Wants versus needs: Chris Capuano

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The Mariners shouldn't sign Chris Capuano now. They should sign him right now.

I could be jumping the gun, but I believe the signing of Shin-Soo Choo is a signing to those of us on the outside that Rakuten has officially decided not to post Masahiro Tanaka.

Texas reportedly had enough money in their budget for Tanaka or Choo - not both - and Tanaka was their top priority.  If this was true, it seems odd that Texas decided to bow out only days before Rakuten is scheduled to make a public announcement.  Perhaps Choo’s agent, Scott Boras, gave the Rangers a deadline.  Or maybe Texas changed their mind.  Regardless, the free agent market for the remaining starting pitchers is about to get crazy and the Mariners need two of them.

Yes, the Mariners need to acquire more than one starting pitcher.  Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are the only two starters with guaranteed spots.  Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are virtual locks as well, but this is also where the rotation starts to get dicey.  Very few young pitchers do what Felix did during his first full season in 2006, which is grind out a 190-inning, sub-4.00 FIP campaign in his first full season in the major leagues.  No young pitcher should be expected to do that and no team should build a roster around that plan.  Depth and flexibility are vital ingredients for sustained contention over the course of a 162-game season, and the Mariners fancy themselves as contenders.  Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan is not a playoff-caliber contingency plan.  It’s a potential 5.00-FIP disaster.

Here are the 15 remaining free agent starting pitchers who threw 100+ innings last season, ranked in order of projected FIP (combined Oliver and Steamer, per FanGraphs):

Rk Name GS IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
1 A.J. Burnett 32 189 8.6 3.2 3.73 3.47
2 Matt Garza 30 174 7.9 2.6 3.54 3.55
3 Ubaldo Jimenez 31 188 8.5 3.9 4.15 3.84
4 Chris Capuano 25 150 7.0 2.5 4.08 3.99
5 Paul Maholm 17 134 5.9 2.6 4.00 4.07
6 Jason Hammel 25 151 6.6 3.1 4.10 4.10
7 Ervin Santana 32 197 7.0 2.6 3.87 4.16
8 Jerome Williams 25 150 5.9 2.6 4.20 4.23
9 Erik Bedard 17 121 7.9 4.0 4.32 4.27
10 Joe Saunders 32 185 5.3 2.7 4.46 4.33
11 Jeremy Hefner 15 116 6.2 2.6 4.32 4.34
12 Bronson Arroyo 27 185 5.3 1.8 4.15 4.39
13 Aaron Harang 25 160 6.5 3.2 4.65 4.60
14 Barry Zito 32 161 5.7 3.5 4.87 4.87
15 Jason Marquis 66 5.5 3.7 4.99 5.39

The Mariners have options.  The Domestic Three, as they have been referred to, have their drawbacks.  Ervin Santana lacks the consistent track record to back up his 2013 performance.  Ubaldo Jimenez lost his mechanics a season ago.  Matt Garza has averaged 129 innings the last two seasons because of injuries.  Sometimes they look like aces.  Sometimes they look like Aaron Harang.  Regardless, the Mariners will probably make a serious push to sign one of them, and one is all they can realistically afford.

That is the pitcher they want, so let’s look at the pitcher they need: Chris Capuano.

Of course, there is more to a starting pitcher than projected FIP.  For Capuano, the strikeouts dropped last season but so did the walks, culminating in the second-best K/BB ratio of his career.  Capuano also posted career-best GB%, FB%, HR/FB and FIP and the highest average fastball velocity of his career even after you remove his relief appearances.  While he has never been a flame thrower, it is rare for a starting pitcher to add velocity in his 30’s, something Capuano has done in each of the past four seasons.

This is not the type of move that would prohibit future signings and the alternatives could be terrible.

Altogether it appears Capuano must have enjoyed a career year in 2013, but this is not the case for one simple reason: bad luck.  The Dodgers bullpen stranded a league-average 72.5% of inherited runners.  For Capuano, it was 68.9%.  The Dodgers starters had a 46.4% GB%, 21.7% LD% and a .289 BABIP.  Capuano had a nearly identical 46.4% GB% and 20.4% LD%, but a .334 BABIP.  One might suspect that Capuano gets hit harder than the average pitcher, but his BABIP the season before was .284.  Luck is part of baseball and in some cases it is difficult to see.  In Capuano’s case, it is not.

But the league-wide perception of Capuano is that of a swing-man entering his age-35 season after making $6 million in 2013 and doing little to increase his leverage at the negotiating table.  He only accumulated 1 WAR last season.  His ERA was nearly a half run worse than the league average for starting pitchers.  He doesn’t have an electric fastball or sexy knockout pitch.  He opened the season in the bullpen and finished there as well.  Capuano is the type of veteran pitcher who has to wait until the free agent market is whittled down before finding an opportunity at the back end of a rotation somewhere.  Anywhere.  The Mariners should not sign Capuano now.  They should sign Capuano right freaking now.

I have no idea what Capuano is looking for, but he has never been shy about his desire to start and the Mariners, as of today, appear to have multiple openings at the back of the rotation.  I imagine a 2-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 million per year with incentives and an apparent spot in the rotation would pique his interest.  If he costs a little more than that, no problem.  This is not the type of move that would prohibit future signings and the alternatives to Capuano, should the Mariners wait, could be terrible.

Here is why the timing of this deal is critical.  A month from now, the Mariners rotation could be filled with starting pitchers.  If that happens after the Mariners sign Capuano, no problem, they simply hand him the long-relief and emergency Loogy role until he is needed in the rotation.  However, if the Mariners approach the unsigned Capuano AFTER those rotation spots are filled, this would probably motivate Capuano to look elsewhere, a catastrophic result if a plan-C left-handed starter like Clayton Richard is the best remaining option.  As I said before, the key is to sign Capuano right freaking now.

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