Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Mad Capper Leaves The Nest

Matthew Dicus Capps was born September 3, 1983 in Douglasville, Georgia. He's a 2002 graduate of Alexander High School, where he lettered in football, basketball, cross-country and baseball, and had a scholarship to LSU in his pocket when he graduated.

But Capps was drafted by the Pirates in the 7th round of the 2002 draft out of high school, and opted for the pros. He was a starting pitcher on the farm through 2004, throwing well in the Rookie League but getting clocked in two years of A ball.

In 2005, he was converted to a relief pitcher and as they say, the rest is history. He started the season at Class A Hickory, then was promoted mid-season to the AA Altoona Curve and finished the season with AAA Indy during the International League playoffs.

Capps finished with a 2.57 ERA and 21 saves, with 65 Ks in 73-2/3 innings of work. After Indianapolis's season ended, he was promoted to Pittsburgh on September 16th and pitched that night. Capps never rode a bus again.

The beginning of the 2006 season saw Capps break spring training with the Pirates. At first, he worked only in low-risk situations, but by year's end, he had established himself as the Pirates bridge man for closers Mike González and Salomón Torres.

In 85 games, he threw 80-2/3 innings, striking out 56 batters, allowing 81 hits and an ERA of 3.79. Capps posted a team best 9-1 record out of the bullpen, with thirteen holds and a save. He led all MLB rookie pitchers in appearances.

In 2007, he became the set-up man for Torres, as Gonzo went to the Braves and had TJ surgery. It didn't take long for Solly to shoot himself in the foot, and on June 1st, manager Jim Tracy announced that Capps would be the Pirates closer.

The next day, Capps recorded his first save of the season. They even spiced up his scoreboard video. And why not? He was 4-7 with 18 saves, 15 holds, an ERA of 2.28, and a WHIP of 1.013. A star was born.

Capps started the 2008 season as the man, and notched fifteen consecutive saves before blowing one on June 10th. He ended the season with 21 saves in 26 chances, a 3.02 ERA and a WHIP of 0.969. The Mad Capper was money in the bank for the Bucs.

Unfortunately, as we found out in 2009, banks can fail - and so can relievers. Coming in to the game to the Toby Keith song "Big Bull Rider," Capps couldn't ride that bull last year.

For the first three weeks of the season, Capps was his usual lights-out closing machine. Then on April 24th, he gave up a game-winning single to Brian Giles with two outs, and the wheels fell off. He never found a rhythm after that.

Was he pitching hurt? Capps was placed on the disabled list in early July because of bursitis in his right shoulder. Before that, in late May, he took a liner off the elbow, but surprisingly missed just a few days. And earlier in the season, he had a bruised elbow that sat him down for a brief spell. Was it a tough year physically, or were these omens that that his arm was breaking down?

Others think that Capps was affected by all the trade rumors swirling around him and his team mates, and tried to overcompensate. He blamed too many off-speed pitches as affecting his command. Some feel, plain and simply, that he never took good enough care of his bod and it finally caught up to him.

Whatever the cause, Capps, 26, had his worst season, recording 27 saves in 32 chances and outright losing eight game in 2009, with a 5.80 ERA in 57 appearances and a 1.656 WHIP.

His contract, worth $2.425M, ran out, but he still had two years of arbitration left. And though Capp's numbers are terrible for 2009, his body of work and 27 saves would be worth a lot in an arbitrator's eyes. The Pirates weighed the risk, offered him an unspecified deal, and cut him loose when he nixed it.

Our uneducated guess is the Bucs offered about the same salary, and Capps held out for arbitration. The Pirates have some money to play with, but maybe arbitration scared them off. He did have two years of it ahead of him, 2010-11, and they wanted some contract certainy. Arbitration is often a financial crap shoot, but historically it tends to reward guys with a solid track record.

It's also possible they low-balled him, or maybe Capps and his agent were looking for more than the probable $3M arbitration award, or one side sought a multi-year pact. Perhaps, in keeping with the KISS theory, the suits thought his closing days were done and valued him accordingly.

At any rate, rest assured that Capps and his agent, Paul Kinzer, know that JJ Putz got a one year deal for $3M with $3.5M more available from the White Sox in performance bonuses, based on saves. Ditto for Brandon Lyons, who got 3 years and $15M from the Astros, with a lifetime ERA of 4.20 and 54 saves in eight seasons.

So it'll be interesting to see what kind of market forms for him, and what kind of contract he'll land. Capps still has a decent, if straight, heater and developed a workable change. His 2009 K's per nine innings was 7.6, walks 2.8, decent numbers in isolation.

And he does have 66 career saves earned mainly over the past three seasons for a last place team, with an ERA of 3.61 and a 1.178 WHIP, even with 2009 figured in.

It's known that some teams have interest in him, just not enough to match the Pirates' price; they've been trying to move him all year. And it makes sense that the suits publicly said he would be tendered, just to keep him alive in trade talks (although we don't quite get why they just didn't do a sign and swap). Their ploy didn't seem to increase his value much.

Why give up someone worthwhile, like a JJ Hardy, for a guy that's likely to make $3M in arbitration, especially when he's seen around the league as a set-up man now rather than a closer? Better to let Pittsburgh pay him or get him at your price as a free agent. Already, reports have Detroit, Baltimore, and Arizona as possible suitors.

While Matt Capps faces his brave new world, the Pirates likewise have to face theirs. They believe Joel Hanrahan can take Capps' spot, and that Evan Meek is a viable Plan B. But it does make them vulnerable regarding depth.

They only have Jeff Sues, Ramon Aguerro, and Ron Uviedo as back-ups in the organization. Sues isn't even on the 40-man roster any more, Aguerro pitched in Altoona last year, and Uviedo was only in High A in 2009.

And for those keeping count, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ryan Doumit are the only remaining players from Neal Huntington's inherited 2008 MLB roster. And we're guessing that two of the three could be gone before the team gets to Pirate City this spring.

By our count, ten of the players on the 40-man roster predate the new suits; they brought in the rest. The cleansing is about done, and we won't speculate on the motivation; there's certainly an array of factors in play.

One thing is for sure - this isn't Dave Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy's team anymore. Now all the credit - or blame - belong to Huntington and Frank Coonelly.

And the guys at NBC's Circling the Bases blog don't seem to think it's a great transition, at least in this case. Aaron Gleeman posts "Penny Pinching Pirates Drop Closer Matt Capps," while Craig Calcaterra adds "Neal Huntington: Jerkin' His Players Around." Beat man Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette has "Lots of Capp Questions" too. Ouch!

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