By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; D03
Making their clearest step yet to improve a bullpen and end their search for a closer, the Washington Nationals reached a deal late Wednesday night with free agent reliever Matt Capps, according to agent Paul Kinzer.
Terms were not immediately disclosed, but the right-hander, who has saved 66 games in the last three seasons, will receive a one-year deal. In turn, he will likely inherit responsibility for the ninth-inning role, a trouble spot in 2009.
Capps, non-tendered by the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this month, had attracted some dozen suitors, and this week narrowed his list to two, the Nationals and the Chicago Cubs. But Capps, Pittsburgh's closer since 2007, wanted a chance to close, and Washington offered a clearer path toward that opportunity.
Though Capps was one of the National League's top relievers in 2007 (2.28 ERA) and 2008 (3.02 ERA), his performance last season prompted the Pirates to drop him from their roster rather than pay him some $3 million via arbitration in 2010. In 2009, Capps's ERA skyrocketed to 5.80. His walk totals and home runs allowed ballooned, too. Still, he saved 27 games in 32 opportunities.
If Capps, 26, can regain his earlier form, the Nationals will have found an answer in a role where many have failed before. In 2009, the Nationals had the worst save percentage in baseball. Particularly at the beginning of the season, a glut of late blown leads dealt the team adversity it could never overcome. The Nationals experimented with Joel Hanrahan, Kip Wells and Julian Tavarez for the closer's spot. Eventually, hard-throwing but erratic journeyman Mike MacDougal settled things down a bit, saving 20 of 21 games down the stretch.
MacDougal's high walk and low strikeout totals, however, unnerved the Nationals. On the same day the Pirates non-tendered Capps, Washington let go of MacDougal.
The acquisition of Capps continues a busy offseason for the Nationals, coming off a 103-loss season. Needing short-term depth at catcher, the Nationals earlier this month signed free agent and future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. Needing to repair a bullpen with a league-worst 5.04 ERA last season, they traded for reliever Brian Bruney. And earlier this week, the Nationals signed two more free agents: first, veteran starter Jason Marquis; then, 39-year-old reliever Eddie Guardado.
With all the signings, spring training competition for bullpen spots will be especially tight. Assuming Capps becomes the closer, Bruney likely will get first crack at the set-up job. Guardado will have to fight for a roster spot. Jason Bergmann, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard -- all of whom pitched well last season -- also figure into the mix.