The minute that Matt Capps signed a free agent contract with the Washington Nationals he must have known that the team would eventually trade him. But that feeling didn’t lessen his commitment to the Nats. After a disappointing ’09 campaign in Pittsburgh (4-8, 5.80 ERA, while giving up an ugly 73 hits over 54.1 innings), Capps needed redemption, and Washington G.M. Mike Rizzo gave it to him. So, when the ax finally fell (just before the end of the trade deadline in July), Capps showed appreciation for his time in Washington — while saying that he looked forward to pitching the all-important 9th inning for a contender like the Twins. Then too (as Capps certainly realized), despite their earlier commitment to him, the Nationals could hardly pass up on the chance to obtain Wilson Ramos, a catcher of the future and one of the best young catchers in the minors. So, now that Capps is firmly rooted in Minnesota (and headed to the post-season), and Wilson Ramos has hit his first home run with the Nationals, how has the trade worked out?
The question seems particularly pertinent given the gaggle of Twins fans who still view Capps as an outsider. “Capps is making it an adventure,” one fan told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “. . . but I’m not going to throw [him] under the bus just yet.” Another fan admitted that while Capps “has not sparkled,” he’s caused “a bit of anxiety,” while yet another expressed his distaste for Capps’ high wire act — “he just can’t close.” That view is widely shared, even among baseball gurus. “He’s soft,” MLB Network’s Mitch Williams said during a televised “look-in” on the Twins-Royals tilt on Wednesday. Williams had a point, at least at first blush: with the Twins leading the Royals 4-1 in the 9th, Capps came in to shut the door — and promptly gave up two runs. While the Twins eventually won (Capps induced a Mitch Maier can of corn to end the game), the former Nationals’ reliever looked shaky, and certainly not as effective as the Twin’s injured closer Joe Nathan — who’s a kind of legend in Minnesota.
The criticism of Capps is a little unfair: while Capps’ ERA is slightly higher in Minnesota (2.84 with the Twins, compared with 2.74 in D.C.), he’s cut down on the number of homers (5 in D.C., 1 in the Twin Cities), and registered 11 saves. True: while Capps’ other numbers are slightly up (walks per nine and WHIP), the Twins can hardly complain. While Minnesota ranks high in blown saves (with 17), they are 9-1 in the last ten games and remain at the top of the heap in the A.L. Central and near the top (third) in bullpen rankings. What’s not to like? Then too, while the Twins gave up a top prospect in Wilson Ramos for Capps, they weren’t going to get anyone better — and, with Nathan injured, they needed to make a move. And Ramos? While the final judgment on the Nats’ new addition won’t be known until at least some time next year, Mike Rizzo felt compelled to make the trade: Jesus Flores’ shoulder injury wasn’t healing and the Nats next-best prospect at catcher was (and remains) several years away from the bigs.
That said, there had to be more to the Rizzo calculus than simply snagging Ramos. After all, while Nats’ scouts oohed and ahhed up Ramos’ upside, he’d actually done little at Triple-A Rochester (.241?) to convince anyone he’d be a lock in the majors. And with the Nats playing indifferently by the mid-summer, and falling off from their .500 pace of April and May, Rizzo knew that keeping Matt Capps wasn’t going to yield enough wins to overtake the Phillies or Braves — let alone the Mets or Marlins. Which is to say: in making the trade, Rizzo waved the white flag — if the Nats had been within striking distance of the top on July 30, he might well have kept Capps. This is not to say anything against Ramos. He is giving every indication of being the catcher the Nats need, both next year and far into the future. But let’s be honest: while the addition of Ramos will fill a future need, the closer-by-committee that the Capps’ trade made necessary hasn’t worked out. While the Nats’ bullpen has been terrific, Drew Storen has proven to be better set-up man than closer, Tyler Clippard (occasionally brilliant) is just too inconsistent, and Sean Burnett (arguably the team’s best reliever) is a lefty. Which means?
Which means that if the Nats are going to contend next year they’ll need what Matt Capps provided — a consistent 9th inning arm to come in and close out a game. Right now, they don’t have one.