Aroldis Chapman may have the fastest arm in the majors, but the Cincinnati Reds may not even keep him there this season. With the revelation that Chapman would begin the transition to starter this offseason, the question arises of whether this is a good idea.
When Cincinnati signed Chapman out of nowhere in 2010, it was expected that the Cuban fireballer would spend a short amount of time in the minors before he would start in the majors. Chapman had pitched for the Cuban team as a starter and was considered nearly ready for a rotation spot.
Instead, by mid-June Chapman was moved to reliever at AAA-Louisville where he stayed until September call-ups. After being called up he pitched in parts of 15 games in relief, including two appearances in the playoffs against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Chapman pitched effectively in this limited time, with a 2.03 ERA and four holds. He gave up only five walks compared to 19 strikeouts.
Following the season, it was announced that Chapman would go to camp as a starting pitcher, but after only a brief stint it was decided he would enter the season as a reliever on the active roster.
2011 would prove to be a revealing season for Chapman, as injuries proved he couldn't consistently throw over 100 mph without quickly tiring out or straining his arm. Chapman spent an extended period of time on the disabled list in May and June with arm issues as a result.
Altogether Chapman had a good season, posting a 4-1 record with a 3.60 ERA in 50 innings of relief. He posted an impressive .147 opponents' batting average and 12.78 K/9 rate with 13 holds and two blown saves.
Even with Chapman blowing away hitters, he still had a WHIP of 1.30 due to a high walk rate. In fact, Chapman had the highest walk rate of any pitcher in the major leagues with at least 50 innings pitched at 7.38.
Such a high walk rate may lower over time, but even with some work will still translate into a major problem for a starting pitcher.
In 2011, Chapman averaged 17.56 pitches per inning according to FanGraphs. Translated into an average start, this would mean Chapman had already thrown on average over 100 pitches before completing six innings.
Cincinnati has a need at the back end of the bullpen following the 2012 season, with new closer Ryan Madson possibly too expensive to retain for further seasons. Sean Marshall could step into the closer role in 2013, but this would leave a gap in the bullpen where Marshall was the setup man.
Signed affordably through 2014 with a $5 million player option for 2015, Chapman could fill either role for the duration of his contract as either a pricey setup man or affordable closer.
Manager Dusty Baker has indicated that although the team is going forward with Chapman as a starter even after being shut down in winter ball, they could quickly revert back to the reliever mentality.
As such, stats guru Bill James predicts that Chapman will return to the bullpen after failing as a starter during spring training. His prediction includes Chapman having a 3-3 record with a 3.38 ERA in only slightly more innings than in 2011.
Chapman will start spring training as a starting pitcher, but it is yet to see whether Cincinnati will quickly move him back to reliever if it becomes clear he will not make the team out of camp.
Either Chapman will begin the season at Louisville as a starter or make an impact in the majors as part of one of the best reliever corps in the league.
Either way, Chapman's future as a major league pitcher will likely still remain in question even after the 2012 season.