For months it’s been assumed that, together with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster is the only lock to be a member of the Chicago Cubs’ 2012 rotation. Dempster has been the Cubs’ most consistent starter for half a decade (though the first couple months of the season were a disappointment), loves the city of Chicago, and has a player option worth a healthy $14 million next year. Of course he’ll be in the rotation next year.


Well, although it remains likely, Dempster isn’t quite ready to guarantee it.

“I enjoy being a Chicago Cub and playing here, that’s for sure,’’ Dempster said recently when asked about his future with the team. “I’ll worry about that at the end of the season.

“I think that’s something that I’ll have to look at at the end of the year, and hopefully something that they’re interested in happening here,” Dempster said.

Given that Dempster’s immediate future with the Cubs is entirely within his control, his words fall far short of convincing anyone that he’s determined to return.

A tipster tells me that Dempster is not as much of a lock to return as we’ve been led to believe. Instead, although likely to return, Dempster may wait and see the direction the team looks like it’s going to take under the next GM before deciding whether to stay with the Cubs. In other words, if the Cubs go into a full-on rebuild mode, Dempster may want to take a chance to win elsewhere. To me, this squares with Dempster’s noncommittal quote.

Separately, there is the money issue. It’s fair to wonder a bit about Dempster wanting to explore his options in free agency, or at least wring a couple more years out of the Cubs, given his age (he turns 35 early next season), and the relative dearth of starting pitching on the free agent market this offseason. In that way, his situation is very similar to that of Aramis Ramirez (on whom the Cubs hold a team option, but Ramirez has a right to void the deal, effectively making the option a mutual one).

While Dempster would have a tough time getting a $14 million annual salary, he could easily top that total over a multi-year deal. It’s almost impossible to see him not getting at least $18 to 22 million over two years.

Of course, the Cubs won’t be in a position to make that kind of decision on Dempster until the new GM is in place. And maybe Dempster similarly wants to wait until that time to make his decision.

One thing is certain: if Dempster wants to return at a reasonable price, the next GM will have him back. Dempster is a fan favorite, and a stalwart in the clubhouse. He’s also been a pretty great pitcher for the Cubs over the course of his time with the team. But, most importantly, where are the Cubs going to find another starting pitcher?

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