Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.
Will Ryan Dempster repeat his 2008 performance?
The fantasy world yawned this time last year when Ryan Dempster made the move from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Without the benefit of all those saves, Dempster's mediocre overall numbers appeared that they would translate poorly as a starter. Well, we were all wrong.
Instead of looking like the ugly but productive pitcher of recent vintage, Dempster became one of the biggest surprises of the season. Dempster won a career-best 17 games, sported an ERA better than three, struck out 187 and had a career-best 1.21 WHIP. He hadn't looked that good since being named to the All-Star team way back in 2000 when he was with the Marlins. While Dempster's average draft position was still in the 200s (because of his past as a closer), he went undrafted in many mixed leagues but finished 10th among all starting pitchers on the player rater.
Not only was Dempster a great bargain for fantasy owners, he cashed in as well, signing a four-year, $52 million contract in the offseason to remain with the Cubs. That's how you pitch in a contract year.
While Dempster's surface stats look solid, some of his peripherals also point in his favor: a solid 8.14 K/9 rate and a career-best 2.46 K/BB rate. His batting average in balls in play was .283, not too far off from a normal rate in the .290 range. With some nice numbers in his favor, it seems very odd that Dempster is not in the top 40 among starting pitchers in ESPN.com's preseason rankings.
However, looking further into Dempster's profile, there are some signs that he could fall back to earth in a considerable way in 2009. First off, his homers-per-flyball rate was a rather low 7.7 percent, which would account for his 14 longballs allowed. The usual rate is in the 11-12 percent range, although his career mark is closer to 10 percent. A few more homers added to the stat line over the course of the season will move that ERA up.
Also, he allowed just six of his 14 homers at Wrigley Field last year, which is amazing given that it ranked seventh for homers according to our Park Factors page. Even if he can keep up the pace in K rate and maintain his control, it's asking a lot for him to limit the homers like he did in 2008.
Another major concern with Dempster's game is the huge jump in workload. He threw 66 2/3 innings in 2007 but it went all the way up to 206 2/3 in 2008. Given that he's had a history of arm troubles during his career, the added work has to be at least a mild concern. If we're keeping a close eye on younger pitchers who see major increases in workload from year to year, we probably should do the same with Dempster.
If you're looking for an interesting comparison to Dempster with regards to increased workload moving from a closer to a starter, how about Derek Lowe? He had 24 saves in 91 2/3 innings in 2001, then went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA and 0.974 WHIP over 219 2/3 innings in 2002. So what did he do in 2003? Well, he did win 17 games, but his ERA rocketed up to 4.47 and his WHIP soared to 1.416. It didn't get much better in 2004, but his fantasy value has improved since moving to the National League in 2005.
Like Lowe, Dempster could fall off considerably and still pile up wins pitching in front of that Cubs lineup. Unlike Lowe, Dempster is much more of a strikeout artist, so even if his ERA and WHIP suddenly blow up, there is something to fall back on, fantasy-wise.
Our ESPN projections do look somewhat favorably on him, given that he's shown he can be both very good and very bad. But our ranking may make him a potential bargain in drafts. If you're looking for strikeouts in the middle part of mixed-league drafts, Dempster should garner much attention as a No. 4 or 5 starter.
In a recent ESPN.com mock draft, a handful of us had Dempster in our sights when he was taken in the 16th round. At that point, he's probably a bargain, even if his stats regress to the mean. But make him an anchor of your rotation in the early rounds and you might be disappointed.
So, no, Ryan Dempster likely isn't going to repeat his contract-year heroics. It's very possible he might not come anywhere close to it. But even if some of his good luck runs out in 2009, he may still have enough in the tank to be a useful fantasy pitcher. Just be sure to draft him with that mindset.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.