Aroldis Chapman was smiling at the 2012 All Star Game in Kansas City; but he won't be smiling for long if the Reds leave him hanging in limbo every offseason
If you've been living under a rock for the last few years then you've luckily missed the ridiculousness regarding the role of Cuban southpaw Aroldis Chapman.
Let me catch you up with the basics according to ESPN.com. Aroldis Chapman defected from Cuba in the summer of 2009. Pro scouts watched him pitch at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and their radar guns registered most of his pitches over 100 MPH. After defecting, Chapman established residency in Andorra, which allowed him to bypass the MLB draft and sign with the team of his choice. Weeks of deliberation ensued, until ultimately Chapman and his agent, Randy Hendricks, settled on the Cincinnati Reds and signed a bargain deal for a player of Chapman's caliber: $30.25 million over 6 years.
Once he got on the field, the Reds still thought he needed some seasoning, and Chapman was sent down to the minor leagues at the start of the 2010 season. After beginning the season at Louisville as a starter, Chapman was converted to a reliever on June 23rd. Post-conversion, Chapman was practically untouchable, and it felt like the batters made contact with less pitches than the times that Chapman threw 100 MPH fastballs. Chapman's golden arm was wasted on lesser competition until his August 31st promotion.
In the Minor Leagues, Chapman started one-third of his total games (16 starts in 48 games). He put together acceptable statistics that only improved with his transition to the bullpen: 10-8, 4.14 ERA, 60 BB, 145 K, and a 1.390 WHIP in 108.2 IP.
In the Major Leagues, the Reds used Chapman exclusively from the bullpen. In 2010 and 2011, he was used as a setup man and middle reliever because the Reds had the established Francisco Cordero in the closer role. However, after the 2011 campaign, the Reds swore up they would transition Chapman into a starter after all. They even went so far as to sign former Phillies reliever Ryan Madson to close games for them, replacing the freshly departed Cordero.
Does indecisiveness regarding power pitchers role in the Majors result in their injuries?
Unfortunately, Madson was injured in Spring Training; after Tommy John surgery he was forced to sit out the entirety of his one year deal with the Reds. Sean Marshall, another left handed reliever, was named the closer; but that only lasted until May 20th, when Chapman was called on to finish the game in Marshall's stead. After his outstanding performance, Marshall was relieved of his duty and Chapman took over as the closer.
The ace of the Reds' bullpen finally was in the most prized role, even though that mean that occasionally, Marshall would be used during the most important relief moments of the ball game. Chapman ultimately rewarded skipper Dusty Baker's trust as the closer in 2012. He went 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA, 38 SV, 122 K and 23 BB in 71.2 IP. His WHIP was an anemic 0.809 and his K/BB was 5.30; he ended the season with a WAR of 3.6 and only made $2 million.
According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the Reds are looking for a closer for the upcoming 2013 season, targeting Madson, Jonathan Broxton or Joakim Soria. And, yet again, they are publicly discussing a move into the starting rotation for Aroldis Chapman.
That summary of the brief and volatile history of the American career of Aroldis Chapman indicates the problems with handling phenomenal young power pitchers. I am always hesitant to opine whether or not Chapman is better suited for the bullpen or the rotation; not because I'm a spineless author, but because frankly, it doesn't matter.
How is that true, when nearly every column indicates their preference? Surely, more innings will make him more valuable; he should start! Well, not exactly. As you can see from his minor league statistics, he hasn't exactly flourished as a starter. In terms of which role is more essential to team success between starting and relieving, don't forget that baseball god Mariano Rivera began his career as a starter; and I don't think the Yankees are upset he's their dominant closer.
Conversely, a team must be ahead in the game for their closer to pitch, so if the Reds starting pitching is ineffective or if the bullpen in front of Chapman cannot execute, leaving him in the closer role runs the team the risk of their best pitcher gathering cobwebs. Clearly, a decision must be made. And that's the point I'm trying to make: what matters is decisiveness.
Let's take a look at a few case studies from recent years concerning indecisive management. First, we have Neftali Feliz. He was a Rookie of the Year closer in 2010 saving 40 games; the Rangers promptly attempted to stretch him out in 2011 and he rewarded that decision by failing to make the rotation. After spending 2011 back in the bullpen, the Rangers again attempted to put him in the rotation heading into 2012, and after not even half a season, he blew out his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery.
Next, we have the famous case of Joba Chamberlain, who in 2007 lit up the league as Rivera's set up man. As a reward for his excellence, he was stretched out as a starter in 2008; after pitching well for most of the year, he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the rest of the season. He returned to the Yankees as a starter in 2009, but posted a much more ineffective season than he did in 2008, eventually suffering elbow tendinitis and earning another season shut down. Then, in 2010, he lost his rotation spot to Phil Hughes, went back into the bullpen again and pitched like a mediocre reliever. After beginning the 2011 campaign with a strong start, he blew out his UCL too, and required Tommy John surgery.
These two pitchers compare favorably to Chapman, not just in terms of the innings, but also in terms of their power styles. Clearly, the mistakes made by their respective teams were due to a lack of decisiveness. Every year, the debates raged: to start or to close? For whatever reason, the decision never seemed to be final. If Reds GM Walt Jocketty is smart, he will make a decision this season and stick with it.
As the 2012 offseason began, Mark Sheldon of MLB.com asked Jocketty what his plans were for Aroldis Chapman during the 2013 season:
"We haven't made a decision on Chapman as a starter or as a reliever." Jocketty said.
If you're a Reds fan, could you hear worse news?
To be honest, I hope Jocketty comes around to my line of thinking; if not, I fear we will see another senselessly tattered career and yet another broken, golden arm.