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Revisiting the Capps Trade (Again)

On July 30 of last season, Bill Smith finalized a trade that proved to be extremely controversial among Twins fans:

Washington Nationals trade RHP Matt Capps to Minnesota Twins; Minnesota Twins trade C Wilson Ramos to Washington Nationals and Fort Myers Miracle trade LHP Joe Testa to Potomac Nationals.

A day later, another trade was finalized between two different teams, to much less fan fare (and dispute):

Arizona Diamondbacks trade RHP Chad Qualls to Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa Bay Rays agree to send a Player To Be Named Later to Arizona Diamondbacks.

Like many Twins fans, I was dumbfounded by the Capps-Ramos swap, especially considering Jon Rauch's relative effectiveness at turning two and three-run ninth-inning leads into wins. I held my ire in check the day the trade was announced, however, not wanting to jump on Bill Smith too quickly for making the type of win-now moves Twins fans had been clamoring for during virtually the entirety of the Ron Gardenhire era.

That was until I saw the eventual price the Rays paid to add Qualls just 24 hours later.

Granted, at the time, Capps and Qualls looked like completely different players. Capps was closing games for the Washington Nationals, and had posted a 2.74 ERA in 46 innings. Qualls had lost his closer gig in Arizona, and was sporting an 8.29 ERA in 38 innings when he was shipped off for spare parts.

Of course, things weren't as simple as they seemed at the time. Qualls, at the time of the trade, was quite simply the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. A BABIP of .415 and a left on base percentage of 51.4% were both the worst figures in baseball at the time of the deal. His luck-independent statistics showed Qualls was actually pitching fairly effectively - his xFIP at the time of his trade was just 3.68. Capps had a 3.34 xFIP when he was dealt to the Twins.

Clearly, Capps was the better pitcher at the time of the trade. But in order to acquire him, the Twins had to give up one of the best catching prospects in baseball. The price for Qualls was PTBNL who, as it turned out, was a AA reliever who underwent Tommy John surgery in March. I remember pointing this out to my work colleague the day of the Qualls trade, suggesting the Rays would likely get 90% of Capps' production out of Qualls, at about 10% of the cost.

That prediction looked a bit foolish by the end of the season, as Capps pitched brilliantly for the Twins - posting a 2.00 ERA and netting 16 saves in 27 innings - while Qualls posted a 5.57 ERA in 21 innings as a middle-reliever for the Rays.

But, again, things weren't quite as simple as they appeared. Capps clearly remained the better pitcher, but the difference wasn't nearly as large as the divide in their ERA's suggested. By the end of the season, Capps' xFIP sat at 3.31. Qualls xFIP was 3.77.

It's certainly debatable whether the 2010 Twins should have given up an upper-echelon prospect to acquire a reliever having a great season, rather than moving a spare part to acquire a low-cost reliever with significant upside. Given where the organization sat last July, they very well may have made the right choice at the time. But, boy, does it invite some second-guessing, especially looking at what Qualls and Capps have done since the end of the 2010 season.

Qualls signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Padres during the off-season, which has looked like a pretty great deal in the early-going of 2011. Qualls' ERA is down to 2.01, and he's pounding hitters with his heavy sinker, generating ground balls at a one of the highest rates in the Majors. Granted, he gets to make half his appearances at Petco, but even on the road he's posted a sub-3.00 ERA. His xFIP on the season is a stellar 3.17.

Capps, as we know, avoided arbitration with the Twins by signing a $7.15 million contract with the team in January. That deal hasn't worked out quite as well as the Rays' deal with Qualls. Capps' strikeout rate has dipped considerably in the first couple months of the season, and, despite some good fortune from the gods of BABIP, he's still posting an ERA of 4.33. His xFIP is slightly better, and sits at 3.74.

Now imagine a scenario where the Twins had shipped an organizational reliever to the Diamondbacks for Qualls last July - rather than moving Ramos for Capps - and then re-signed him for a one-year deal this past off-season. Obviously this would have been a hit for last season's stretch-run (but by no means would have kept the team out of the playoffs.) However, it would have left us with more depth at the catcher position - a key weakness during Mauer's prolonged absence this season - as well as nearly $6 million in payroll we could have spent in the off-season, either to keep someone like JJ Hardy or Jon Rauch, or put to other good uses.

To be honest, my goal here wasn't to rehash the most talked about prospect-for-reliever swap in Twins history. In fact, as I noted before, Smith went out and got the better pitcher last season, and had it paid dividends in the playoffs, there would have been no second-guessing. And, to be fair, there is no telling the amount of derision Bill Smith would have experienced last summers had his big deadline move been to acquire a seemingly washed-up Diamondbacks reliever. It also sounds like the Twins at least kicked the tires on Qualls this off-season, weeks before signing Capps to his $7.15 million deal.

But the difference in the price paid for Capps and Qualls had bugged me since last July, and the success of both Qualls and Wilson Ramos this season has made that difference seem even larger (in just the first couple months of the season, Ramos has already been worth nearly two wins more than Drew Butera). It's been said many times since the Capps-Ramos trade that Bill Smith overpaid for back-of-the-baseball-card stats like saves and ERA. I think that's a perfectly fair analysis, and I think it stands in stark contrast to the type of outside-the-box thinking needed for a team to target a 32-year-old reliever with a an 8.00+ ERA like Chad Qualls in 2010.

Targeting a player like Qualls last July would have been a gutsy move for Smith, to be sure. But from where we're sitting right now, it appears to be a move that would have paid big dividends for the organization.