This Year’s Matt Capps…

Matt Capps, formerly a 7th round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002, began his professional career as a starting pitcher but did not have great overall success in the lower Minors as a starter, so the team converted him to a reliever in 2005 and that is when he began to flourish.  Between A and AA in 2005, Capps posted a 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 6 BB, 65 K in 73 2/3 IP while locking down 21 saves.  Following the conclusion of the Minor League season, Capps was promoted to the Majors and that is where he has been ever since.

As a 22-year old rookie in 2006, Capps worked his way into a setup role for the Pirates and was a real workhorse for the team as he made 85 appearances.  Overall, he polished off a fine rookie season with a 9-1 record, 1 save, 3.79 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 12 BB, 56 K in 80 2/3 IP.  In 2007, Capps resumed his setup role to begin the season, but by June he had overtaken the closer role from veteran Solomon Torres and he proved to be a very fine option.  Capps finished the season with a 2.28 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 16 BB, 64 K in 79 IP while converting 18 saves in 21 opportunities.

Capps entered the 2008 season entrenched as the closer for the Pirates and for fantasy purposes he was very underrated due to the quality of the team he was pitching for.  He continued to do pretty well as the 9th inning man, but soreness in his pitching arm forced him to miss approximately two months of the season.  When he was healthy enough to pitch though, he still was a good option for the Pirates.  Led by his pinpoint accuracy, Capps pitched his way to a 3.02 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 5 BB, 39 K in 53 2/3 IP while recording 21 saves.

2009 was an extremely different story for Capps as he got knocked around like by opposing hitters like a pinata.  He was able to establish a new career high with 27 saves, but with a 5.80 ERA and 1.66 WHIP he was the worst full-time closer in the league and his hideous performance combined with his increasing salary through the arbitration process led him to be non-tendered by the Pirates in the off-season.  However, he received horrible luck with a .360 BABIP, which was well above his career norm.  So there was reason for optimism if he hooked on with another team in a 9th inning role, especially considering that his 7.62 K/9 IP in 2009 was extremely better than his career rate entering the season and that his fastball velocity was higher than ever at an average of 93.6 MPH. 

It was the Washington Nationals that took a chance on the 26-year old Capps for 2010 when they signed him to a 1-year/$3.5 million deal.  He immediately was proving to be a bargain when he notched 10 saves in April with a 0.68 ERA.  Capps cooled off over the next couple of months, but then finished the season strongly, but he was now in a Minnesota Twins uniform after a deadline deal was consummated.  With Joe Nathan out for the year and fill-in closer Jon Rauch hitting a bit of a stumbling block in July, Capps took over the closing duties when he arrived in Minnesota.  Overall, Capps finished the season with a 2.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 17 BB, 59 K in 73 IP while recording the 5th most saves in the Majors with 42.

For this year’s Capps, I am looking for preferably a reliever on the right side of 30 years of age who does have some closing experience but has yet to have what could be considered a true breakout season.  Joel Hanrahan of the Pirates came on strong last season with an incredible 12.92 K/9 IP, but he may lose out to or end up splitting save opportunities with Evan Meek this year.  Frank Francisco is also a candidate, as he definitely has closing experience, but he is on the other side of 30 and he has to fend off Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch for save opportunities in that newly revamped bullpen in Toronto.   So my pick here is Leo Nunez of the Florida Marlins.

Nunez originally signed with the Pirates as an international free agent in 2000, but was eventually traded to the Kansas City Royals in 2004 in exchange for Benito Santiago.  Nunez went on to pitch a few seasons at the Major League level for the Royals, but he was rather unimpressive in the Royals blue with a 4.92 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and just 5.77 K/9 IP in 159 IP.

After the 2008 season, Nunez was traded to the Marlins in exchange for Mike Jacobs and he was slated to serve as a setup man for Matt Lindstrom in 2009, but Lindstrom landed on the DL toward the end of June so Nunez stepped in and was the team’s closer from there onward.  Nunez filled in nicely and finished the season with 26 saves while posting a 4.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 27 BB, 60 K in 68 2/3 IP.

With Nunez’ emergence as the team’s closer, the Marlins traded Lindstrom to the Houston Astros prior to the 2010 season and that squashed any potential of a closer battle in Florida.  Nunez was cruising along as the closer for the first few months, but he blew 3 out of 6 save opportunities with a 9.31 ERA in August.  The horrible month provoked a change at the end of the Marlins bullpen and Clay Hensley served as the team’s closer for the final month.  Unfortunately for Nunez, Hensley went a perfect 7 for 7 in save opportunities with a 0.00 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 11 K in 14 1/3 IP as the closer over the final month.  However, with a 1.64 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 12 K in 11 IP after being removed from the closer’s role, Nunez got back on track and the Marlins should feel comfortable going back to him as their closer to begin 2011.

Despite blowing 8 saves and losing the closer’s gig, 2010 was a pretty good season for Nunez as he posted 30 saves with a 3.46 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 21 BB, 71 K in 65 IP.  Nunez’ strikeout rate jumped to 9.83 K/9 from 7.86 K/9 in 2009 and his homeruns allowed rate plummeted to 0.69 HR/9 from 1.70 HR/9 in 2009.  Obviously, those were excellent improvements and it will be very important for him to maintain rates similar to those for him to see continued success.  Also, Nunez’ .329 BABIP in 2010 was a bit higher than his .296 career mark he had entering the year, so that number could come down in 2011.  His fielding independent ERA (FIP) of 2.86 in 2010 suggests that he was definitely better than his actual ERA might suggest.

Despite Hensley’s flawless stint as the closer to finish 2010, I fully expect Nunez to be the man for the Marlins.  As a 27-year old in 2011, Nunez should be just about ready to start peaking, so this surely could be his year.  With a strong starting rotation led by Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco and an improved setup corps with the additions of Ryan Webb, Edward Mujica, and Randy Choate, Nunez should see plenty of save opportunities if he is named the team’s closer.  40 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA are within reach and that would be good enough to make him this year’s Capps at the end of the season.

Other candidates: Joel Hanrahan, Frank Francisco, Evan Meek, Koji Uehara