The Matt Capps non-tender represents a busted opportunity. The reasons why may be obvious to some of you, but I'm going to spell them out anyway.
The best way by far for the Pirates to get ahead of other teams is by graduating players from the minors and employing them cheaply for several years. The best way to get those players is through the draft, but this has limits. Whenever the Pirates make a cost-cutting move at the major-league level, some fan will say, "Well, they should just spend that money on the draft anyway."
That's true, to a small degree, but for the most part it's a fallacy, for reasons outlined nicely by Matt Swartz. Draft picks are cheap relative to their actual value, and that arrangement is beneficial to small-market teams like the Bucs. If the Pirates went crazy and spent $30 million on next year's draft, picking the best available player in every round, that could be a boon for them in the short term. But the next year, a team like the Yankees that uses $30 million as toilet paper might notice what the Pirates did and spend $30 million too. And the next year, the Red Sox would do it, and then every team would, and then the Bucs would be completely hopeless, because they wouldn't be able to pay for good players in the draft.
So the Pirates are in a tough situation. It is to their advantage to be among the top teams in draft spending every year, and to Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington's eternal credit, they have been among those teams in the past two years. It is not to their advantage to go completely kamikaze and start spending $30 million in each draft. Latin America works in about the same way--the talent is cheap, and that's to the Pirates' advantage. They don't want to rock the boat to much, or they'll hurt themselves in the future.
So the Pirates' abilities to improve themselves in the draft really are limited to spending about $10 million each year and relying on their scouting department. There are no such limits on the use of resources to acquire minor leaguers in trades, though, and this is where Capps comes in. If the Bucs take Capps to arbitration, no one bats an eye, and the Pirates come out ahead if he pitches well, because a young guy who can close clearly has value on the trade market. And it's important to recognize that the financial risk here is actually quite small--Capps probably would've made around $3 million in arbitration, which isn't much, and anyway his one-year arbitration contract would not have been guaranteed. So the Bucs could have taken him to Spring Training and, if things still weren't working out after some more work with Joe Kerrigan, cut Capps for a loss of only a few hundred thousand bucks' worth of termination pay.
So the Pirates are throwing away the potential that they can trade Capps for prospects in order to save a few hundred thousand bucks. That seems like a very poor tradeoff to me, and the strong interest in Capps that other teams have expressed since his non-tender seems to bear this out. Pirates fans obviously throw out this allegation way too often, but the Capps non-tender really does seem to be an example of them being cheap. The payroll is at rock-bottom, so it isn't as if they can't afford him, and they should have tendered him because of the potential reward later if he were traded. Since the amount of damage the Pirates can do in the draft is not unlimited, it's to their advantage to keep potentially tradeable players in the hope that they can augment their draft hauls with minor leaguers acquired in trades. This time, they didn't do it, and they really should have.