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Updated: July 30th, 2010 2:36am
Mackey: Twins saw Capps as best available bullpen arm

Mackey: Twins saw Capps as best available bullpen arm

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Debates will carry on about who came away with the better end of the Wilson Ramos-for-Matt Capps trade, and right now it seems as if popular opinion suggests the Minnesota Twins didn't get enough in return for a young catcher who is rated as Baseball America's 58th-best prospect.

Heck, judging from some of the tweets I received on Thursday night, you'd think the Twins traded Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson or something. Of course, we won't know for five years anyways. Maybe you can bookmark this article for future use just for fun.

I'm told the Twins believed Capps was the best available bullpen arm -- which either means A.) they rated Capps above Toronto's Scott Downs, B.) Downs wasn't available for a realistic price, or C.) the Twins preferred Capps' closing experience.

The Twins also had a difficult time parting ways with Ramos, who is still regarded as one of the top catching prospects in baseball, and they wouldn't have pulled the trigger on this deal unless Capps was under team control through 2011, which he is (albeit probably for somewhere in the $6 million range).

The Twins felt that adding depth and a proven closer to the bullpen provided more value to the team than adding a second- or third-tier starting pitcher.

I agree.

Capps, 26, has spent his entire career pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals, which is about the most torturous six-year sentence a baseball player can endure. In his five seasons as a relevant late-inning relief pitcher, Capps' numbers look strikingly similar to now-former Twins closer Jon Rauch's over the same time span:

Capps
2006: 3.79 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 6.25 K/9... 1.34 BB/9
2007: 2.28 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 7.29 K/9... 1.82 BB/9
2008: 3.02 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 6.54 K/9... 0.84 BB/9
2009: 5.80 ERA, 4.90 FIP, 7.62 K/9... 2.82 BB/9
2010: 2.80 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 7.40 K/9... 1.80 BB/9

Rauch
2006: 3.35 ERA, 4.36 FIP, 8.47 K/9... 3.55 BB/9
2007: 3.61 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 7.32 K/9... 2.16 BB/9
2008: 4.14 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 8.29 K/9... 2.01 BB/9
2009: 3.60 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 6.30 K/9... 2.96 BB/9
2010: 3.05 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 6.34 K/9... 2.11 BB/9

In addition, Capps allows hitters to make contact 82 percent of the time throughout his career and induces whiffs on 12 percent of pitches in the strike zone. Rauch allows hitters to make contact 80 percent of the time and induces whiffs on 13 percent of pitches in the zone.

The stat-head in me sees the glaring similarities to Rauch.

But the contrarian in me actually doesn't mind this trade from the Twins' perspective.

Let's start from the Ramos end.

Consider this: Over the past few weeks, the Twins were linked to Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Ted Lilly, the entire Blue Jays bullpen (which includes the lights-out Scott Downs), and possibly a slew of other pitchers.

Ramos' name was likely involved in each of those potential negotiations.

So, considering the Twins eventually "settled" for Capps -- according to mass opinion on Thursday night -- instead of a top-end pitcher like Lee, Haren or Downs, is it possible Ramos simply wasn't as valuable in this current trade market as many Twins fans believed?

Absolutely.

Ramos climbed up the prospect rankings by hitting .317/.341/.454 in 214 plate appearances at Class-AA New Britain in 2009, and .288/.346/.434 with 13 home runs in 500 plate appearances at high-A Fort Myers as a 20-year-old in 2008. He is a very good hitter, and baseball evaluators envision even more power potential in his muscular frame.

But with Joe Mauer signed to a long-term contract, opposing teams knew the Twins weren't going to use Ramos as a catcher. On top of that, Ramos is hitting only .241/.280/.345 with five home runs in 295 plate appearances at Class-AAA Rochester, lessening the Twins' leverage even more when using the young catcher as trade bait.

Why sell low though?

Because, in this scribe's opinion, the Twins knew they needed to improve the pitching staff to have a better chance in the playoffs, and in order to acquire a difference-maker they needed to give up a valuable asset.

Ignore the simpletons who suggest packaging Rob Delaney with Denny Hocking and some combination of Scott Stahoviak, Dan Naulty and Chad Allen...

Teams want top prospects, and Ramos was the most expendable. Trading a guy who essentially has no future with the big-league squad is better than trading future cornerstones such as Aaron Hicks or Kyle Gibson -- to which people would argue that the Twins could have moved Ramos to a different position. But quite frankly, his bat is nothing more than average once moved from behind the plate.

If Ramos had more value, the Twins would currently own Haren or Lee. But he doesn't.

This trade gives the Twins much more bullpen depth, as Patrick Reusse writes, and a much-needed alternative in the ninth inning. It allows Rauch to move back to a more familiar and suitable role as setup man, which in turn allows Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares to battle for duties in the sixth and seventh innings. This trickledown effect makes the entire bullpen stronger.

Prior to the addition of Capps, the Twins had nobody on the 40-man roster capable of taking over ninth inning duties in case of a Rauch malfunction. Nobody. And don't say Crain, because his ninth-inning status is just as big of a question mark as anybody else's.

Here are a few more reasons why this isn't such a bad deal for the Twins:

- Capps throws a fastball that averages 94 miles per hour, and he throws a biting slider that sometimes touches 88. Rauch doesn't.

- Aside from thirdbaseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' defense was horrifyingly mediocre behind Capps. The Twins' defense, as a whole, is among the best in baseball, with the weak link being corner outfield range. Fortunately for him, Capps has actually induced a career-high 47 percent groundballs this season, which immediately ranks him as the top worm-killing reliever at Target Field (ahead of Guerrier's 42 percent).

- Capps' BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .370 in 2009 and sits at .338 so far this season, which are both abnormally high. In other words, he's been slightly unlucky over the past year and a half. A solid defense will help.

- Capps is 26 years old and under team control through 2011. Rauch is a free agent at the end of the year, and Joe Nathan is no cinch to return to closer duties. You do the math.

- The Twins weren't winning anything this season without beefing up the back end of the bullpen. And make no mistake, winning immediately should be the top priority, especially with a loaded offense and two starters (Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano) having fantastic seasons.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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