Between the 2011 Mets and the abyss: The Chris Capuano Story

Chris Capuano. ()
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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—The crowd of 6,000-odd committed Mets fans at Digital Domain Park seemed to be at war with itself, fresh-start optimism straining to overcome the disappointment of the past few seasons. Still, as the Met hits piled up, even some hardened-veteran spectators of spring training began to buzz along the third base line.

"You know, they can really mash lefties!"

"Maybe Capuano can help them."

And the most fitting compliment for these gestating 2011 New York Mets: "This team isn't as bad as everybody says!"

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It is generally understood that the Philadelphia Phillies will finish ahead of the New York Mets this season, largely on the basis of starting pitching. With Cliff Lee joining Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in Philadelphia, the Phillies staff is built to rack up wins during the regular season and then march, or sprint, really, through the playoffs.

The Mets' starting rotation is not in that class. But it may just have gotten significantly better, thanks to a pair of budget signings: the aforementioned Chris Capuano and Chris Young. Both enjoyed significant success prior to injuries that plagued them for the past few seasons. They will combine to make a guaranteed $2.6 million in 2011—20 percent of what the lefty pitcher Oliver Perez, who was just cut from the team, will earn for doing nothing.

Capuano, in particular, could be the difference between a stronger-than-expected season and another horror show.

The hope, for the Mets, is that he will turn out to be the lefty pitcher they thought as recently as a few days ago that Oliver Perez might be, despite all his problems. One way or another, Capuano is all that stands between the Mets and reliance on a minor-league system that is free of any major league-ready pitching prospects.

The Mets couldn't afford anyone better that Capuano. Perez gave the Mets just over 112 innings of 6.80 ERA pitching, in exchange for the three years and $36 million the team committed to him prior to the 2009 season. Not only is he gone, but so is that money, which could have been spent on other pitching to replace him.

The Mets bought Capuano's services this winter with a one-year, $1.5 million contract. The deal reflects the ability of the Mets' new, no-nonsense general Manager Sandy Alderson to add upside to his roster with a minimum of commitment. Capuano is 32 years old.

His performance here on Thursday was cause for a modest sort of optimism. Few teams in baseball will have a fifth starter as talented as Capuano—a former All Star with a pair of 200+ inning seasons of above-average pitching. The big question about him is whether he can stay healthy, after having missed the entire 2008 and 2009 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery.

If nothing else, Capuano is ... steady. He will not wow anyone with raw stuff. His fastball has historically clocked in around 87 miles per hour, with a sharp-breaking slider and changeup both about 10 miles per hour slower than that. But that has been enough to fool hitters significantly; his career strikeout rate of 7.4 per nine innings seems to belong to a pitcher with a much stronger fastball.

Capuano's command, and maybe his intelligence (Phi Beta Kappa at Duke!) seem to be the keys to his success.

He looked directly into the eyes each member of the reporters' scrum as he answered questions after the game, processing every question as the answer clicked into place, running through his options in much the same way as he had before he struck Albert Pujols out in the fifth inning on a 78 mile-an-hour change-up.

Despite the fact that he'd just struck out four and walked none over five solid innings in New York's 16-3 win over the Cardinals, his responses were cautious, and self-critical.

“Felt as if I was falling behind some hitters,” he said. “Overall, it was kind of a battle, and it was good to have a game like that to try and fight through it.”

In 66 innings after his return last season for Milwaukee, Capuano struck out 7.4 per nine innings—identical to his career mark—while walking 2.9 per nine innings, a solid rate and right near his career mark of 3.0 per nine. His pitch velocities remained right around his career norms as well, and that trend has continued this spring.

This success all feels somewhat delicate, though. The threat of comeback-wrecking injury is never far away. Capuano is battling through a strained quadriceps, which has limited his running over the past week.

No doubt Alderson and Mets manager Terry Collins were holding their breath in the fourth inning as Capuano reached first base on an error. When Jose Reyes singled to right field, third-base coach Chip Hale sent Capuano from first base to third, forcing him to slide into third safely on a close play.

“When your leg's a little sore, sometimes you're hoping you don't have to test it," Capuano said after the game. "But that's always the game you're going to have to run first to third. Everything felt good there.”

The other issue for a pitcher with Capuano's repertoire is that any dip in velocity is going to create problems for him. In the fourth inning, when he gave up his two unearned runs, Capuano's fastball dropped into the 83-85 range from an average of 87-88. The Cardinals got their best swings of the day, with some loud outs limiting the damage.

The Phillies have four aces, all with a track record not only of success, but of durability. The Mets have Chris Capuano.

It could be worse.