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Dodgers Sign Capuano, Bid Farewell to Kuroda?

The Dodgers have been very busy this offseason, signing Juan Rivera, Matt Treanor, Mark Ellis and Adam Kennedy to free agent contracts. The team also negotiated a mammoth eight-year extension with centerfielder Matt Kemp. In spite of their increased activity, some questions remained around the diamond, one of which centered on the return of Hiroki Kuroda.

That question was seemingly answered on Friday when the Dodgers signed southpaw starter Chris Capuano to a two-year deal worth at least $10 million. With Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly occupying spots in the rotation, and the team interested in using rookie Nathan Eovaldi in another spot, the addition of Capuano realistically completes the rotation. Kuroda looks like the odd man out, and whether that has more to do with his contractual demands, desire to play elsewhere (the Angels or back in Japan), or retirement considerations, assessments of Capuano’s deal should factor in, to an extent, the opportunity cost of losing Kuroda.

On its own merit, Capuano’s deal is perfectly reasonable. Sure, it seems a bit excessive to guarantee a second year and offer a mutual third-year option for a pitcher who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries, but if he tallies 1.5 WAR per season he’ll out pitch the contract. Relative to Kuroda, though, that isn’t very impressive. Kuroda may have cost $10 million, but he has proven himself to be a 2.5-3 win pitcher.

His age may have factored into this supposed decision, but it’s tough to see how a 37-year old Kuroda, fresh off of two very good seasons, is riskier than a 33-year old Capuano who didn’t even pitch 70 innings in 2010.

Having said that, and having acknowledged the durability concerns in play, their rate stats are fairly similar over the last two seasons:

Kuroda: 7.2 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 74.5% LOB, 47% GB, 3.60 SIERA
Capuano: 7.9 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 73.5% LOB, 43% GB, 3.67 SIERA

Kuroda threw almost 150 more innings throughout the two-year span and racked up more wins above replacement — his FIP was a half-run better — but if the Dodgers have reason to believe Capuano can remain healthy, his peripherals aren’t too far off of Kuroda’s. If Capuano can throw 185-200 innings over 2012-13, with peripherals in that vicinity, the deal will probably work out. However, the odds are stacked against that reality coming to fruition, especially after considering Matt Swartz’s excellent research on free agents. Swartz found that free agents signing with a new team generally don’t perform as well as those kept by their previous employer. Maybe the Mets weren’t quick to re-sign Capuano given their advanced knowledge of his medical history.

Aside from the health risk, a very real performance risk exists in that Capuano excelled at home in 2011 but struggled on the road. At the friendly confines of Citi Field, Capuano posted a 3.27 FIP, which was 1.7 runs per nine innings better than his road mark of 4.96. The major factor was an inflated home run rate. At home, he posted an HR/9 of 0.89, which blew up to 1.81 on the road.

Then again, Dodgers Stadium isn’t exactly a hitters haven, and according to research by Jeffrey Gross over at The Hardball Times, it actually allows a lower rate of home runs on outfield fly balls than does Citi Field. Per Gross’s article, Dodgers Stadium was close to the bottom in this regard, while Citi Field hovered around the middle.

This isn’t to say that Capuano will simply port his splits to the new destination, but rather that he may be going to an even better home park for his skill-set. There are plenty of ‘if’s’ associated with this deal but it has the chance to benefit the Dodgers. On the other hand, signing Capuano doesn’t really move the needle in LaLa Land, which actually puts the deal right in line with the Kennedy/Ellis/Rivera signings.

It’s one thing to save money in the rotation by signing Capuano over Kuroda if the end game involves shoring up offensive and defensive deficiencies. It’s an entirely different animal when said shoring up involves that aforementioned trio. The Capuano deal probably won’t hurt the Dodgers, but their entire offseason has been questionable, and this move didn’t provide any real answers.