The Pirates, in a stunning move, did not tender a contract offer to closer Matt Capps before the midnight deadline last night for all arbitration-eligible players and, thus, allowed him to become a free agent.
The team and player had been far apart in trying to agree on a new contract, and management decided it did not want to risk the amount Capps could be awarded through an arbitrator.
The Pirates did tender an offer to starter Zach Duke, but not to reliever Phil Dumatrait. The latter was not arbitration-eligible but was released to clear space on the 40-man roster.
General manager Neal Huntington had said twice during Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings last week that, at that time, his intention was to sign all of his arbitration-eligible players. That included Capps, even though it had become known that Huntington threatened Capps and his agent, Paul Kinzer, with a non-tender if they could not agree to a contract to the team's liking.
Huntington and Kinzer had talks this weekend but, according to one source outside the Pirates, did not come close on salary.
Capps, 26, is coming off his poorest season, recording 27 saves in 32 chances in 2009, with a 5.80 ERA in 57 appearances. He made $2.425 million in the final year of his contract and, if he had gone through the arbitration process, he surely would have gotten a raise. Almost all players get raises through arbitration.
The Pirates did not wish to pay any significant raise.
"We attempted to reach agreement with both Matt and Phil prior to the deadline," Huntington said early this morning in a statement. "Each player preferred to explore free agency. We have not closed any doors but will begin immediately to explore other opportunities to improve our bullpen."
The Pirates entertained trade offers for Capps for the better part of a month, including some discussion at the Winter Meetings, but did not find a partner and, ultimately, opted to let Capps walk away for no return because they did not feel his value would match his salary.
The move represents a significant risk for the Pirates, who already were seeking relief help and now are nearly barren in the bullpen. Of the seven spots they have to fill, only Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek are locks.
Moreover, it represents a stark departure from Huntington's methodology of trading experienced players at their highest value -- as was the case with Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and others -- in hopes of the highest return. Capps' career is at a low point and, because he was released rather than traded, obviously, there will be no return.
Hanrahan, who closed for the Washington Nationals before being acquired in June, becomes the Pirates' default closer. He had a 1.72 ERA in 33 appearances after the trade but never closed.
In Capps' first three seasons with the Pirates, he had ERAs of 3.79, 2.28 and 3.02. He became the closer in 2007 and had 39 saves over the next two seasons. But he also had injuries to his shoulder and elbow -- none requiring surgery -- and was openly criticized by Huntington for being out of shape in 2008.
This was Capps' second year of arbitration eligibility, meaning the Pirates could have retained his rights through the 2011 season before he could declare free agency.
Capps told the Post-Gazette earlier in the week, "I know that I'd love to be in Pittsburgh. But my passion is the game of baseball, whether that's with the Pirates or someone else."
The Pirates announced these roster moves two minutes after the midnight deadline last night. Thus, no one from either side was available for comment, aside from Huntington's statement.
On Friday night, the Pirates settled with their only other arbitration-eligible player, shortstop Ronny Cedeno, on a one-year, $1.125 million contract.
That leaves Duke as their only player still on course for arbitration. The period for eligible players to file for arbitration is Jan. 5-15, the exchange of salary figures Jan. 19, and the hearings Feb. 1-21. The parties can settle amicably at any point up to the hearing.
Duke, 26, made $2.2 million in 2009 while going 11-16 with a 4.06 ERA and making the All-Star Game.
Dumatrait, 28, had a 6.92 ERA in 15 appearances, but he was one of two left-handed relievers on the 40-man roster. That area has been a glaring need since John Grabow was traded in July. The other left-hander is Donnie Veal, but he will be groomed as a starter in the minors next year.