Where Aren’t Chris Capuano & Aaron Harang Going?

92topps_aaronharangJust from December alone…

Ken Davidoff, New York Post:

The Mets also have engaged in trade discussions with the Dodgers, who have former Met Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, neither of whom likely would be in the team’s starting rotation if the 2013 season began today.

Jon Paul Morosi, Fox Sports:

The Mariners are a longshot for the 2013 playoffs but can make themselves more relevant with another move or two. Wednesday’s trade opened up a spot for a veteran left-hander in the Seattle rotation. (The Mariners spoke with the Dodgers recently about Chris Capuano, a source said Wednesday, but it doesn’t appear those talks have progressed.)

Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports:

Los Angeles Dodgers — They began shopping right-hander Aaron Harang and lefty Chris Capuano at the winter meetings, anticipating that they would add at least other two starting pitchers.

Righty Zack Greinke and lefty Ryu Hyun-jin turned out to be those two starters, and now Harang and Capuano are even more in play. The Pirates, Mariners, Twins, Blue Jays and Indians are among the teams checking in, major-league sources tell FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi.

92topps_chriscapuanoRosenthal, again:

A trade for New York Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey is unlikely, sources say, and the Rangers might simply aim lower, seeking a fifth starter who would be an upgrade over lefty Martin Perez — say, someone like Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Chris Capuano.

Buster Olney, ESPN (along with everyone else)

An evaluator on Chris Capuano:”He’s going to have more value to a National League team.” LAD has talked to Pirates;Milw a nice fit on paper.

Nick Cafardo, Boston Globe:

Capuano could be a fit for Boston

…and so on. I have no idea where they’ll end up — probably one of the teams mentioned here, though I’m sure there’s others involved, too — but with the way the market has exploded this winter, suddenly two league-average guys on short contracts for reasonable salaries might have some value. Not a lot of value, of course, so anyone who thinks Capuano is bringing back Mike Olt of Kyle Seager needs to reset those expectations. If they can help bring back a righty outfielder, backup catcher, or decent B-level prospect, I think I’ll be happy with that.

Is Joel Hanrahan As Much Of An Upgrade As He Seems?

Nice beard. (via Keith Allison)

Nice beard. (via Keith Allison)

For weeks now, we’ve been hearing rumblings about the Dodgers potentially looking to alleviate their starting pitching glut by sending Chris Capuano to Pittsburgh for reliever Joel Hanrahan, who of course was a second-round pick of the Dodgers way back in 2000.

Though the rumors have never become anything more substantive, we’re hearing it pop up once again thanks to Danny Knobler of CBS, who tweeted that “people who have talked to the Pirates say they’re pushing to move Hanrahan. Dodgers are one possibility.”

Since it won’t go away, it’s worth discussing, but it’s kind of an odd idea in that the further you look into it, the more the logic seems to unravel. On the surface –and I’ll admit this was my initial reaction the first time I heard it in November — “Capuano for Hanrahan” seems like kind of a laughable deal for the Pirates. After all, Hanrahan has been an All-Star in each of his two seasons as Pittsburgh closer, and while it’s more than defensible to sell high on him for the Pirates, you’d think that merely getting a veteran back-end starter in his walk year isn’t exactly the type of return you’d expect.

But on the other hand, starting pitchers are almost always more valuable than relievers due to the disparity in innings pitched, and Capuano is coming off a good season, one in which he nearly hit 200 innings and managed a 3.95 FIP (2.1 fWAR). Hanrahan, meanwhile, may have collected 36 saves with a shiny 2.72 ERA, but enormous problems with the strike zone and homers left him with an ugly 4.45 FIP and a -0.4 fWAR.

Oh, and he’s projected to make $6.9 million headed into his final year of arbitration. So there’s that, and all of a sudden the starter making $6m seems like a more useful piece than the reliever making nearly $7m. (Not that I think a walk-year guy like Capuano is really what the Pirates need, but then again, we shouldn’t be talking about this as though it’s a done deal; it’s mere speculation, and while the Dodgers do have interest, it may not be for Capuano, or it may not be for only Capuano — don’t forget, something has to be done with Scott Van Slyke over the next few days before his DFA period expires.)

Then again, the Dodgers need to trade a starter, and they could use another reliever, so even if the trade doesn’t necessarily seem even in a vacuum, it might if you consider the needs of the team. I wouldn’t want Hanrahan as my closer, but if you’re making him a setup guy as part of a hard-throwing trio along with Kenley Jansen & Ronald Belisario in front of Brandon League, well, that sounds pretty fun.

The main problem I’m having with this is that I have no idea how to explain what happened to Hanrahan last year; his stat line almost defies description. He was truly excellent in 2011, putting up a 1.83 ERA / 2.18 FIP and allowing just a single homer in 68.2 innings pitched. In some ways, he was even better in 2012, increasing his K/9 rate from 8.00 to 10.11, and seeing his BABIP drop from .282 to .225. He was missing more bats, and the balls that did get put into play largely weren’t dropping for hits. You’d think that’d lead to wonderful results, but his control fell apart, increasing from 2.10 per 9 in 2011 to an atrocious 5.43, and that wasn’t the worst of it. Part of the reason his BABIP dropped is because of the “balls in play” part, and when you’re suddenly giving up a ton of dingers — 1.21 per 9, in fact — the only people who are in play for that ball are those in the bleacher. It’s a simple equation; if you walk more and allow more homers, it’s not usually a formula for success, especially when your velocity is headed downward.

So there’s real concerns about Hanrahan, though you can de-emphasize them somewhat if he’s lined up to be your fourth-best reliever rather than your closer. That’s probably about what he’d be, because the current bullpen looks pretty solid; assuming a standard seven-man group, right now you’re looking at…

R Brandon League
R Kenley Jansen
R Ronald Belisario
L Scott Elbert
L Paco Rodriguez or long-rumored veteran import
R Matt Guerrier
- Rotation refugee (Ted Lilly?)

That’s assuming that both Capuano & Harang get dealt, and it’s also without including Shawn Tolleson or Javy Guerra, each of whom would have a pretty strong case to make to be on the roster but who might be handicapped by the fact they still have options. Really, the only obvious weak link there is Guerrier, and he’s not going to be the one who would get bounced if Hanrahan arrived, so the marginal upgrade might not be as much as you’d think.

As always, the question would be with the money; if it was really Capuano for Hanrahan straight up (which it probably wouldn’t be), the money would essentially be a wash. Of course, the notoriously cheap Pirates wouldn’t be looking to rid themselves of Hanrahan if they weren’t going to make out somewhat financially, so you could expect the Dodgers to be asked to pay some of Capuano’s salary. What if acquiring Hanrahan really means the roster spot costs $9m? Or $10m? Or more? Or more and including Van Slyke or a prospect?

It sounds absurd, but then again we also know that money doesn’t mean a thing to this team right now, so maybe it wouldn’t matter. Either way, while this deal has been in the air for a while, it’s still not close to being done, so we may never need to discuss it again. If it does happen, it might not be as much of a steal for the Dodgers as it initially appears.

On Having Too Many Starting Pitchers

I think one of my favorite side effects of this whole “opulence, I has it” approach to team building the Dodgers have taken is the idea that they can’t or won’t do something because of decisions that were made during the previous era under completely different circumstances. This manifests itself mainly in the fact that the team is expected to get at least two starting pitchers despite already having six veteran starters under contract for 2013, a situation which apparently gives fans and media members the vapors.

Setting aside for the moment that fully two-thirds of that group – Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, & Josh Beckett – fought injuries in 2012 and that this suddenly makes Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano the durable ones (!), there’s a huge difference between having too many starting pitchers under contract and having the best pitching available to you. Does Zack Greinke improve the rotation? Of course. James Shields, Anibal Sanchez, even Cliff Lee, who they may be still interested in after being unable to acquire last summer? Certainly. It’s an improvement over what you have, so you do what you can to add them to your roster. That’s not to disparage Capuano & Harang, who were surprisingly decent additions last winter, just that they were signed less because they were the best talent available and more because they were the best talent available for the meager pennies Frank McCourt had left Ned Colletti.

I can already hear the cries that this attitude only applies to teams who are unspeakably, embarrassingly wealthy, but that’s true only to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with having, for example, Harang at the back end of your rotation and being fine with that because you just don’t have the resources to upgrade upon him. There’s absolutely something wrong with having the opportunity to improve and saying, “no, we can’t because we already have Aaron Harang.” If holding a contract on one year of Harang’s time is preventing you from acquiring someone better simply because he exists, well, you’re doing it wrong.

Not that I believe the Dodgers are taking that attitude, of course. I’m all but absolutely certain that they’ll sign Hyun-jin Ryu before his 30-day window expires on December 10, and they’ll get at least one of Greinke (who reportedly was at Dodger Stadium on Thursday) or the other names, if not two. It’s not at all inconceivable that they’ll have eight or nine starting pitchers under contract at various points this winter.

What that means is that at least one – but probably two – of Capuano, Harang, Beckett, & Lilly are headed out the door, even if it means eating some money. Where to? Well, there’s about a million different scenarios you could dream up, so it’s nothing but speculation to try to dream up trades to every other team in the league. (Two of the more recent fun ones are the White Sox “looking for a lower-end starting pitcher” and the Pirates potentially being willing to move Joel Hanrahan, coming off a bizarre high strikeout / high walk / high homer season, now that he’s getting expensive and they stretched to sign Russell Martin but still have rotation holes to fill.)

Exactly which of that foursome goes, to where, and for whom isn’t all that important at the moment. The simple fact is that the Dodgers have the means to upgrade and the need to do so, and the presence of a few extra veterans on the back nines of their careers shouldn’t be an impediment to that – nor, do I believe, will it be.

2012 Dodgers in Review #27: SP Chris Capuano

3.72 ERA 3.95 FIP 198.1 IP 7.35 K/9 2.45 BB/9 2.1 fWAR B

2012 in brief: Outstanding first half was followed by considerably less productive second half, but greatest achievement may have been simply staying healthy all year.

2013 status: Signed for $6m in final year of two-year deal and should return as back-end starter unless he’s traded first.

******

You know how little I think of wins and losses for pitchers, so take this as the statistical quirk it is. Five times in Chris Capuano‘s career, he’s been healthy enough to make at least 25 starts. Five times, he’s lost 12 games on the nose:

2005 MIL (18-12)
2006 MIL (11-12)
2007 MIL (5-12)
2011 NYM (11-12)
2012 LAD (12-12)

What’s that mean? Absolutely nothing at all, other than “Chris Capuano just doesn’t know how to win,” of course.  Anyway, when Capuano was signed last winter, it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea by itself…

Now I’ll say this for Capuano, he’s not an awful guy to have at the back of your rotation. Dinger rate aside, he was able to miss some bats last year, and while 2/$10m sounds like a lot for a mediocre guy in his 30s with two zippers on his elbow, that’s really the going rate. Bruce Chen got basically the same deal, don’t forget, and I like Capuano better than Chen. For a team that absolutely had to sign someone, this contract isn’t awful, and Capuano can only be helped by Dodger Stadium and the big ballparks of San Diego & San Francisco. The alternatives are atrocious, you need to fill out your rotation with someone, and apparently you like Ted Lilly so much that you need someone just like him. In a vacuum, I don’t hate this deal as much as you’d think; in fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it. So this is all fine.

…and the reasons we didn’t like it really had nothing to do with Capuano. We preferred Hiroki Kuroda, of course, and a rotation that had Lilly and Capuano and Aaron Harang was far from appealing. But that’s not really Capuano’s fault, is it? That goes back to Ned Colletti & Frank McCourt, and considering merely that Capuano took a decent deal to come fill out the back of the rotation, it was hard to argue with.

Of course, we were a lot less forgiving after just a single start:

That is, of course, until the wheels completely came off for Chris Capuano. There was a story out there this winter – I don’t have the link right now, and it’s late – about how while his peripheral stats were decent enough for the Mets last year, he absolutely could not go past the fifth inning, after which his OPS against went from a mid-.700 level straight to a Pujols-on-steroids level afterwards. That came an inning earlier than usual tonight, where after breezing through four scoreless, Capuano gave up a single and three walks, leaving the bases loaded for Jamey Wright. Wright – doing Jamey Wright things, don’t you know – then proceeded to walk each of the next two on eight straight balls, forcing home two runs, before being relieved himself; Scott Elbert allowed another run on a wild pitch and yet another on an Orlando Hudson single, during which the inning mercifully came to an end when catcher Nick Hundley was thrown out attempting to score.

That turned out to be pretty premature, obviously, since Capuano was actually pretty good through the first few months of the season. After that lousy debut, he proceeded to allow just 11 earned runs over his next nine starts, and so by the end of May he was 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA. For once, I’m going to skip the “wins & losses are stupid” jokes and just acknowledge that Capuano was really good, far better than expected. It wasn’t going to last – we knew this, because there was no way it could, and here’s me on May 16 wondering just when the regression was going to come – and it couldn’t last, but it barely even mattered at the time. Capuano was a back-end starter who was there basically to fill out the rotation, and here he was pitching like an All-Star.

For example, May 21:

To merely focus on Treanor is to neglect Chris Capuano, of course, who was once again excellent in allowing just one run and five baserunners over six scoreless innings. There was some well-founded worry that he’d come back to earth once he was forced out of Dodger Stadium & Petco Park, and that may yet be the case since he’s outpitching his FIP by more than a run, but he was outstanding tonight and really has been all season. At 6-1, 2.25, it’s not entirely impossible to see him becoming an under-the-radar All-Star candidate, since that’s the sort of superficial stat line that makes a guy like Tony LaRussa quiver.

While we waited on that regression to come, Capuano still had some magic left, because in his next start he struck out eight Astros over eight one-run innings. He then ran into trouble in back-to-back starts in Colorado & Philadelphia, allowing eight earned runs (and four homers!) between the two stops, but for the moment, that was a blip, since he followed that by allowing just four earned runs over his next three starts, including striking out 12 White Sox on June 17.

By the end of June, none of us were saying anything other than that the signing had worked out wonderfully, though with his peripherals all lagging behind what he’d done with the Mets the previous season, there was always that feeling of “when is this going to run out?” As the holy wars around Chad Billingsley heated up while Capuano was getting some All-Star talk, I felt compelled to make this comparison on June 22:

Instead, a thought question. Heading into tonight’s game, these two Dodger starters each had 14 starts this season. Their primary pitching stats could not have been more similar:

A) 81.2 IP  3.74 FIP  3.95 xFIP 8.27 K/9 3.31 BB/9 1.1 fWAR
B) 86.1 IP  3.82 FIP  3.91 xFIP 8.34 K/9 3.23 BB/9 1.1 fWAR

That’s Billingsley in line “A”, and Capuano in line “B”, and I don’t show these stats to try to defend Billingsley’s performance tonight. (Obviously, these numbers are not going to look so similar when tonight’s mess is included.) I point them out because I find the perception gap between these two pitchers fascinating. If you were to ask a random sampling of Dodger fans how they feel about the two, I’m guessing their reactions would be phenomenally different. Regarding Capuano, you’d probably hear terms like “All-Star selection” and “best signing of the winter”; for Billingsley, of the few replies which would even be printable, you’d almost certainly hear responses like “get rid of the loser” and that “he doesn’t have any heart”.

That’s probably more about Billingsley than it is about Capuano, but I still find it fascinating. Unfortunately for Capuano, that expected regression did come, and it was (mostly) downhill from there. After allowing more than three earned runs just four times in 18 first half starts, he did so five times in only 14 second half starts. Capuano ended July by getting hit hard in losses to Arizona & St. Louis, but managed to turn in his best start of the season on August 12 in Miami, taking a no-hitter into the seventh and striking out 10 Marlins.

But that would be the last high point. Capuano gave up six runs against the Giants on August 22, and six more against the Rockies on August 28. As it became clear Billingsley wouldn’t return, Capuano’s fade became a real problem, as we noted on September 6:

Unfortunately, in the same way that Billingsley came back from a tough first half as we’d expected, Capuano is in the midst of a second-half slide. Capuano’s a notorious first-half pitcher (3.70 ERA vs 4.96 career) and it’s happening again this year, with a line of “.669 OPS against and  2.91 ERA in 18 starts before the break” turning into “.731 OPS against and  4.91 ERA in ten starts since,” a very worrisome trend.

It didn’t get better. Over his final eight starts of the season, spanning 40.2 innings, Capuano struck out just 19, an awful rate. He suffered a final indignity in the infamous Game #161 when he injured himself a few days before the game with a donut in the on-deck circle – yes, that’s a real thing that happened and could manage to go only three ineffective innings, allowing two dingers, against the Giants in the biggest game of the season.

What had started off as such a wonderful season quickly turned mediocre, as you’ll note by the 3.72 ERA & 3.95 FIP – a mark not all that different from the performance that earned him a 4.55 ERA with the Mets in 2011. That’s not to say we should think poorly of Capuano’s effort, given that he was signed to be a back-end starter and almost no one thought he’d actually stay healthy all season. While I’m fine with having him back as the #5 starter next year, by no means should his nice first half stand in the way of available pitching upgrades in any way whatsoever.

******

Next up! Hey, we actually didn’t hate Aaron Harang!

Tough Night for Don Mattingly As Dodgers Lose to Braves in 11

A few weeks ago, Russell Carleton wrote about the real-world challenges of being a big-league manager over at Baseball Prospectus. Amongst other interesting points, he presented this bullpen scenario:

It’s the ninth inning, and you’re up by one. Your top two relievers are Smith and Jones, and both are fresh and available, which is great, because you’re in the thick of a tight pennant race and need this game. Smith is generally better than Jones and usually gets the call here. But there’s a complication today. Smith has a daughter who has a chronic medical issue. He’s a private man and doesn’t discuss this with the press, because he wants to keep his family out of the limelight. (Can you blame him?) He got some bad news about his daughter earlier and has been walking around with his head down all day. You’ve seen him like this before. He’ll say he’s okay, but he can’t concentrate, and his performance suffers to the point where Jones would actually be the better pitcher tonight to nail down that lead.

It’s easy to say that you’d go with Jones in this situation. But if you do, there will be 12 reporters in your office after the game. All of them will ask why it is that you didn’t go with Smith. Is there a closer controversy? Is Smith injured? When you mumble some made-up BS about “better matchups,” they’ll go to Smith to ask him how he feels about losing his job as closer to Jones. And Smith definitely does not want to answer those questions tonight. If you tell the truth, but kindly ask the reporters to leave that out of the game story, some idiot will put it on Twitter anyway, because he… gets… to… break… a story! Because America has a right to know!

This is what I was thinking about in the eighth inning, when Ronald Belisario was allowed to face Jason Heyward with the tying run on third and two out. I’m sure there must have been a good reason why the struggling Belisario remained in the game rather than allow the deadly-on-lefties Randy Choate (who had thrown just four pitches in six days) to face Heyward, who has a massive platoon split (.973 vs .651) this season.

There must have been a reason Choate didn’t enter there, some unexplained situation that we’d never know about, some personal issue or hidden injury that was preventing his usage, because that’s the only way it’d make sense – or at least this is what I was trying to talk myself into believing when Belisario allowed Heyward to shoot a laser up the middle to tie the game. But then Choate later came on to start the tenth inning, so it seemed he’d been available all along… and so I have no idea what exactly Don Mattingly’s thought process was there. (Choate, of course, struck out a righty and allowed a hit to a lefty when he finally did get in. I hate baseball sometimes.)

Honestly, I defend Mattingly a lot, and generally I like his work, but tonight was a series of bizarre decisions by the Dodger manager. Once the game made it into extras, the Dodgers threatened in the tenth when Elian Herrera reached on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, but the opportunity was quickly lost when Shane Victorino gave up an out to bunt Herrera to second. Mark Ellis was unable to move Herrera over, and when the Braves predictably walked Matt Kemp – love it when your best hitter doesn’t get a chance to swing – Andre Ethier grounded out against lefty Eric O’Flaherty.

After Choate retired one of two Braves in the tenth, it wasn’t Kenley Jansen, who hadn’t pitched since Monday, who entered to extinguish the threat, but Brandon League, who’s been an absolute disaster as a Dodger. Michael Bourn, who had singled against Choate, stole second and advanced to third on a poor throw from Matt Treanor, followed by League striking out Martin Prado (thanks in large part to Prado, who swung at ball four and possibly ball five). Chipper Jones drove the ball solidly to center, but fortunately right at Kemp; a few feet in any direction, and the Dodgers would have lost with their worst reliever as their best one sat unused in the bullpen. And don’t we all love when that happens?

In the eleventh, League allowed runners on the corners with two outs thanks to hits from David Ross & Paul Janish. Mattingly strode to the mound to make a double-switch, bringing in A.J. Ellis for Treanor (just the second time all year both catchers have played in the same game) and his ace reliever to put out the fire with the winning run 90 feet away… Jamey Wright. Wright immediately allowed Juan Francisco to knock a single into left field for an Atlanta win; meanwhile, Jansen – who’s thrown six pitches in a week (!) as the Dodgers have generally been winning by large margins – never got a chance. Because CLOSERS GONNA CLOSE, don’t you know. And Jansen will stay up waiting all night for that save opportunity which will never come.

All of this overshadowed the positives of the game for the Dodgers, and there were several. Chris Capuano was excellent once again, striking out eight while pitching into the eighth inning, and even then the two hits he allowed in that frame were hardly well-struck. Ethier, for the first time since July 17 and only the second time in more than two months, went deep – and it was absolutely crushed. Hanley Ramirez had two more hits, continuing his productivity since joining the Dodgers. And Luis Cruz, that inexplicable, wonderful, fantastic Luis Cruz, reached base in each of the five times he was up on three hits and two walks.

Still, this was a game the Dodgers could have and perhaps should have won; with San Francisco crushing the Padres 9-0 after just three innings, it’s probably going to cost them first place, at least for a night.