The Pirates have decided to non-tender closer Matt Capps, avoiding a likely $3+ million arbitration award for Capps and officially making him a free agent.
P-G Pirates beat writer Dejan Kovacevic said of the Capps release, “This is easily the most surprised I have been by any move from the Pirates’ current management team,” and for good reason; the Pirates now have only two remotely proven relievers on their roster, Capps had been their closer for three years, he’s only 26, and his brutal 2009 was his first bad season after three straight productive ones.
Neal Huntington offered this explanation:
But the reality is, we’ve now got some money to apply to the bullpen to fill Matt’s spot and elsewhere…If you’re talking about the Matt Capps of ’07 or ’08, that would be very, very difficult to replace. He’s probably not somebody we non-tender. The second half of ’08 and into ’09 … it’s not that hard to replace a reliever with a 5.00 or 6.00 ERA. We’ll miss Matt, and we wish him well. The only reason we had interest in him is that we felt he’s due to have a bounce-back year.
Huntington’s argument isn’t without merit; Capps was absolutely brutal last season, and a closer in title only, posting a 5.80 ERA and allowing 73 hits in 54.1 innings. His walk total jumped from 5 in 2008 to 17 in ’09, his home run total doubled from 5 to 10 in that span, and he posted a 2009 VORP of -3.6, meaning, essentially, he performed worse than any readily-available minor league free agent would have in those innings.
That said, I’m not in favor of this move.
Unless the Pirates have noticed something very specific with Capps that makes them believe he’s physically unable to return to ’06-’08 form, I really don’t understand why the team wouldn’t pay him the $3-$3.4 million he’d get through arbitration in the hopes that he can pitch effectively, rack up some saves, and restore his trade value by August. Teams always need relief pitching — the Marlins were reportedly interested in Capps last season, so I imagine he’d have some suitors if he actually pitched like not the most useless dude ever — and a one-year $3+ million commitment seems exceedingly reasonable for a closer who might net prospects in a market increasingly desperate for relief pitching.
I don’t disagree with Huntington’s assessment of Capps, or his philosophy of not overpaying relievers when their performances tend to fluctuate wildly year to year, but at some point, there has to be some inherent value in actually having some guys on the team, even if there’s a risk they’ll technically underperform value-wise to their contract. This isn’t like locking up Jack Wilson long-term; if Capps pitches averagely, then you’ve overpaid for a run-of-the-mill reliever, and if he posts another 2009, then you eat his $3 million but escape it at season’s end. If he does, in fact, pitch like an effective closer again, as he’s demonstrated with ample precedent in the recent past, or even just pitches averagely but pads his numbers with those wonderful Saves that every team loves to see, then you’ve got a highly tradable commodity. Or, you know, a closer.
Bottom line, while I understand Huntington’s rationale and I’m not willing to chalk it up as a 100% salary dump — paying anything for a 5.80 ERA pitcher, let alone $3.4 million, isn’t gonna win you the Smartness Award for Most Outstanding Smartness — but if the Pirates are all into taking calculated risks aimed at long-term upside, wouldn’t giving a proven 26-year-old pitcher another year to regain his value qualify as a reasonable chance to take?
I’ll wait til the Pirates’ offseason is complete to fully pass judgment, but overall, I don’t like this move. Not that it’s gonna stop me from still calling Capps “Fat Crapps” when he blows a save, because it makes me laugh. Hehehehe……. Fat Crapps. He’d make a great substitute teacher.