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A potential buy-low bullpen option for the Red Sox

11.16.11 at 11:09 am ET
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Free agent reliever Matt Capps represents a potential buy-low candidate this offseason (AP)

MILWAUKEE — Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said on Tuesday that he has had a number of conversations related to the closer market, both with teams about potential trades and with agents about potential signees. But while most of the attention in the aftermath of the Phillies’ signing of Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year deal has been focused on the high-end of the closer market, where names like Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero and Joe Nathan loom, the team has also checked in on at least one other name who is intriguing in some ways because he does not have the same profile as those other pitchers.

According to an industry source, the Sox have checked in with agent Paul Kinzer on the availability of right-hander Matt Capps. Capps, who turned 28 in September, has seen his performance take some significant turns in the last couple of years. He emerged as a sometimes-dominant closer for the Pirates in 2007 and 2008 (2.58 ERA, 7.0 strikeouts and just 1.4 walks per nine innings), struggled a significant downturn in 2009 (5.80 ERA, doubling his walk total to 2.8 per nine innings) that led the Pirates to non-tender him, bounced back to All-Star form in 2010 while recording 42 saves with a 2.47 ERA for the Nationals and, after a mid-year trade, the Twins, and then slipped in 2011 in Minnesota, ultimately losing the closer’s job in a year in which he had a 4.25 ERA and his strikeout rate plummeted to 4.7 per nine innings.

There is little question that 2011 was a down year for the right-hander, and one that was not without concerns. His average fastball velocity, according to Fangraphs, ticked down from 94.0 mph to 92.9 mph. The strikeout rate suggests an eyebrow-raising decline in swing-and-miss stuff, while his flyball rate also elevated. Certainly, a significant early-season workload (12 appearances in Minnesota’s first 23 games, as well as six multi-inning appearances in the first two months) may have taken a toll. But the reality is that Capps, now one down season removed from being an All-Star, must work to re-establish his value as a premium reliever this winter.

That being the case, he represents an intriguing free-agent option for a team like the Sox. Capps may be in a position where his best financial move is to take a one-year deal, produce a strong season, then go back on the free agent market in a year, at a time when his value could be higher and the market might not be so saturated with back-end relievers. That, in turn, could prove particularly appealing to the Sox, who typically try to steer clear of long-term investments multi-year in relievers.

“[The Sox] wouldn’t rule out a longer term solution if it was the right fit,” said Cherington. “[But] we’d prefer to avoid multi-year solutions anytime. You can’t always do that. Certainly, in the bullpen market in general, given the volatility in that position, as a standard you’d prefer shorter-term solutions.”

Capps also offers some versatility that could prove useful. He has closing experience but is also willing to set up, especially for a contender. That, in turn, means that there will be a market for the right-hander. The Twins have expressed some interest in bringing back the right-hander, and other teams with both setup and closing needs have checked in with Kinzer.

While it remains to be seen just how far-reaching the Sox’ interest is in the right-hander, Capps offers a reminder that, in addition to exploring the market for top-end closers, the team will check in on potential contributors who have a different profile.

Read More: Hot Stove 2011, matt capps,
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