Spring Training: Grabow, Capps eager to take reins
Share with others:
BRADENTON, Fla. -- John Grabow is anything but the vocal-leader type. In his four years in the Pirates' bullpen, he has been among the quietest players on the roster. All baseball, all the time. Little nonsense or banter.
Matt Capps is not nearly as intense, laid-back and laughing most of the time. But he, too, hardly fits the leader mold.
And yet, these two will be required to take the reins of a relief corps that might be the least experienced in the National League this season.
What's more, they apparently are instigating the process.
"We're going to take it upon ourselves to make it work," Grabow said. "We're going to be the leaders. We have to be."
The two spoke about this over the offseason, having read about how the bullpen might shape up -- there are four vacancies in this camp, and most will be filled by younger pitchers -- and having been roiled by things they witnessed the past couple years: Pitchers who declined to take the ball when their number was called, citing phantom injuries and ailments. Others who prioritized personal statistics above the team.
Now, as Grabow and Capps see it, the time is theirs.
"Seems strange to say. I've got two years and two weeks in the bigs," Capps said. "But I think it will be exciting. I want guys to come to me and ask questions, just like I did with older guys. I think it will be fun."
"It will be new," Grabow said. "I always felt, as a young guy, you've got to know your place. I didn't say a whole lot. I just kept quiet and did my job. But now, this is my fifth year, and I feel I can speak up."
Grabow put his arm where his mouth is yesterday: In his first bullpen session, he was scowling, sweating and throwing so hard that, at one point, catcher Ronny Paulino raised his arms to motion him to settle down.
"Hey, I'm ready to go," Grabow would explain later with a shrug.
Baseball's bullpen culture stresses two elements above all:
One, take the ball. The more appearances a reliever makes, the greater the respect factor among his peers. Grabow has made 68, 63, 72 and 63 in his four seasons, the latter coming despite gnawing pain from elbow chips. And Capps' 161 appearances rank fourth in the majors over the past two seasons.
Two, clean up a teammate's mess when he falters. Capps, as closer, almost always enters at the start of an inning. But Grabow has been among the best in baseball at stranding inherited runners.
"Our message is this: Be ready to pitch 70 games, and stick together," Grabow said. "It's a mini-family down there. As long as you know everyone's got everyone's backs, you can make good things happen."
The best way to make such intangibles matter, of course, is to pitch well. There, too, Grabow and Capps will be pivotal.
Grabow probably will be the Pirates' setup man. Damaso Marte, another left-hander and the only other lock to make the team, also could see such duty. But Grabow's biting changeup allows him to be more effective than Marte against right-handed batters and, thus, more capable of pitching a full inning.
"I'll do whatever they ask," Grabow said. "If that means one batter or multiple innings, I'll be out there."
The key will be his health. His elbow was checked after the season by Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Los Angeles Angels' team physician, and no surgery was recommended. Instead, he engaged in a program to strengthen the arm's muscles around the elbow and, in the process, firmed up all over.
"I feel great," Grabow said.
Capps' priority this spring, coming off a promising first year as closer with 18 saves in 20 chances, is to expand his repertoire.
His strength has been exceptional command of a hard fastball, and he began tinkering with a slider late last season, albeit with widely varying results. That pitch will continue to be in the mix. But the one he and management now are targeting is the changeup, a pitch he threw early in his professional career and abandoned entirely when he went to the bullpen.
"It used to be my best pitch, believe it or not," Capps said. "And I'm still very comfortable throwing it. It's not just a pitch that goes away from you. But I'll need to do a lot more of it in spring training."
The challenge for the Pirates is to pick from dozens of candidates someone who can get the ball to Marte, Grabow and Capps in the late innings.
"I like what I see here," Capps said. "We'll get the people we need. I truly believe that."
"There's always a wild card," Grabow said. "There might be two or three guys come out of this pen where you'll say at the end of year, 'Where'd he come from?' And it's part of our job as older guys to speed the learning curve for that to happen. That way, they're not out there panicking when the phone rings or out on the mound spraying the ball. Our job is to keep them thinking about the right things."
First Published February 17, 2008 12:00 am