GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Matt Capps seemed a little out of place in the Indians’ clubhouse at the beginning of spring training.
At 29, Capps is already a veteran closer, but the Tribe didn’t need a closer. Chris Perez has that job. How about a setup man? Vinnie Pestano does that chore.
Didn’t any other team need a guy who could save games with regularity? Why was Capps saddled with a minor-league contract? Why did he fail to latch on with a team until January? Isn’t he overqualified to be trying out for a job as a middle reliever?
This is a pitcher who saved 42 games for the Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals in 2010, when he compiled a 2.47 ERA working 73 innings. Come to think of it, maybe that was part of the problem. All those innings.
During the next two years, Capps remained the Twins’ closer, but his production dropped to 15 saves in 2011 and 14 in 2012, even though he blew only one last season. Granted, the Twins struggled to get to their closer in those two years, but they didn’t mind letting Capps walk last October.
It took so long for Capps to find a job because he spent two stints on the disabled list in 2012. But it’s not the number of times he was put on the DL, but why. His shoulder ached, and that is the reddest of red flags to teams.
An elbow injury, even one that requires surgery, can be resolved, even though a pitcher might miss a year. A shoulder injury is more problematic, though Capps didn’t need surgery.
“It was irritation in the rotator cuff,” Capps said. “Fortunately, it’s more in the muscle, and that should heal by itself, and for the most part I think it has.”
Early in camp, Capps was treated carefully, but he has been taking his regular turn on the mound, pitching one inning at a time, like the other relievers.
“I feel like my stamina has to develop and come back a little, but strengthwise, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I get tired quick, I get worn out quick, which is typical for this time of year. But this year it’s magnified.”
That’s why Capps is a big fan of the World Baseball Classic, which lengthened spring training by a week.
Capps’ shoulder began to hurt last June, and he informed the Twins immediately. After resting for a week or so, he didn’t feel any improvement. That triggered an MRI scan and a cortisone injection.
“It still didn’t respond, so they shut me down,” Capps said. “They told me it would take 90 days for the muscle to heal. It was 97 days from the end of the season until I picked up a ball again.
“I feel better than I did in September, which is positive. I’m still not 100 percent, but I feel each week that it’s better than the week before.”
Several teams had a crack at Capps before the Indians showed an interest.
“They came in later,” he said. “They weren’t one of the teams that got involved in November and December. We talked to 10-12 teams. A lot of teams asked for my medicals, but shoulders scare a lot of teams away if you’re a pitcher.
“When all was said and done, I felt like the training staff and the reputation of the medical people in Cleveland made this the best spot for me.”
Tribe officials didn’t merely ask for Capps’ medical records. They flew him to the Cleveland Clinic for another MRI.
“They looked at everything,” he said. “With their history of success, and from what I heard from other players about the medical staff, I’m happy this became an option. When it did, I jumped on it.”
Capps knows that if he makes the team, he will be pitching in middle relief. But when a pitcher is fighting for a job, aspirations of grandeur take a back seat to more mundane realities. Besides, Capps has another goal.
“I’ve done a lot of good things in my career from a personal standpoint,” he said. “But I’ve never won a championship. I want that more than anything, more than closing, more than pitching in the eighth inning.
“This is a very team-friendly deal. That being said, I’m excited to be part of this. It’s a win-win situation, so it’s cool to be here.”
Most managers post their batting order a few hours before the game, and that’s when a player learns if he’s in the lineup. Not Terry Francona.
“Before they go home the night before, they know if they’re playing the next day,” he said. “There might be a rare exception but that would be it. I never played for a manager who did that, but I think it helps.
“If a guy is mad because he’s not playing, he’s got a night (to get over it) and not carry it into the next game. I think for the most part, players appreciate it.”
Unusual, or not?
Last year, the first time Zach McAllister spent more time in the majors than in the minors, the right-hander posted a lower batting average versus left-handed batters (.243) than righties (.299).
Unusual? Maybe not.
“Sometimes, in a pitcher’s first time through the league, that happens,” Francona said. “Sometimes, it’s the pitcher having a good change-up [effective against lefties]. And of course, it’s a small sample, so you don’t know if it will continue.”
The Indians travel to Glendale today to play the Chicago White Sox. Ubaldo Jimenez will start against Andre Rienzo.