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Gonzalez shrugs off rumors

| Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez hears the trade rumors. He doesn't dwell on them.

Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is July 31, and at least one person -- ESPN analyst and former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips -- continues to mention Gonzalez in trade talk.

"You know what, man• It's not even a big deal," Gonzalez said before Tuesday's game against the Colorado Rockies. "From what all the guys have told me, they've been getting traded for the last three years (near) the trade deadline. ... Wherever I'm at, I'm going to do what I do."

What the 28-year-old Gonzalez has done so far this season, his first as a full-time closer, is convert all 14 of his save opportunities. Whether another team would want him in that role or as a set-up man (left-handers were hitting just .206 against him before last night's game) is uncertain.

Gonzalez said he'd "like to think" the Pirates consider him their long-term answer as a closer. If not, his eventual successor could well be rookie right-hander Matt Capps, who earned his first major-league save with a 1-2-3 ninth inning Monday in a 3-1 victory over Colorado. Gonzalez was available to pitch, but only in a dire situation. He was nursing what he termed a left groin injury and had pitched four innings over the previous three days. He was expected to resume the closer's role last night.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy was careful not to "jump the gun" on projecting Capps as a closer, and for good reason. Capps is only 22. It probably wouldn't be realistic -- or wise -- to thrust him into a full-time closer's role this season.

Clearly, though, Tracy believes Capps has the makings of a closer. That's mostly because Capps, who closed games for the first time in the low minors last season, specializes in throwing strikes and recording quick outs. He has walked only five batters (two intentional) in his first 51 appearances and has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.40) of any pitcher in the National League who has logged at least 50 innings.

"One thing you look at in a guy who's going to pitch the ninth inning is reliability," Tracy said. "I don't think there's any game we put him into and think he will set a stage for the opposition by putting men on base via the base on balls. He's got unbelievable command, and his pitches are getting better with each and every outing. His slider has improved. It's tighter. It has more depth to it. His changeup is still somewhat of a work in progress. But if you have a guy with that kind of command, who has three pitches he can throw for strikes, he becomes very, very tough to deal with in late-inning situations."

Capps would love to become the guy to finish games, but he doesn't have any immediate designs on the job.

"I think, ultimately, most relievers want to be in that closing role," Capps said. "It's something I would definitely like to do someday, but, right now, Gonzo's been pretty much lights-out for us in save opportunities."

The main flaw in Gonzalez's game has been his habit of issuing walks. He walked 24 batters in his first 39.2 innings this season, though he also struck out 39.

No matter who the closer is, Tracy acknowledged that closing games for a last-place team is a bit different than dropping the hammer in a pennant race.

"There's a little bit more at stake," he said. "A lot more, as a matter of fact."

Numbers Game

The stats of Pirates closer Mike Gonzalez and possible future closer Matt Capps:

Gonzalez 3-3 2.27 39.2 24 39 14-14
Capps 3-1 3.16 51.1 5 37 1-1

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