Spring training is flying right along and still there is no real proof of what the best use of Aroldis Chapman on the mound is for the Cincinnati Reds. This is the team’s biggest decision of the season and the pennant and World Series may hinge on it.
Reliever or starter, that is the question. To be what you are, or become what you might?
When Chapman defected from Cuba in 2009 and signed with the Cincinnati, everyone presumed he would become a starting pitcher, a full-time rotation man for the Reds, at least partially because he had been a starter for the Cuban national team. In this baseball era, though, there is rampant paranoia about young arms and whether they can survive the rigors of the sport without being babied.
Terrified of overworking Chapman, Cincinnati placed him in the bullpen to get some seasoning, big-league experience, and build confidence against Major League hitters. That worked out better than expected. Chapman became an all-star closer. He burned the radar gun with his fastball zipping over the plate at 100 mph every time out. He avoided allowing runs as if allergic to them. Last season, Chapman saved 38 games, finished with a 1.51 earned run average and struck out 122 batters in 71 2/3 innings.
Partly, but not solely because of Chapman, the Reds had the best bullpen in baseball in 2012. They won the National League Central Division and made the playoffs. Now they are back, not only prohibitive favorites to win the division title again, but viewed as serious contenders for the NL pennant and the World Series crown.
Dusty Baker, who is in his 60s and done everything a manger can do in the dugout except win a World Series, is getting close to retirement. Unlike most teams in baseball the Reds have enough starting pitching without Chapman. Although former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton is on hand, do you tamper with the nearly perfect bullpen, move Chapman into the rotation and make Broxton the closer? Or do you go for the gusto to win it all right now and leave Chapman where he was last season for one more year?
Broxton is not exactly Swiss cheese and he may get bored and rebellious as a setup man for the entire season. Also, while Chapman throws as fast as anyone around we aren’t sure if he has a broad enough repertoire of pitches to throw every fifth day for six months. As a starter he won’t be thrust into a game to punch out a few guys and stroll into the clubhouse. He will be out there for three hours, prepared to face at least 27 hitters.
The argument can be made that the Reds and Chapman have waited long enough to make the move to the rotation. If he was as dominating as a starter as he was as a reliever he would win 18 or so games, push someone else out of the rotation, and we would forget we ever had this conversation. But if Chapman moved into the rotation and was just so-so, a .500 pitcher, then the Reds would have weakened two areas and likely would fail to qualify for the playoffs.
Which move gives the Reds the best chance to win the title this year? I think leaving Chapman in the bullpen to scare the heck out of other teams’ lineups as they attempt to make late-inning comebacks is money in the bank. I leave Chapman in place as the closer and reach for the short-term goal.