I didn't love it, but since the reaction to the swap among Twins fans was overwhelmingly negative, I spent a lot of time defending it. Despite his success in the first half, the Twins saw something in Jon Rauch that led them to believe he'd soon become a liability in the closer role (his subsequent slump suggested they were right), so they wanted a proven commodity. Sure, the Twins overvalued Capps' standing as an established closer and gave up a better prospect than they maybe should have, but I accepted the move for three principal reasons: 1) I don't think they could have gotten a much better player for Ramos; 2) in my mind, the probability that the team will heavily regret dealing Ramos when they did is quite low; and 3) I liked the statement that the move made.
It was that last one that I felt most strongly about. We're so used to seeing the Twins play it conservative at the deadline, protecting their future assets at the expense of bettering their present chances. Now, they were dealing one of their top prospects and taking on significant salary with the hopes of ensuring that a bullpen derailment would not impede their budding momentum. Very often has a prospect panned out to be less than we'd hoped; very often, also, have we looked back at the end of a season and said, "Maybe that one extra piece at the deadline would have made the difference."
So the Twins made their bold move. But they did so for another reason, one that they were perfectly transparent about the time, but that I didn't spend much time thinking about then.
"Having him for 2011 was critical," [Bill] Smith said. "We would not have had interest in having him for just two months."As you'll find when reading through your copy of the Offseason GM Handbook, the bullpen becomes a quagmire of tricky decisions for the Twins' front office this winter. I didn't need the headache while focusing on the Twins' 2010 season, so I hadn't spent much time thinking about it. Now that I've turned my gaze to the offseason and started breaking down the numbers, I've reached one inescapable conclusion:
The Twins would be insane to bring back Matt Capps.
He's under team control for 2011 because he's entering his third and final year of arbitration eligibility. He was non-tendered by the Pirates following a crummy 2009 campaign (5.80 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .324 opponents batting average, just 27 saves in 32 chances), and he earned only a modest $1.2 million raise on his $2.3 million '09 salary when the Nationals signed him this season because of it.
This year, however, Capps put up some of the finest numbers of his career, and scored big in areas that arbitrators put a lot of weight into. Specifically, those areas are ERA (2.47) and saves (42, fifth-best in MLB). While I certainly don't think he's as bad a pitcher as many opponents of his acquisition make him out to be, Capps is at best merely a good reliever and those numbers unquestionably overstate his value.
Unfortunately, that's the type of lens through which arbitration judges are likely to view Capps. The market has been established. For instance, the Giants have Brian Wilson locked up for $8.5 million in 2012, which would be his last year of arbitration, and that contract was signed before he notched an MLB-leading 48 saves this year. Jonathan Papelbon just earned over $9 million in his second year of arbitration. Looking at these numbers, it's not hard to imagine Capps at least doubling his $3.5 million salary in 2011.
Meanwhile, relievers of similar quality to Capps who don't carry the closer label tend to make only a couple million per year. And regardless of how you weigh the value of having an established guy in the closer spot, there's a good chance the Twins won't be using him in that role with Joe Nathan returning.
In the best case scenario, they'd be paying Capps upper-echelon closer money (which they're already paying Nathan, to a higher degree) to be a solid setup man. If you're going to spend that kind of money on a guy who'd fill a setup role and serve as an insurance policy for Nathan, you're much wiser using it to bring back Brian Fuentes who figures to be only slightly more expensive if at all. He's a better pitcher and more useful if Nathan can close. Or you can save a few million and take your pick from the deep pool of strong relievers hitting the market this winter.
I have spent enough energy defending Capps. He served his duty very effectively after being acquired and was a fine -- if ultimately meaningless -- addition to the Twins this season. If he's back next year at $7 million, though, his acquisition will ultimately do more harm than good.