Revisiting Matt Capps’ non-tender and looking at Neal Huntington’s new bullpen

When the Pirates non-tendered Matt Capps back in mid-December, Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, and Steven Jackson remained as the most established relievers. The Pirates had cut money from an already bare-bones payroll. In the five weeks or so since then, the Pirates have signed DJ Carrasco and Brenden Donnelly while a deal with Octavio Dotel is reportedly close.

If Dotel signs, the bullpen drops the bottom end (probably guys like Chris Jakubauskas, Steven Jackson, and an NRI or two like Neal Cotts) in favor of three proven vets for only a little more than it would’ve taken to settle Matt Capps’ arbitration hearing. Clearly, Huntington had a vision for his bullpen when he let Capps go and it seems like that vision is rounding into shape nicely as we get ready for Spring Training.

But what sort of improvement are we really looking at? And at what cost is it coming? After the jump, let’s take a look at the future (That’s right, reader. Let’s look to the future!), both in the way it’s likely to play out and the way that it could’ve.

Prior to all of the moves made in the last month, the Pirates bullpen stacked up about like this:

  • Joel Hanrahan
  • Evan Meek
  • Javier Lopez
  • Steven Jackson
  • Kevin Hart (my pick to end up in the bullpen with Dan McCutchen in the rotation)
  • Chris Jakubauskas
  • Neal Cotts (one of the NRIs is likely to make the team, Cotts happens to be a lefty)

If we assume that Dotel signs, the bullpen will likely shake out like this:

  • Octavio Dotel
  • Brendan Donnelly
  • Javier Lopez
  • Joel Hanrahan
  • Evan Meek
  • DJ Carrasco
  • Kevin Hart

It’s possible that someone like Jackson or Cotts (I keep mentioning Cotts only because he’s a lefty) make the ‘pen in favor of Hart, who the Pirates could send to the Indianapolis bullpen instead of making him the seventh guy out of a seven-man bullpen.

Projecting bullpens is not easy because of the huge variability in so many factors, but using Sky Kalkman’s WAR calculator and this year’s CHONE projections (available at the FanGraphs on each player’s individual page), Neal Huntington’s new bullpen is projected to be worth somewhere between half a win and a full win more than the one we faced without Capps. I’m not exactly happy using projected inning counts and ERAs with fudged leverage numbers for relievers, but it’s obvious that the group that Huntington signed is expected to be better than the group that he had, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that they should be much better than the group the Pirates had last year.

The other question here relates to Capps. Is this bullpen better than one that has Capps in it? What other additions could’ve been made if Capps was tendered a contract? Without considering incentives and assuming DJ Carrasco makes the team, Carrasco and Donnelly are signed for about $2.4 million between the two of them. If Dotel signs, it will be for at least $2 million and probably closer to $3 million. That’s a roundabout way of saying that I doubt that the money saved on Capps encompasses all three salaries.

Of course, we don’t know what Capps was asking for in arbitration. Part of the problem Huntington faced was the uncertainty of arbitration. Capps was almost certainly looking for a bigger raise on his $2.3 million 2009 salary than the Nationals’ $3.5 million paycheck afforded, and we can’t say for certain that Capps would’ve accepted that offer from the Pirates. Remember that arbitration takes complete performance into account and that a guy like Heath Bell just signed a $4 million deal to avoid arbitration, which was a raise from $1.2 million. Capps likely would’ve held steadfast at $4 million or $4.5 million and let an arbitrator settle the case.

That’s difficult for the Pirates in two ways; they don’t know how much money they have tied up in Capps, and neither does any team potentially willing to trade for him. That means that for the Pirates’ purposes, they have to consider whatever Capps’ highest asking point (we’ll say $4.5 million) as part of their payroll until the case is settled. It’s safe to say that had Capps not been non-tendered, the Pirates maybe would’ve signed DJ Carrasco of the three relievers they’ve signed/are likely to sign (we’ll have to wait for Dotel to sign to be sure, once that happens we can set an unofficial “reliever budget”). That was, I think, the driving force behind the Capps non-tender. It wasn’t just that Huntington wasn’t excited about paying $3.5-$4 million for a reliever he wasn’t sure about, but that he also didn’t want to wait around to trade him for a C+ prospect and leave himself unable to spend that money on actually upgrading the bullpen.

Of course, this is all just a thought exercise until we see how these pitchers pitch. Capps’ CHONE projection is better than almost anyone the Pirates currently have in their ‘pen, so the Pirates are clearly projecting these guys a little differently on their own than the projection systems see (and they should be, because they can factor in things like Capps’ flatter fastball and Donnelly’s TJ recovery better than the projection models can because they’re interested in fewer guys). With Dotel at 37 and Donnelly at 38, both are candidates for late-career meltdowns and since Meek and Hanrahan both walk a lot of guys, they could have disastrous seasons, as well.

Still, it seems pretty apparent to me that this gamble (that is, letting Capps go in favor of the scrap heap) is a higher percentage one than hoping Capps regains his past form and anchors the bullpen in 2010. There’s more depth (now, Jackson or Hart/McCutchen are the first guys up in a pinch, then Jakubauskas if he passes through waivers) and despite their relative ages, Dotel and Donnelly will likely put up good seasons. And if things do play out well with the bullpen, it’ll at least be proof of principle for Huntington’s method of bullpen building.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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