Pirates made a mistake letting Capps go

All through the week it seemed to be a given that the Pittsburgh Pirates would tender a contract to all of their arbitration eligible players.  Those players were Ronny Cedeno, who will compete for the starting shortstop position, Zach Duke, one of the top starters from 2009, and Matt Capps, their closer from the last few years.

Today the Pirates made a shocking move by non-tendering Matt Capps, making Capps a free agent.  Capps was in his second year of arbitration, and due for a raise over his $2.42 M contract in 2009.  He was pretty much guaranteed this raise, even though he was coming off a year in which he posted a 5.80 ERA in 54.1 innings, with a 3-8 record, and five blown saves.
I’m not going to say that Capps wasn’t bad in 2009, because he clearly was.  I am going to say that it was a mistake for the Pirates to non-tender Capps.  The Pirates have admitted in the past that relievers are the hardest to predict in terms of year to year performance.  I feel that the 2009 season for Capps was a clear indication that this is true.
In 2007 and 2008, Capps combined for a 2.58 ERA in 132.2 innings, with a 0.995 WHIP, a 7.0 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9.  Looking at those two seasons, and looking at his 2009 season, it’s quite obvious that the 2009 season was a fluke.  At the end of the season, Capps claimed his struggles were a result of getting away from relying on his fastball, and focusing more on his slider.  A quick look at the FanGraphs Pitch Type numbers will show that this was happening.  Capps threw a fastball around 78-79 percent of the time in 2007 and 2008.  He threw a slider between 14.8 and 17.6 percent of the time.  In 2009 he only threw a fastball 68.7 percent of the time, and threw a slider 25 percent of the time.  The question of whether that was the source of his problems remains to be answered, but it’s something the Pirates definitely should have tested next year.
According to Dejan Kovacevic, the Pirates were looking to sign Capps to an amount close to what he received in 2009.  I projected that Capps would receive about $4 M, based on past contracts to second year arbitration closers like Huston Street.  You may think that is unrealistic based on his 2009 season, but keep in mind that the arbitration process takes in to account what the player has done in recent years, not just the most recent year.
Capps wasn’t going to make or break the 2010 season.  The Pirates also have good immediate options at closer, like Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek, along with some intriguing possibilities at AA or higher in Ramon Aguero and Ronald Uviedo.  That said, Capps had been a reliable bullpen arm up to the 2009 season, and the Pirates shouldn’t have cut him loose, even if it meant paying him an extra million, despite his poor 2009 season.
The Pirates also non-tendered left handed reliever Phil Dumatrait, who was still a league minimum player.  Dumatrait has missed most of the past two seasons, and wasn’t really effective when he returned in 2009.  He was the only left handed reliever the Pirates had, but he wasn’t effective against left handers, with a .280/.357/.640 line in 2009, and a career .267/.369/.438 line.
Zach Duke was tendered a contract, joining Ronny Cedeno on the tender list for arbitration eligible players, a day after Cedeno signed a $1.125 M contract.
The 2010 40-man roster/payroll projection is updated with the moves.  The Pirates now have two open spots on the 40-man roster, and you have to wonder if they’ll go after a closer type now that Capps is gone.  The move would be a bit easier to take if they acquired a guy like Jeremy Accardo, who was tendered a contract by Toronto today.  Still, the Pirates have been in a mode of acquiring talent to boost the farm system, and I think they would have had a good shot at getting some prospects for Capps, had they given him a chance to rebound in 2010.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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