June 30, 2009. DC GM Mike Rizzo trades a disappointing Lastings Milledge and a faltering Joel Hanrahan to Pittsburgh in return for Pirates' outfielder Nyjer Morgan and left-handed reliever Sean Burnett. December 13, 2009. The Pirates decide to non-tender right-hander Matt Capps, fearing his salary in arbitration might be more than they're willing to pay. December 24, 2009. The Washington Nationals and Capps agree on a 1-year/$3.5 million dollar deal. The Pirates and Nationals are two teams that have struggled through one rebuilding plan after another with little success on either side recently. I thought it might be interesting to get the Pirates' perspective on the players who have changed sides in the last year, so I asked Charlie Wilmoth from the SB Nation's Pirates blog, Bucs Dugout, if he'd be willing to answer a few questions about which franchise has done a better job of building their organization for the future...
Federal Baseball (FB): Do you think the Pirates should have tendered a contract to Matt Capps?
Bucs Dugout (BD): Yes. He might not have been worth $3.5 million or so to them as a player, but if he bounced back they might have gotten something nice for him in a trade.
(FB): I've read that Capps' fastball seemed to flatten out and his change was less effective last season, was that the reason, or was there another explanation for his struggles in 2009 and the Pirates' decision to non-tender him?
(BD): The Pirates' management has repeatedly emphasized the concept of "internal value" in making decisions about players, and Capps was likely to get a bit more in arbitration than the value the Pirates placed on him. Obviously, if the Pirates thought Capps would pitch like he did in 2008 or 2007, offering him a contract would be a no-brainer, and they would have a player who would be quite valuable on the trade market. So they clearly believed he wouldn't return to his previously high levels of performance. I'm not sure why they believe that, but they may well be right. Capps confused me a little this season. It wasn't a situation where he was obviously hurt; he was still throwing very hard. His changeups came in a little bit faster in 2009 than they did in 2008, and I've seen some speculation that the decreased difference in velocity between his heater and his change may have allowed hitters to time his pitches.
(FB): The Pirates are rumored to be searching for a free agent closer, if they fail to sign one do you have any faith in Joel Hanrahan based on what you saw last season?
(BD): I have no illusions of Hanrahan being Mariano Rivera, but I like him a lot and I think the Pirates did well to buy low on him--in Washington, he was getting crushed by bad luck and by the Nats' subpar defense. His stuff is ferocious and he strikes batters out, and when he came to Pittsburgh his luck immediately took a turn for the better. I'm not absolutely certain he'd be successful as a closer, but I think there's a fair amount of upside there.
(FB): There were questions about Capps' conditioning in the past, is that something he's gained control of, or is it still a concern?
(BD): You'd have to ask him. He still looks like a giant lump of Play Doh, but then he also looked that way when he was pitching well.
(FB): Capps, Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett vs Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan, who's gotten the best of the player exchanges between Washington and Pittsburgh?
(BD): Well, I don't agree with the way the Pirates handled Capps--the odds are probably against him recovering, but given the attention "closers" get on the trade market, I think it would have been well worth a few million bucks to keep him around for a few more months in case he came back strong. So the Nationals come out ahead there.
I will, however, take Milledge and Hanrahan every day and twice on Sunday. Morgan earned some respect from me for tightening up his defense last year; previously, he was getting by purely on speed, running terrible routes and making frequent mistakes. But he still has no power at all, and those sorts of players don't maintain their value in the years when they don't hit .320. That's who he's going to be for his entire career, because there's zero chance of him ever hitting home runs. He's Willy Taveras, basically, and I really like him on a personal level, so I hope he proves me wrong. Burnett, for me, is a totally generic lefty reliever.
Milledge is exactly the sort of player a team like the Pirates should be taking chances on--relatively young and extremely talented. He's also been a model citizen since coming to Pittsburgh, hustling through meaningless games and working hard on his defense. The Nationals, if all goes well, get a couple of role players. The Pirates could get something much better than that. Given that the Pirates are playing for the future right now, that sounds good to me.