If there is any lingering ill will between the Pirates and Matt Capps, the closer they released late Saturday night because of a salary dispute, it was difficult to detect yesterday.
And there is cause: The team needs bullpen help even more than before, and it might take Capps back at the right price. And the player, suddenly a free agent, might find that his value on the open market is not as high as the final salary offer he rejected from the Pirates.
Thus, if neither party finds what it seeks between now and spring training ...
"We'd love to have Matt Capps back in our bullpen," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said yesterday. "We really would. We feel he's going to have a bounce-back year, and we hope, for our sake, that the market shows we were appropriate in our offer. If it shows that we were light, then Matt benefits."
"Would I rule out a return?" Capps said. "Not at all. The door's not closed, in my mind. If the Pirates end up being the best fit for us, I would come back."
Just before Major League Baseball's midnight deadline Saturday, the Pirates declined to tender a contract offer to Capps that would commit both sides to salary arbitration. In that process, hearings are conducted in February in which each side submits a salary proposal, and an independent arbitrator chooses one number or the other. A settlement can be reached at any point until the hearing.
Capps, 26, made $2.425 million this past season, one in which his numbers dipped to career lows: 4-8, 5.80 ERA and 27 saves in 32 opportunities. In talks with the Pirates, it is believed that he and agent Paul Kinzer told the team they were intent on submitting an arbitration figure in the range of $3.4 million. The Pirates offered a much smaller raise. The sides never came close.
So, Capps suddenly became a free agent, and the Pirates were left with just two relievers -- Joel Hanrahan, now the default closer, and Evan Meek -- certain to make their seven-man bullpen for 2010.
"The reality is, we've now got some money to apply to the bullpen to fill Matt's spot and elsewhere," Huntington said. "We'll continue to explore. If you're talking about the Matt Capps of '07 or '08, that would be very, very difficult to replace. He's probably not somebody we non-tender. The second half of '08 and into '09 ... it's not that hard to replace a reliever with a 5.00 or 6.00 ERA."
Huntington said his preference was to keep Capps at the team's perceived value of his services, not the salary he might be awarded through arbitration.
"Once you tender a player, it's really a no-lose situation for the player. Even if he loses, he's going to get a substantial raise. We didn't feel like going through the process with Matt was a good decision for us."
Huntington added his view that Capps "felt like it was better for him to become a free agent than to accept our offer. He feels like he's going to get that much, if not more, as a free agent. They might be right, and they might be wrong. We feel like we can take that money and apply it elsewhere and do as well as we expected Matt to do. And, again, we might be right, and we might be wrong."
In most of Huntington's trades, he sent away players at peak value -- Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and others -- and, as a result, received what the Pirates saw as promising returns. In this case, Capps was sent away at his lowest possible value and, of course, with no return.
Why not trade Capps?
"All trade value disappeared when there was a media report of a non-tender," Huntington said.
The Post-Gazette reported Tuesday that, according to two sources, the Pirates were threatening to non-tender Capps. Generally, such reports discourage potential trade suitors, who then choose to wait until after the tender deadline to see if the player can be had as a free agent.
Still, the Pirates also could have traded Capps well before the deadline, given that they surely had internal evaluations on him before the past week or so.
Why not trade him beforehand?
"We were working on it," Huntington replied to that question, "and we had multiple conversations that disappeared when the media report came out."
Huntington did not dispute the report but, rather, expressed dismay that the information reached the newspaper.
Huntington had said twice last week at the Winter Meetings that his intention, at that time, was to tender all of the Pirates' arbitration-eligible players, but he included a disclaimer with each answer, including "barring unforeseen circumstances." That was because he was aware at the time that he wanted Capps' price to come down.
Capps did not sound blind sided by the development.
"I just had a gut feeling about it, even after I read about Huntington saying he was going to tender me," Capps said. "Well, not so much the non-tender. I thought they would try to sign me real quick, then trade me away."
Capps responded emphatically when asked if he and his agent willfully sought an excessive salary in hopes of getting the Pirates to non-tender him.
"Oh, God, no. I love Pittsburgh. Realistically, I probably knew I wasn't going to finish my career there. But I wanted to be there. I want to be there now. But, you know, I don't think I fit anymore into their plans as to what they're trying to do. And that's fine. I'm OK with that."
One of Capps' teammates, catcher Ryan Doumit, apparently was not.
"I was shocked," Doumit said of his immediate reaction. "This is a guy who's been a workhorse for us, and he's been a good one, a very reliable one. You look at what he did before last year, and he was one of the best around."
In 2007-08, Capps had ERAs of 2.28 and 3.02 and a total of 39 saves in 46 opportunities.
"Even last year, when things weren't going well, he came in and did his job without fear," Doumit continued. "Losing Matt, in my mind, is going to hurt us. We're going to be a lesser team going into spring training without Matt Capps. But I wish him the best, and I hope he doesn't end up in the National League Central because I don't want to face him."
"I wish Matt the best," starter Paul Maholm said. "He was an unbelievable teammate and good friend. I hope he finds himself a good situation."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .