan Dempster and cash considerations. The deal is pending approval from Dempster, who has 10-5 rights.

If you read trade rumors at all, you know that Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza have been eyed, looked at, and checked out more often than bikini-clad sunbathers this summer. Dempster was always the more likely pitcher to be traded, since his contract is up at the end of the year. The Cubs must have had offers from many of Dempster’s admirers. Now we know which one they picked: the return for their coveted commodity is Randall Delgado.

Delgado, ranked the second-best Braves prospect by Kevin Goldstein in February, hasn’t had an easy time of it this season, struggling with his control and pitching to an above-average ERA, but he’s only 22 years old and still technically in his rookie year. The righty hasn’t missed many bats in the majors, relying instead on getting groundballs. Delgado’s lack of initial success might have something to do with tipping his pitches: in May, Kevin quoted a scout as saying that Delgado has been giving away his pitch selection by making his grip too visible during his delivery. That seems like a fixable flaw, or at least one that the right coach could correct more easily than a lack of pure stuff.

According to Kevin, even if Delgado’s deception improves, his ceiling is that of a no. 3 starter: he’s been described as Jair Jurrjens with superior velo and inferior command. Some Cubs fans might be disappointed that they didn’t land a potential ace, but any such expectations were unrealistic. A cost-controlled middle-of-the-rotation starter is a very valuable commodity. Dempster wasn’t going to be part of the next non-depressing Cubs team. Delgado has a good chance to be.

Last July, the Braves got Michael Bourn—who not only contributed 1.7 WARP to the Astros before the trade, roughly equivalent to Dempster’s 1.6 for the Cubs this season, but was under team control for the following season—for a package of four lesser prospects (Oberholtzer, Jordan Schafer, Paul Clemens, and Juan Abreu). Delgado is easily better than any of those four. Those two trades are a study in quantity vs. quality, but Delgado alone is likely the better haul. If so, the Cubs got more for a half-season of Dempster than the Astros did for a season and a half of Bourn. Maybe that’s shrewd trading by Jed Hoyer and crew, or maybe it’s a reflection of a Wild Cards-created buyer’s market. Either way, the Cubs should be pleased to replace their outgoing arm with a big-league-ready player who might be a few adjustments away from becoming a Dempster-like force for the next several seasons.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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