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Finding "Baseball" Deals: Chris Capuano

After an extended hiatus thanks to a Rockies vacation from winning followed by a vacation of my own, I give you the second installment of the Baseball Deals series.  As long as the team hovers around contention for the next two weeks, I may step up the writing of these, but if things fall apart on this road trip, we'll switch gears and start discussing parts to acquire for 2008 and beyond.  Nonetheless, the hunt for starting pitching continues today with a recently familiar face in Chris Capuano.

Capuano was not even on the list of players I had planned to do, and the second player (a current young-ish Cincinnati pitcher) should be up in a few days, but a couple of things have occurred for us to at least take notice of this situation.  While the early origins of this story may have started with Friday's Game Thread, the true reason for the story comes from this story and comments at another wonderful SBN blog, Brew Crew Ball.  If you watched Friday's game and read the story, then you may think we're just wasting our time, but let's look a little further...

Capuano had been the Jeff Francis of the Brewers, a highly intelligent left hander that can pitch with power without velocity.  In his last two seasons, he's put up VORP's of over 30, with last years clearing 40.  However, this year's currently hovers below replacement level.  Should we have seen this coming?  Well, Baseball Prospectus didn't, placing their weighted mean for his '07 season nearly in line with his '05 in VORP, only because it assumes roughly 20 less innings than he had been pitching over the last two seasons.  Instead, Capuano's VORP is closer to his 10th percentile numbers.  

Often times, numbers this far below expectations represent multiple layers of bad luck, but before looking at that, is there a problem with his rates?  If we're just going year to year, there is a pretty big one in a two walk jump from last season.  After harnessing his walk numbers below 2 per 9 last year, his number is approaching 4 per 9 for this season.  I won't pretend to tell you that's fine, but he is still throwing over 62% of his pitches for strikes, almost a percentage point more than Francis.  That should tell us that he has the capacity to cut that number back down again.  This isn't a situation where he has little control, but instead likely dealing more with how he approaches certain hitters.  On a better note, the K's are up to over 7.5 per 9, keeping his K/BB around 2.  With a high K rate and average K/BB rate, he has the tools to have success once again.

Now for that luck part; Capuano has seen the balls he's allowed into play fall in for hits at an average of .334, 32 points higher than his career average.  That's some pretty hard luck in its own right, but it's probably made worse by a strand rate that has dropped 7% from his career average.  So not only are more guys reaching base, they've been scoring at a higher rate as well.  Ironically, this unluckiness could be traced to a positive trend in Capuano's GB%, up over 45%, about a 5% jump from his career average.  He's getting more balls on the ground for a defense that simply can't make the plays behind him.  Looking at admittedly dated (just by a few weeks) zone ratings, we find that the Brewers place only one infield regular in the black, with Hardy scoring a one (Tulowitzki was third in the league with 11) unless you count Fielder's score of 0.  In the other two spots, you find players in the bottom five of their respected positions (the only second baseman that scored worse than Weeks now plays centerfield).  Capuano simply lacks the infield defense to be successful with a GB approach in Milwaukee.

Last outing aside, there are several parts of Capuano that the Rockies should like.  His K rate is high and the percentage of strikes thrown suggests that he could cut some of that walk rate.  His pitches do have a lot of movement and he could continue his GB ways at Coors Field, he's limited homers to below 1 per 9, he's exceeded 200 innings in each of the last two seasons, and he's owed a bounce back from his hard luck in BABIP and LOB%.  He also has two more years of arbitration, giving the Rockies help in both 2008 and 2009.  If his rates told the story, his expected ERA (FIP) would be at 4.38, nothing fantastic, but when you're looking to elevate your rotation from a small collection of number five starters to number three starters, he could answer the call.

However, it may be difficult to find a common ground with the Brewers.  Though several fans seem ready to move him out of the rotation for Gallardo, I have yet to see where management concurs with the opinion.  Also, you can't ignore the walk rate, and if he was to lose something in the K rate, he too won't be more than a number five starter.  It's widely believed the Brewers top trade target would be relief pitching, and should the Rockies be willing, Brian Fuentes may be fair compensation for Capuano.  Both teams would be buying low on a former all star at a position of need (it also makes sense in that fans on both sides may end up feeling slighted).  If Ben Sheets proves to be in more injury trouble than previously believed, this whole discussion is mute and Capuano won't be going anywhere.

Overall, I'm not sure that the Brewers would offer Capuano at the price he's currently worth, nor would the Rockies be willing to pay the price of fair compensation.  This isn't a player for prospects deal; it would have to be a major leaguer for major leaguer deal.  This story was done more for the timeliness of the Brewers series, but Capuano bears watching nonetheless.  If the Brewers do decide to dangle him for relief help, the Rockies should at least inquire.  The upside is a rebound to number three status for the second half and the next two seasons.  The downside is that you only marginally improve over Fogg (should Capuano's luck stay unchanged) and lose a reliever in the process.  If both teams don't mind buying low in the middle of a playoff race, it could pay off for the both of them.

Special thanks again to Fan Graphs.