For Twins, Matt Capps trade with Nationals was worth the price


(J. Meric/GETTY IMAGES)
April 20, 2011

When his pitching coach tapped Matt Capps on the shoulder Sunday morning and said, “Be ready to pitch the ninth inning,” Capps simply nodded his head. He already knew what had happened. Joe Nathan, the Minnesota Twins’ four-time all-star closer, had walked into the manager’s office and relinquished his ninth-inning duties, for the sake of the team.

“He wants to win,” Capps said of Nathan, who has struggled with consistency since returning this spring from elbow ligament-replacement surgery he underwent in March 2010. “And so do I. I’d be the first guy to [give up the ball] if I didn’t feel like I could do this. I’ve been in a situation where something’s not right. And it’s not fair to the other 24 guys in here to keep going out there.”

That day, and the next night, as Capps was locking down wins against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles — Minnesota’s first back-to-back victories of the season, as the two-time defending American League Central champs attempt to rescue their season following a 4-10 start — the Twins were thankful they had Capps, who arrived via trade last July, to fill in for Nathan as closer.

But that’s not to say the Twins wouldn’t like to have back the guy they gave up for him.

Because, even as Capps lessens the sting of Nathan’s absence, the Twins can check the box scores and see what catcher Wilson Ramos is doing in Washington — a .414 batting average and .983 on-base plus slugging percentage before going 0 for 4 Wednesday night, while slowly forcing the Nationals into a decision regarding likely future Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez.

It was Ramos who, roughly nine months ago, was reluctantly handed over to the Nationals by the Twins’ management in order to pry away Capps, who converted 26 of 30 save chances for Washington. The trade had the desired short-term effect: Capps went 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 27 appearances for the Twins, converting 16 of his 18 save attempts and helping the Twins hold off the Chicago White Sox and reach the playoffs for the sixth time in nine years. But with Twins catcher Joe Mauer, like Nathan a four-time all-star, sidelined indefinitely with a mysterious ailment described as bilateral leg weakness, they could sure use Ramos now. Ramos might not make the Twins forget Mauer, but he would be a significant upgrade over their current catching tandem of Drew Butera, a career backup who hit .235 in his best minor league season, and Steve Holm, who has spent nearly all of the last 11 seasons in the minors.

Which is greater: the Twins’ regret over losing Ramos, or their gratefulness for having Capps?

“We’ve taken a lot of heat over that, getting rid of a catching prospect like we did,” said Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire. “But to get a good player and help yourself out, you have to give up a good player — and we gave up a good player. As [for] Capps, not only is he a really good pitcher, but on the [scouting] scale of two to eight that we use, he’s an eight in makeup. He’ll do anything you ask. He’ll pitch wherever you ask him to pitch. We’re lucky we’ve got the young man.”

Capps, 27, knew all along his role this season would be dependent upon Nathan’s health. The mere fact the Twins would pay him $7.15 million this season in his final year before reaching free agency — a steep price for a setup man, particularly for a small- to mid-market team like the Twins — suggested the team knew it might need his services in the ninth inning at some point.

And Capps, who had been almost exclusively a closer for the previous four years, was perfectly fine being the setup man for Nathan, who is both one of the most accomplished closers in the game, and one of its most gracious gentlemen. “Over the last six or seven years,” Capps said, “he’s been as good as anybody.”

But when Nathan, following consecutive blown saves at Tampa Bay, decided to relinquish the closer’s job, and when the Twins subsequently told Capps to be ready to pitch the ninth inning, it sounded as if they were telling him, “Welcome home.”

“Closing is something almost every guy in the bullpen wants to do. It’s the way we’re wired,” Capps said. “We want that job. We want that pressure. A lot of guys feed off it. I’m no different. Joe’s no different. We both want to do it. But it’s kind of unfair to ask him, after sitting out a full year, to step in and be that guy right out of the chute.”

Perhaps one day, and perhaps soon, Wilson Ramos will make the Twins look like fools for giving him up. But for now, even that black hole where their catcher is supposed to be isn’t enough to change this fact: The Twins are glad they have Matt Capps on their side.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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