When Ryan Dempster walked away, it was pretty clear what the Red Sox needed to do. Though Dempster’s salary was too high, the pitcher served an important function as swingman and rotation depth. So it was up to the Red Sox to find a replacement, and the most obvious replacement on the market was Chris Capuano. Capuano was both a starter and a reliever just last year, and with Boston, he could compete with Felix Doubront for the fifth rotation slot in camp. In short, it’s not a surprise at all that, Thursday, Capuano and the Red Sox agreed to terms, pending a physical.
What’s more of a surprise are the terms themselves. Capuano signed for one year, despite having looked for two earlier in the offseason. And his guaranteed base salary is just $2.25 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to a maximum of $5 million. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because the Red Sox just won the World Series. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because Capuano grew up in Massachusetts. But if there were substantially bigger offers out there, it stands to reason Capuano would’ve taken one of those, so it’s curious that he was available so cheap.
We’ve talked up Capuano as a bargain for so long it’s possible the wrong impression has been conveyed. No one has ever suggested that Capuano is going to be an excellent pitcher. Rather, it seems like he should be solid, yet a market never really materialized, ending up with him signing for a fraction of Willie Bloomquist‘s guarantee in the middle of February. Capuano’s never been about major upside. He just seemed and seems like a rare free agent who could offer some surplus value.
One of the stranger things: two years ago, Capuano signed for a guaranteed two years and $10 million. He was younger, but he was also less removed from his most recent Tommy John surgery, and in 2011 he’d been a more or less league-average starter. His new maximum is half of that contract, despite some market inflation, and despite Capuano having been reasonably effective for two years in Los Angeles. Though he’s now in his mid-30s, there’s no sign of decline in his repertoire. He’s coming off a very Capuano-like contact rate.
To me, it seems like the market has grown increasingly cautious about pitchers with arm-injury histories. It’s the best explanation I can come up with for why Capuano signed with the Red Sox at the cost of a utility infielder. Again, even a durable Capuano wouldn’t have signed a huge deal, but this could be at least in part a response to his pair of elbow surgeries. He’s also had shoulder surgery, and though none of this has happened since his last free-agent contract, philosophies around the marketplace might’ve changed.
Masahiro Tanaka, of course, got the biggest contract, and he hasn’t been hurt yet. Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas got four years, having been reliable types. Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza got almost identical terms, but Garza’s been the more consistent performer, Jimenez had a draft pick attached, and Garza’s deal includes a cheap year of injury protection. Tim Lincecum got a lot of money despite his inconsistency, and he’s had great health. The reliable Scott Feldman got three years. Phil Hughes got three years. Bronson Arroyo and Tim Hudson got bigger guarantees than Scott Kazmir despite being much much older.
Meanwhile, Capuano signed for very little. Ervin Santana is still available, and though we don’t know what he’ll ultimately sign for, there’s talk teams are worried about his elbow. Paul Maholm was given an even lower base than Capuano. Dan Haren had a shoulder problem, and he got one year. Josh Johnson got one year, although that much was expected. Jason Hammel got one cheap year. Going international, Suk-min Yoon signed for a cheap three years in large part because he’s coming off a shoulder issue. Previously, he was one of the best prospects in Korea. Scott Baker was given a minor-league contract. Shaun Marcum was given a minor-league contract. Erik Bedard was given a minor-league contract.
There are, of course, always a million factors. Bruce Chen has been healthier than Capuano, and the last three years, he’s posted a better ERA and a similar FIP. He’ll make just $3.25 million this season. But he’s a year older, and his xFIP has been much worse, and he seems to have the inferior raw stuff. Also, it’s a comparison of two contracts given by two teams. The Chen contract shows the Capuano contract isn’t outrageously cheap, but as Dave pointed out on Twitter, Capuano has a smaller 2014 guarantee than Edinson Volquez. It still seems like a good deal for a fifth/sixth starter who could come in handy in a variety of roles.
A market aversion to injury-proneness is almost impossible to measure, meaning changes in that aversion are also almost impossible to measure. You’d expect that pitchers with injury histories would sign for some percentage less than others, because durability is, in part, a skill. A pitcher who’s been hurt is a pitcher who’s more likely to get hurt. There are essentially two questions: (1) Is the market more cautious now than it used to be? (2) Is the market now too cautious? It seems, from here, like the market might’ve been a bit too afraid of Chris Capuano, and the Red Sox just took advantage of that. I’m open to being wrong, since teams know more about injuries than I do, but they don’t know that much, and they sure do hate to see salary on the DL.
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