- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

When the Washington Nationals broke camp last spring, they did so with a shaky bullpen that included a first-time closer, one established setup man, two unproven rookies and three journeymen. Was it any surprise that group proved to be the majors’ worst relief corps and played a significant role in the Nationals’ second-straight 100-loss season?

Mike Rizzo’s overhaul of his bullpen the last six months - capped off early Thursday by the signing of free agent Matt Capps to a one-year, $3.5 million contract - has been perhaps as significant a development as anything else the general manager has accomplished since taking the job.

When the Nationals reconvene for spring training in two months, they’ll boast a completely remade relief corps. Not one of those pitchers who opened 2009 on the roster remains with the organization, each having been systematically replaced with free agents, trade acquisitions and homegrown prospects.

Capps, who recorded 66 saves over the last three seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, takes over as Washington’s new closer. He’ll be joined by setup man Brian Bruney (acquired via trade with the New York Yankees), left-handers Sean Burnett (acquired in a separate trade with the Pirates) and Eddie Guardado (another free agent signing this week), right-handers Tyler Clippard and Jason Bergmann (who emerged as top relievers during the season’s second half) and perhaps first-round draft pick Drew Storen.

What had been the Nationals’ weakest link in 2009 suddenly appears to be a potential strength in 2010.

Capps’ signing finished the overhaul. After electing not to tender a contract earlier this month to Mike MacDougal, who led the club with 20 saves after being picked up off the scrap heap in May, Washington was left searching for a replacement closer.

The Pirates, though, also nontendered Capps on Dec. 12 after the 26-year-old right-hander turned down a $3 million offer. More than a dozen clubs contacted agent Paul Kinzer, but Capps narrowed the field down to the Nationals, Chicago Cubs and New York Mets late Wednesday.

He ultimately chose Washington after 1 a.m. Thursday, agreeing to a one-year contract that guarantees $3.5 million and includes incentives based on games finished that could push the total value near $4 million. The deal won’t be official until Capps passes a physical, which is not scheduled to take place until after New Year’s Day.

Though he signed for only one year, Capps will be under the Nationals’ control for two seasons. He won’t accrue enough major league service time to become a free agent until 2012.

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