Righthander and amateur magician Ryan Dempster has lots of tricks up his sleeve, but none better than the one in which he transforms a $100 bill into a $1 bill—right in front of your eyes! "It always amazes people," he says. There's another trick the Reds think Dempster can perform, and it would be equally stunning: leading a club that has missed the playoffs seven straight years into the postseason.
With a young, imposing lineup, a healthy Ken Griffey Jr. and a well-stocked bullpen, Cincinnati is a team that can challenge for the wild card—as long as its rotation doesn't pull a disappearing act. Without a strong performance from those starters, however, the team could easily slip to the bottom of the division. Enter Dempster.
When general manager Jim Bowden acquired the 25-year-old Canadian from the Marlins last July, the Reds not only got one of the National League's top young arms, a pitcher with back-to-back 200-inning seasons, but also a strong clubhouse presence. Not one to mince words, Bowden made it clear to Dempster that he could vault the Reds, who were two games behind the division-leading Cardinals at the time of the deal, into the playoffs.
"I thought I could be the Bartolo Colon of Cincinnati," Dempster says of the righthander who provided an immediate boost to the Expos' postseason hopes after his trade to Montreal last June 26. "It was my first playoff race, and I handled it terribly. I stunk." The lowlights: six earned runs in 3? innings in a July 12 loss to the Astros; 10 earned runs in an Aug. 4 win over the Padres; tagged for three homers in a 7-2 drubbing in his next start, against the Diamondbacks; and a career-high 11 hits allowed in a 5-4 victory over the Pirates on Sept. 25. His ERA with the Reds was 6.19. "The game was always about having fun," he says. "When I started to press, I lost focus."
A player known as one of baseball's crown jesters, Dempster does a dead-on impersonation of Austin Powers and has performed stand-up in comedy clubs. Before being traded, he hosted a weekly segment on Miami Fox Sports Net called Ryan's World. In one of the show's funniest moments, Dempster went to a Florida mall to sell his used wads of chewing gum to fans. After his season began to fall apart in Cincinnati, however, Dempster's lighter side was rarely seen.
This spring Dempster worked with pitching coach Don Gullett to try to regain his form, and Gullett figured out that the righthander's problems last season could be attributed to an inconsistent release point and striding too long off the rubber. "Even the best pitchers lose focus sometimes," Gullett says. "Ryan has proven that he can win games. He needed some tinkering."
Bowden expects Dempster to win 15 games this season and hopefully become the stopper in a rotation that will need one. Soft-tossing righthander Jimmy Haynes had a surprising 15-10 record last year, but skeptics wonder if he's an ace or the 17-game loser he was with the Brewers in 2001. Similar doubts have been raised about 29-year-old righthander Danny Graves, who averaged 30 saves over the last four seasons but has been moved from closer to the No. 3 slot in the rotation. He throws three-plus pitches, yet he has worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen since high school. "He's got good stuff," says one rival general manager, "but I can't see him lasting more than five innings."
The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation belong to lefty Jimmy Anderson and righty Paul Wilson, respectively. Anderson, who was signed as a free agent after being released by the Pirates in December, has good stuff, but his cocky attitude turned off teammates in Pittsburgh. Wilson, formerly a hot prospect in the Mets' organization, was knocked around the last two seasons in a Devil Rays uniform (14-21, 4.85 ERA combined). He had a mid-90s fastball coming out of Florida State as the No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft, but after multiple arm injuries he tops out at 88. "It's taught me how to be a real pitcher," he says of the drop in velocity. "I don't just rely on natural tools like I used to. Pitching is more of an art now. It's fun to reinvent yourself."
Dempster, meanwhile, doesn't need to be reinvented, just revived.