I've been in Denver for the past four days, so I had to track this season's trade deadline drama from afar. That means I had only an outside glimpse of the local reactions to the Twins' big move, which involved sending prized catching prospect Wilson Ramos to the Nationals in exchange for reliever Matt Capps.
Amongst my like-minded and esteemed blogging brethren, the response to the trade was overwhelmingly negative. Gleeman hated it. Same for the Geek. Parker ripped it. Even mild-mannered Seth was critical of the move. Sentiment ranged from disappointment to flat-out disgust.
Yet, in spite of all the many reasonable arguments that I read deriding the trade, I just couldn't bring myself to truly dislike it. I think the widespread backlash to this deal is extremely hyperbolic. The Twins shored up an area that could potentially become problematic over the final two months of the season, and in order to do so they had to part with an asset. The value of that asset is the subject of some debate.
If there's one thing this swap tells me, it's that Wilson Ramos was being wildly overrated as a prospect by the vast majority of Twins fans. In all honesty, this doesn't surprise me, because it's something I had been thinking about more and more over the past few weeks. Ramos is a nice prospect, to be sure, but would any team really be willing to part with an established star player for a guy who is getting utterly dominated at Triple-A?
Granted, Ramos is only 22 years old and he's taking his first stab at the highest level of the minors. But he hasn't hit this year. After narrowly missing a spot on the Twins roster out of spring training, Ramos got his season off to a terrible start in Rochester and he hasn't shown a whole lot of improvement over the course of the season. This is a fact that far too many people seemed content to overlook, enamored with his shiny scouting reports and impressive build.
For all his power potential, Ramos has hit only five home runs this season. In fact, he's only hit 36 of them in five minor-league seasons. During that span, he's also drawn only 86 walks. Undoubtedly, a large part of the reason that Ramos' innate power has not manifested in games relates to his terrible plate discipline, an issue that has been clearly present this year and has helped contribute to a .241 average and a ghastly .277 on-base percentage.
Ramos' name arose in trade rumors opposite Cliff Lee, Dan Haren and other prominent stars. There is little doubt that the Twins tried heavily to shop their top catching prospect, since moving Ramos was all but a foregone conclusion. I wrote as much back in early May, when the Ramos hype machine was at its peak in the aftermath of a spectacular major-league debut. While there's no denying that the Venezuelan catcher has the potential to become a very good big-league contributor, rebuilding teams like the Mariners and Diamondbacks don't want to trade away their top trade piece for a player who is as much of a gamble as he is.
Jesus Montero, whom the Yankees reportedly used to outbid the Twins for Lee (though they themselves were subsequently outbid by the Rangers and Justin Smoak), currently owns an .809 OPS in Triple-A. Last year, he posted a .951 OPS between Single-A and Double-A. Ramos, whose OPS sits at .619 this season, hasn't posted a figure above .783 in a full season (although he did put up an .835 OPS in his injury-shortened 2009 campaign) and his career mark sits at .757. He's been young for every level, which is why Ramos is rightfully regarded as a very good prospect, but there are holes in the his swing that the kid simply hasn't been able to figure out. Montero is highly regarded not only because of his talent and youth -- he's almost two years younger than Ramos -- but also because he's translated his skills into impressive on-field results. That's what teams want in a big deadline deal. It's what Ramos doesn't have.
Ramos would only languish in the Twins' organization, whether being held in Triple-A in the hopes that improved performance would boost his stagnating trade value or being used as Joe Mauer's major-league back-up. The Twins had to trade their top catching prospect because they are making their push right now, with a championship-caliber roster assembled. After dangling Ramos all around in the weeks leading up to the deadline, Capps was the player that Bill Smith judged to be an appropriate value for Ramos. I don't doubt that Smith tried to turn Ramos into a better player than Capps, I just don't think he could.
Without question, the addition of Capps improves the Twins' bullpen. He's a better reliever than Jon Rauch, whom he'll be replacing at the back end. Rauch has performed admirably this year, converting 21 of 25 save opportunities while posting a 3.05 ERA. But he'd shown weakness in recent weeks, with his stellar control display early in the season trending back toward his mediocre career norm, and a 5.40 ERA and .361 opponents' batting average in July were doing nothing to inspire the Twins' confidence in their interim closer. This team has World Series aspirations and they wanted a more legitimate option taking care of the ninth inning.
Capps might be nine inches shorter than Rauch, but he is nonetheless an imposing presence on the mound. Weighing in at 245 lbs, the right-hander hurls a fastball that averages about 94 mph, several ticks faster than Rauch's offering. Whereas Rauch, who is four years Capps' senior, owns a relatively unimpressive 3.73 career ERA and 1.24 WHIP, Capps' career marks stand at 3.45 and and 1.19 in those categories, and this in spite of a down year in 2009 that has all the signs of a fluke. Capps possesses elite command, misses more bats and deserves more trust in high-leverage situations.
His addition also has a positive ripple effect on the Twins' bullpen. It pushes Rauch down into a set-up role he's better suited for, and eliminates Nick Blackburn -- who was of little use as a relief arm -- from occupying a roster spot. The Twins' once teetering bullpen now has the looks of a solid strength. Its right-handed options (Capps, Rauch, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Anthony Slama) are all well above average and the Jose Mijares/Ron Mahay combo stands as a fine defense against lefties. Perhaps most importantly, Capps is under team control for next season, which will make the looming free agent departures of Rauch and Guerrier far more palatable as Joe Nathan attempts his comeback from Tommy John surgery.
You'll notice I've gone through this entire post defending the trade without referring to two hot phrases that often pop up in tirades against the acquisition of Capps: his status as an established closer and his standing as a National League All-Star. To be clear, I don't doubt that both of these factors caused the Twins to overvalue Capps to some degree. But the front office is hardly delusional for thinking he makes their bullpen better, and with the rotation seemingly rounding into shape while the offense continues to churn out runs, the relief corps looked to be the only aspect of this team deserving of a significant external upgrade.
The Twins might have overpaid for an asset in Capps. But they didn't overpay to the degree that a lot of people seem to think, and in my opinion the organization should be lauded for making a bold move in their push to bring home a World Series title in their first season at Target Field. Ramos might turn into a very good player and he might not, but whatever his outcome it wasn't going to be realized as a Minnesota Twin. He had no future here with Mauer entrenched, and Smith moved his valued trade piece for what he could to give a little additional help to the excellent roster he's assembled this year for the stretch run. The Twins made a play for now -- how often have we been able to say that so confidently in the past? We haven't seen this type of aggression before and I personally like it.
The Twins are building steam and have won eight straight. With Capps added to the roster, a bullpen meltdown becomes less of a threat to derail their momentum as they ease back into a more difficult stretch of the schedule. By the time the playoffs roll around this year and onward into 2011, I anticipate that people will be happy Capps is around. I don't think they'll miss Ramos.
* I do realize, by the way, that I tweeted only a couple days before the trade that I wouldn't deal Ramos for Capps. Call it a change of heart. After looking at all the facts, I just can't criticize the Twins for making this move, even if it doesn't initially strike me as a great deal.