FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ryan Dempster was never going to have a big role on the 2014 Red Sox anyway. He was the sixth pitcher in a five-man rotation and he has some physical and family concerns, which is why he announced Sunday that he will not pitch in 2014, forfeiting his $13.25 million salary.
He was depth, however. Veteran depth.
If one of the five starters went down, Dempster would have been there. Such depth became a huge factor in Boston winning the World Series last season because there was always a good replacement for an injured player.
Which is why general manager Ben Cherington and his baseball operations staff, after debating for weeks whether they should trade one of their starters, decided against it.
They received inquiries, but nothing seemed to make sense to them, and they certainly didn’t want to make the Bronson Arroyo-for-Wily Mo Pena mistake again. So they decided to go into camp with six veterans.
But 10 days ago, according to Cherington, Dempster told manager John Farrell and then Cherington that he was contemplating walking away. He finalized his decision in the interim.
Dempster told some of his teammates ahead of the announcement, but the rest found out right before he headed out to the media bench at JetBlue Park, where his teammates listened to his emotional goodbye. When the news conference was over, they applauded.
Dempster certainly made an impact in his one year with the Sox. He was the consummate clubhouse guy. On a team that stressed chemistry, he was the poster child for it on the pitching side.
He was great for the team. He provided comedic relief at times, but he was serious at other moments. He gave the Red Sox exactly what they hoped he would.
But his departure means a couple of things.
The first one is the veteran depth is gone from the starters. That doesn’t mean it won’t be replaced. Cherington did not want to talk about that possibility Sunday, saying he’d rather focus on Dempster’s “great” career and his announcement.
The Red Sox still have five starters, but it definitely moves the young pitchers one more notch up the ladder.
“With the group of pitchers that’s here right now, it’s long on physical ability and short on experience,” said Farrell. “That’s our job, in any way possible, to shorten that transition time. I like the staff that we have, that’s penciled in to be able to start the season with. That’s where we are.”
No. 1 on that list is Brandon Workman, who performed well as a starter last season before he was replaced by Jake Peavy and who then became an effective reliever.
Farrell said recently that he thought it would be a waste to have Workman confined to a role as a sixth-inning reliever. The manager thinks very highly of Workman’s ability to be an effective starter, as everyone saw during his near no-hitter last season vs. the A’s.
The Sox will stretch Workman out as a starter in camp, but he’ll be the sixth pitcher in a five-man rotation.
Who knows whether one of those five comes up with shoulder or elbow problems before the start of the season, but Workman leads the next wave of possible starters, followed by Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Drake Britton.
Webster has great stuff, but he has appeared nervous so far in his major league career, leaving many pitches over the plate. He had a similar problem in the Dominican this winter after a very good Triple A season.
The Red Sox are still determining what to do with De La Rosa, whose power arm may translate into his being a short reliever or closer.
Britton was an effective reliever for the Red Sox from the left side in 2013, but the Sox still could consider him a starter as well.
Then there’s another, even younger, wave.
Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranaudo aren’t far from being “on the verge,” and all are in camp. Owens could be very special from the left side.
The Red Sox are loaded with starters, but that could change quickly if injuries begin to mount.
Cherington would not say whether the team was actively pursuing another veteran starter. On Sunday, the Sox signed reliever Francisco Cordero and invited him to major league camp to possibly work his way into a bullpen role, which he held for Farrell in Toronto two years ago.
There isn’t much left out there in terms of low-cost starters. West Springfield’s Chris Capuano, Joe Saunders, Jon Garland, and Johan Santana (a long shot, but he lives in Fort Myers) are among them.
With the Jon Lester contract extension looming, it doesn’t appear the Red Sox will engage in higher-cost options such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana.
While the Sox were bordering on the luxury tax threshold, which is $189 million, Dempster’s decision eases the pressure on that front. The Red Sox have never said publicly that they wouldn’t cross the threshold, but they obviously want to stay under it, if they can.
The loss of Dempster puts them about $20 million short of the threshold, according to a team source. How the Red Sox use that new-found money, or if they will at all, will be interesting.
As soon as Dempster announced his decision, there was speculation that the salary relief opened the door for shortstop Stephen Drew to return.
According to agent Scott Boras, there’s still dialogue with the Red Sox, and Drew will begin his spring training at the Boras Corporation training facility in North Miami and await his new team.
Boras believes Drew won’t miss a step no matter where he winds up, and no matter what date he signs.
With Derek Jeter announcing that 2014 is his last season and the Yankees unsure how much shortstop he can play, there’s still internal dialogue within the Yankees family about how Drew could fit. But publicly the Yankees have indicated they are not actively entertaining the idea.
The Mets seem to be waiting for the market to come to them, but it may not work out that way.
So the Sox have lost depth but added payroll flexibility. They may just see how it goes, possibly keeping the money in case they need to add a significant player at the trading deadline.
Dempster didn’t provide the short-term impact that guys such as Adrian Beltre, Jason Bay, or Victor Martinez did, but he filled a role at the back end of a very good staff and helped win a championship.
He tried to make a statement by purposely throwing at Alex Rodriguez and was suspended for it. Suffice to say, Dempster’s one year was never dull.
His departure allows the Red Sox not to be forced into a trade as they begin to make room for the next generation of pitchers.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.