So the Nationals traded away Matt Capps, as the Book of July Baseball Protocol would have advised them to do.
Possessing a deep bullpen full of possible replacements for the All-Star closer, who is in the middle of a career year by some metrics, the Nationals shipped Capps off at a premium to the Minnesota Twins, a team who lost its own All-Star (Joe Nathan) to Tommy John surgery in the spring and had been making do with former Nationals reliever Jon Rauch - who was dispatched in a similar sell-high move two Julys ago.
The immediate reaction in most baseball circles, including here, was that the Nationals won this deal, prying away one of the Twins' best prospects for a player who was never going to have more value to them than he did right now. And that part is true. Capps would've been due a substantial raise after the season, and the Nationals might not have been in love with giving it to him. Now the Twins can figure out what to do with him in his final year of arbitration.
But why the big fuss about Wilson Ramos, the catcher who's at the center of the trade? Well, there are quite a few reasons.
He was the second-best prospect in the Twins' system and the 58th-best in baseball, according to Baseball America's 2010 rankings. He's two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, possessing a good arm (he's thrown out 43 percent of runners this year) and some power, though it's a little underdeveloped at this point (he hit 17 homers at Single-A Fort Myers in 2008, and seven in 59 games last year across two levels).
Ramos was the Twins' best trade chip, the player they were offering the Mariners for Cliff Lee. He attracted plenty of attention when he filled in for an injured Joe Mauer in May and went 4-for-5 in his big-league debut, becoming the first Twin since Kirby Puckett to get four hits in his big-league debut and the only catcher since 1900 to do it.
The feeling among talent evaluators is that Ramos would probably be ready to play full-time in 2011. But for the Nationals, that's just fine. They got Ivan Rodriguez for two years because they were worried about Jesus Flores' health, and Rodriguez will be back in 2011. Flores continues to have a slow rehab process while he recovers from shoulder surgery, and there's no guarantee he'll ever rejoin the Nationals at full strength. Derek Norris is still at Single-A Potomac. Ramos gives them the near major-league ready player they need at the position, and it might even give them the freedom to move Norris to first base.
There's another reason the deal looks good for the Nationals, at least at the moment: It partially validates general manager Mike Rizzo's high asking price for his players.
Rizzo flipped Capps, who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals after coming off his worst year in the majors, for one of the Twins' best prospects - the one player that, according to manager Jim Riggleman, Rizzo told the Twins he would accept for Capps. He didn't give in, got market price and maximized Capps' value.
The stakes are higher with Josh Willingham, and considerably more so with Adam Dunn. It remains to be seen if the Nationals will keep one or both players, and if their shoot-the-moon philosophy amounts to an underwhelming return in a possible trade. But on the Capps deal, Rizzo stuck to his price, and got the player he wanted.
In the meantime, the decision-making process won't be as automatic at the end of games for the Nationals - Riggleman said last night the Nationals will use a group of players for the ninth inning.
"It's great to have a guy, when that guy is doing what Matt did for us," Riggleman said. "When you have Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, it's great to have that guy. But when you're managing, a little part of you feels like, 'OK, watch it now. We'll see what happens.' You're kind of done. You're not going to do anything. You watch your guy. There's not much strategy involved. It can be challenging and interesting to get those outs with a combination of guys who are striving to take on the role. You mix and match it the best you can. We'll have various people doing it."
That's the price, though, for swapping a luxury for a necessity. And in selling off a player at the height of his value, the Nationals played by baseball's July rules. It looks like they won.