Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: The Capps-Ramos trade

Wilson Ramos hit
16 home runs in 2011
for the Washington
Nationals, then
survived a kidnapping
in his native
Venezuela.
When: July 29, 2010
What: The Twins acquired relief pitcher Matt Capps from Washington for catcher Wilson Ramos and left-handed pitcher Joe Testa
Value: Capps had 13 total win shares in 2010 and 1.1 WAR during his time with the Twins that season. He was retained for 2011 and earned 7 win shares and 0.8 WAR. Ramos had 3 total win shares in 2010 and 13 more last season; he has had 2.7 WAR with Washington. Testa has not reached the majors and pitched in high A ball in 2011 at age 25.
Twins motivation: Bullpen help for the pennant push; also an eye to the 2011 bullpen.

This trade soured badly on the Twins in 2011. Capps, relied on to anchor a reconstructed bullpen, had a poor season. Ramos took over the Nationals catching job and finished fourth in the National League rookie of the year voting. Ramos' absence from the Twins system was easily noted with Joe Mauer spending much of the season on the shelf. Even the unheralded Testa put up a sub-2.00 ERA in the minors.

All of this might be forgiven had Capps played a major role in a World Series trip in 2010. But the Twins got swept out in the first round, and the closer never had a lead to protect.

The trade, to state the obvious, has not worked for the Twins. What happened?

A big part of the trade's failure may be in how the Twins (and others) viewed Ramos.

He was at the time generally considered one of Minnesota's top prospects: Major-league ready (or nearly so) at a premium position. He had some drawbacks as well. He had a history in the minors of injury. He was hitting a mere .241 in Triple A at the time of the trade. And in a brief stint with the big league team during a Mauer injury, he followed an initial flurry of base hits with a series of easy outs on breaking balls.

There had been debate (with this corner of the Internet having its say) on whether Ramos was more valuable to the Twins as a long-term backup to Joe Mauer (who was, at the time of the trade, signed for another eight seasons) or as trade bait. Ron Gardenhire during spring training briefly made a public argument for keeping Ramos on the 25-man roster. Ramos was instead optioned to Triple A, which prevented his service time clock from starting and theoretically enhanced his trade appeal.

Going into 2011, Baseball America had dropped Ramos on its prospect list from No. 58 (entering 2010) to No. 96, an indication that the consensus opinion on him around the game had soured somewhat.

The Twins, in short, sold Ramos at the low point of his value.

Matt Capps is 6-7 with 31 saves
in his time with the Twins. 
As for why the Twins traded for a closer: Joe Nathan had blown out his elbow early in spring training. Jon Rauch had filled in at least adequately in the ninth-inning role (21 saves, four blown saves) but was showing signs of deterioration. (In nine appearances in the month of July, he had just one hitless outing, and his ERA had risen from 2.40 to 3.05.) The Twins felt a need to shore up the bullpen, and once Capps came on board, Rauch seldom appeared in a game situation (two holds, one of them a one-out appearance, and a win in an extra-inning game).

The Twins also knew that Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier were all destined for free agency and were unlikely to return in 2011. Capps would not be free-agent eligible until after 2011; they were trading for him not only for immediate use, but as a bullpen cornerstone in the coming season.

It is safe to say that the trade was not viewed well by Twins-devoted bloggers at the time, and even less so now. But the Twins are doubling down on this deal. They clearly like Capps as a pitcher -- not only enough to give up Ramos for him, but enough to bring him back for 2012 after 2011 didn't go well on any level.

This series is called "Dissecting the Bill Smith era", but one of my basic precepts is that Smith did not make these moves in a vacuum.  I know of no reason to believe that he substituted his judgment over those of more established talent evaluators, particularly Terry Ryan and Mike Radcliffe.

If the Twins overvalued Capps and undervalued Ramos -- and off 2011, that appears to be the case -- it was an organizational failure.

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