Cubs lean on Dempster as the face of franchise

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Cubs lean on Dempster as the face of franchise

Thursday, March 31, 2011
Posted: 5:14 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

Its hard to remember now, because you can see his image on the front of the building, next to the Wrigley Field marquee. But Ryan Dempster was essentially damaged goods when he first signed with the Cubs.

Dempster hadnt yet turned 27 and he was already on his fourth organization. He was almost six months removed from Tommy John surgery by January 2004. It would have been difficult to envision him as he is today the face of the franchise.

But at 1:20 p.m. on Friday, Dempster will stand on the mound at Clark and Addison as a billboard for everything the Cubs are trying to project. He is a family man, a trusted teammate, a good citizen and lets not forget their most reliable pitcher.

There is the Opening Day assignment against the Pirates. But April 1 also marks the second birthday of Dempsters daughter, Riley, who has battled DiGeorge syndrome, a developmental disorder that impacted her ability to swallow. It will be time for the family to reflect.

Shes come a long way in two years, man, thats for sure, Dempster said. Its been pretty special to watch what shes been able to do and do for other people. It will be a fun day.

On a cold December night, Dempster and his wife, Jenny, hosted a fundraiser for their charitable foundation inside a Lakeview pizza joint. There Kerry Wood and general manager Jim Hendry reconnected hours after Ron Santos funeral.

Before leaving, each went up to Dempster separately and essentially said the same thing: If hes serious, Im serious. The 1.5 million deal to make Wood a Cub for life was in sight.

Dempster never carried the same weight of expectations as Wood once did, but hes also grown up before our eyes.

All about winning

Dempster will turn 34 in May and has reached that point in his life where hes become almost corporate. When ESPN visited Fitch Park during spring training, he climbed aboard the bus and did his impression of Matt Foley, Chris Farleys old character on Saturday Night Live. But that wacky side isnt seen as often anymore.

Im a husband and father of three now. I find that a lot of my free time is with them, Dempster said. My little guys not even five yet and he does his little Harry Caray in the backseat its pretty funny. (But) there is definitely greater responsibility as you get older. I leave that up to the younger guys now to have that kind of fun.

The work is its own reward. Dempster keeps himself in excellent physical condition and has accounted for at least 31 starts and 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. But personal numbers dont consume him.

Dempster volunteered to defer part of his 12.5 million base salary last year so that the Cubs could add another player. Though its believed that he was paid the entire sum in 2010, the offer said everything about his priorities.

I was just going to get the money one way or another, said Dempster, who seemed reluctant to talk about it. It just seemed like if we needed a little bit extra, (then) you give me mine a little bit later and help the team get a little bit better.

It didnt quite work out like we were supposed to. But I think you see that with guys as you get older. You (just) want to win. When youre younger you want to win, too, but youre trying to establish yourself in your career. As you get older, really the only thing that matters is winning a World Series.

Risk-reward

That focus doesnt surprise Hendry, who never viewed Dempster as a risk. As a high school kid in British Columbia, Dempster once signed with Notre Dame to play for Paul Mainieri, one of Hendrys best friends and the current LSU coach.

The Cubs knew Dempster had a strong family background and would bring intangibles to the clubhouse.

When you take chances on people that (are) coming off injuries, Hendry said, the work ethic and character of the guy plays huge. (We) liked him as a pitcher before he got hurt, and we knew enough about him as a man that he was certainly worth taking a gamble on.

The Rangers chose Dempster in the third round of the 1995 draft and he never wound up playing for Notre Dame. He turned pro in every sense of the word.

Pitchers on other teams are jokingly called punters, because they are viewed as specialists, situational players completely divorced from the daily rhythms of the game.

But theres no doubt that Dempster has become a team leader, the veteran that young pitchers model themselves after.

In Arizona Dempster led a group of teammates on a hike up Camelback Mountain. And one free afternoon he finished playing Xbox with James Russell and suggested that they get off the couch and drive over to Tempe to watch Cubs-Angels in the rain. No one does that in the Cactus League.

You got to keep it fun and relaxed, Russell said. Thats what Ryan does so well. (For) four days hes joking around, having a good time. (But) when its his fifth day, you see him (and) its like a different person.

The future

Even with a higher public profile, Dempster still shows that Canadian sense of humor. After a recent start in Arizona, a reporter mentioned how Matt Garza likes to work on different pitches in spring training. Dempster was asked if he also likes to experiment.

I try to stay away from that kind of stuff, Dempster said. Oh, youre talking about baseball.

Dempster said he hasnt decided what hell do with his 14 million player option for 2012. The Cubs love the joy Dempster takes out of competing, how his work habits impact the rest of the clubhouse. But they also felt the same way about Ted Lilly, and hell be wearing a Dodgers uniform this season.

Id like to play here and win here, Dempster said. (Ill) just keep going out and doing my job. Wherever the cards fall, they fall. (I) dont really care to go anywhere (else but) thats a long ways down the road.

Its a business that Dempster tries to remember as a kids game. It's clear he wants to stay on the North Side. How much longer does he want to pitch?

Until I cant get anybody out anymore, Dempster said. What am I going to do? Work?

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Who is Victor Caratini? Breaking down the Cubs' new catcher

Who is Victor Caratini? Breaking down the Cubs' new catcher

Miguel Montero is out and Victor Caratini is in.

The Cubs made a shakeup at catcher Wednesday and will have to forge the last half of the 2017 season without the presence of veteran Montero, who has 1,149 MLB games under his belt and was hitting .286 with an .805 OPS this year.

But Montero talked his way out of town and Caratini is the immediate choice for a replacement behind starting backstop Willson Contreras.

[Where it all went wrong with Miguel Montero and the Cubs]

Caratini is a 23-year-old switch-hitter whom the Cubs acquired from the Atlanta Braves in 2014 as part of the Emilio Bonifacio/James Russell deadline deal. The Braves initially selected Caratini in the second round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of Miami-Dade College.

The Puerto Rican native has mostly played catcher (297 games) in his minor-league career, but has also seen time at first base (76 games) and third base (57 games). 

Caratini got his first taste of big-league spring training action this season, impressing with a .379 average and 1.175 OPS in 16 games (29 at-bats).

He is enjoying the best offensive season of his career in Triple-A Iowa, hitting .343 with a .384 on-base percentage and .923 OPS.

Caratini has already set a career high with eight home runs while clubbing 20 doubles and driving in 54 runs in 68 games. He also has only 40 strikeouts in 245 at-bats.

The Cubs named Caratini the organization's minor league player of the month in May after he drove in 17 runs in 24 games while hitting .366 with a .573 slugging percentage.

Caratini also should help the Cubs running game — an area where Montero was 0-for-31 in throwing out baserunners. Caratini has nabbed 28 percent of would-be basestealers in Iowa, a mark that is directly even with the MLB average.

Contreras is throwing out 34 percent of would-be basestealers in 2017.

Caratini figures to be the short-term answer for the Cubs at catcher given the organzation doesn't have many other options. Kyle Schwarber has not been a viable option behind the plate after recovering from major knee surgery that sapped almost his entire 2016 season. Taylor Davis — a 27-year-old catcher/infielder — is currently on the disabled list and has yet to make his MLB debut.

Where it all went wrong for Cubs and Miguel Montero

Where it all went wrong for Cubs and Miguel Montero

WASHINGTON – The Cubs swiftly reacted to Miguel Montero’s jaw-dropping criticism of Jake Arrieta, dumping the veteran catcher the day after the Washington Nationals ran wild with seven stolen bases and exposed some of the issues within the visiting clubhouse.

You could read the writing on the wall Wednesday morning when Anthony Rizzo’s comments on his weekly WMVP-AM 1000 appearance went viral. An All-Star first baseman who is tight with management and picky about when he decides to speak up called out Montero as a “selfish player.”

In designating Montero for assignment – a source confirmed catcher Victor Caratini will also be promoted from Triple-A Iowa – the Cubs will have to eat roughly half of his $14 million salary in the final year of his contract. 

Montero’s biggest sin is that he no longer produces like the two-time All-Star he had been with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he developed a reputation for blunt honesty and a willingness to mentor young players. The Cubs wanted that edge when they traded for Montero at the 2014 winter meetings, part of a dramatic makeover that included signing ace pitcher Jon Lester to a $155 million megadeal.

Montero’s goofy “#WeAreGood” hashtag on Twitter became a symbol for a rising franchise and a loose team that didn’t care about the weight of history. 

But where Montero could be the spokesman in Arizona and wear the target on his back, a backup catcher can’t torch a Cy Young Award winner and the team’s running-game strategy when he is 0-for-31 and Contreras is throwing guys out 34 percent of the time.     

Montero welcomed Contreras and Kyle Schwarber to the big leagues, generously trying to help with their learning curve, even as they kept taking his playing time. Montero didn’t exactly have the same reaction to David Ross becoming a media darling and a crossover celebrity.

[RELATED: Miguel Montero sends classy goodbye to Cubs players and fans]

Montero already put himself in jeopardy in the immediate World Series aftermath, ripping manager Joe Maddon in a radio interview on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally.  

Montero couldn’t help himself, even after delivering a pinch-hit grand slam against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, and driving in what turned out to be the winning run in the 10th inning against the Cleveland Indians in a World Series Game 7.

Montero wouldn’t bite his tongue late Tuesday night after a sloppy, frustrating 6-1 loss at Nationals Park. With a 39-38 record, several key players on the disabled list and a clubhouse far more complex than Maddon’s Woodstock visions, the Cubs are in crisis mode.   

“It really sucks because the stolen bases go on me,” Montero said. “When you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time. It’s just like: ‘Yeah, OK, Miggy can’t throw nobody out.’ Yeah, but my pitchers don’t hold anybody on. It’s tough, because it doesn’t matter how much work I put in.

“If I don’t get a chance to throw, that’s the reason why they were running left and right today, because they know he was slow to the plate. Simple as that. It’s a shame that it’s my fault because I didn’t throw anybody out.”