Former Closer Looks to CAPPitalize on Limited Bullpen Opportunities
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the Spring Invitees and their chance to make the Tribe’s Opening Day roster.
By Steve Eby
Over the past decade, the Cleveland Indians have made a habit of stockpiling former closers into their bullpen. Their hope has always been that the former save artists would regain their form and work as formidable middle relievers and/or setup men while also serving as emergency closers as well.
In 2004, they signed Bob Howry and Jose Jimenez. In 2006 it was Danny Graves. The 2007 season brought Keith Foulke and Roberto Hernandez (the old White Sox guy, not the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona). Then, most recently, Dan Wheeler was signed in 2012. None except Howry made any positive impact and most were off of the team before the All-Star break. In the case of Foulke, he chose to retire rather than play a single game in Cleveland.
Howry truly is the exception and the standard for which this bar is set. In two years with the Tribe, Howry notched an 11-6 record with a 2.57 ERA with three saves and 87 strikeouts compared to only 28 walks. He worked his way into the back end of the bullpen and became Bob Wickman’s primary set up man in 2005. Besides all of the saves that he picked up during his time with the White Sox, Howry’s most successful statistics appeared when he was donning a Cleveland uniform. Since he left as a free agent for the 2006 season, the Tribe has signed all of the previously mentioned has-beens hoping to catch lighting in a bottle again without any luck. Newly acquired Matt Capps is hoping to reverse that trend as he becomes the newest “Next Bobby Howry”.
Capps was a four sport star in high school before being drafted in the seventh round of the 2002 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a starting pitcher for his first two years as a professional, but struggled and never made it past A ball. In 2005, Capps was converted to a relief pitcher and his career took off.
The 2005 season saw Capps start at A ball then get promoted to AA early in the season. He then moved to Triple-A by the middle of the summer and ended his season in the Pirates bullpen. At the start of 2006, Capps was in the Big Leagues to stay as he made the club out of spring training.
During the 2006 season, Capps responsibility grew as he pitched better and better. He started as a middle reliever but then eventually found his way into the role of the Pirates primary setup man. For the season, Capps went 9-1 with a 3.79 ERA with 13 holds and a save. 2007 was then the year that Capps finally broke through and became Pittsburgh’s closer.
After a solid 2007 and injury plagued 2008, the Pirates non-tendered Capps upon the completion of a poor 2009 season. Capps had a nice 27 saves for a bad Pittsburgh team, but his ERA ballooned to 5.80. The Washington Nationals were not affected by his one bad year, however, and signed Capps to a one year, $3.5 million deal. It was during his 2010 season that Capps would have his best success.
Capps made the 2010 National League All-Star team he saved 23 games before the Mid-Summer Classic. He would also prove to be the beneficiary of Brian McCann’s game winning hit, as Capps was the game’s winning pitcher. In July, the Nationals traded their All-Star to Minnesota, where Capps helped the Twins win the American League Central Division Championship as a replacement for the injured Joe Nathan.
When Nathan came back in 2011, Capps’ role was undefined and he bounced back and forth between being a closer and a setup man. He struggled to find his niche and became known for blowing saves. The Twins (perhaps remembering his excellent 2010 campaign) still gave him another chance and signed the right hander to a one year, $4.75 million deal for the 2012 season, where Capps would once again struggle and be hurt with shoulder issues as the last place Twins floundered without a solid closer. On January 31, 2013, the Indians gave Capps a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
For Capps, the opportunity to pitch for the Indians seems, on the surface, like a good one. He is familiar with the hitters in the division and would bring a veteran, playoff-tested pitcher to a bullpen that is pretty young. The problem for Capps will be finding room in the already right-handed heavy ‘pen.
Closer Chris Perez along with setup men Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano are locks to be in, having been extremely effective with the Indians for the past few seasons. Matt Albers, one of the pitchers acquired from Arizona in the Shin-Soo Choo trade, is a veteran coming off of a fantastic year and should be considered a lock as well. Barring an injury or trade, those four pitchers all should be counted on to fill out four of the main spots in the bullpen.
Another main candidate includes Cody Allen, who was extremely impressive during his stint with the Tribe last season. Bryan Shaw, who was also acquired in the Choo trade, has a very good chance to make it as well. It’s not a guarantee that Allen and Shaw make the 25-man roster because both pitchers still have options remaining, but both pitchers will probably be among the seven best bullpen options when camp breaks.
Those six pitchers will likely take up five, or possibly six, of the seven bullpen spots that the Indians will surely have. This leaves Capps battling the likes of Scott Barnes, Nick Hagadone, Frank Herrmann, and newly acquired Rich Hill for the remaining one or two spots. To make matters even tougher, the Indians could also elect put a starting pitcher, such as David Huff, Scott Kazmir or Corey Kluber in the bullpen to work as a long reliever/spot starter as well.
The “big six” are all right-handed, so conventional wisdom would say that another spot will be filled with a lefty, with the only mentioned being Hagadone, Barnes, Kazmir and Huff. Tribe manager Terry Francona could oppose this conventional wisdom, however, as the skipper has stated, “Whether it’s righty or lefty, I’d rather have the best pitcher.” This is the line of thinking could be the opportunity that Capps needs.
Capps will need to be outstanding during spring training if he wants a chance to make the Major League roster as it stands right now. However, Capps should initially be viewed as insurance—a proven arm and closer that could be used in case of an emergency. The best, realistic scenario for Capps has him becoming the seventh man in the bullpen out of the gate and even then the cards are still stacked against him.
Capps is coming off of two poor seasons and will be battling left handed specialists, young powerful arms and long relievers…two of which are areas that the bullpen is currently lacking. Capps will need to capture some of his 2010 magic once again, but his opportunity will be limited unless there is some kind of an injury or a trade.
Capps will be looking to bounce back to form and also for a bit of luck, as teams often do not make it through spring training 100% healthy. The Indians will also be looking for a bit of luck, as the team continues their long search for the next Bob Howry.
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