The Cincinnati Reds are considering moving last year’s closer, Aroldis Chapman, to the starting rotation this season. With less than three weeks left in spring training, the team hasn’t yet made a decision, but that didn’t stop the pitcher from telling the team he wants to close.
According to CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler, Chapman made it clear Saturday that if the choice was his, he would rather close. When asked about his preference, the pitcher stated unequivocally, “I would like to be a closer, but that's not in my hands.”
The 25-year-old left-hander from Cuba has one of the most electric arms in baseball.
Last year was his first year closing in the majors, and he was an immediate success. He appeared in 68 games and went 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA and 38 saves. Most impressive were his 122 strikeouts in 71.2 innings, which translated to 44.2 percent of all batters he faced going down by way of the whiff.
During his career, Chapman has appeared in 137 games, all in relief, and gone a combined 11-8 with a 2.33 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 135 innings.
His success has come largely from his big fastball, which was regularly clocked at 100 mph or better.
Hoping to capitalize on his ability, the Reds entered spring training with Chapman competing for a spot in their starting rotation.
He’s made three appearances (two starts) this spring with mixed results. He has allowed just two runs in eight innings, but Knobler noted that his fastball has been sitting in the low- to mid-90s. That speed is still excellent, but a far cry from the 98 mph the pitch averaged in 2012, according to FanGraphs.com.
The Reds have received criticism for their decision to tinker with Chapman’s role. An anonymous rival scout told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that, “I hope they do start him, but they’re crazy if they do. It’s Joba Chamberlain all over again… No question in my mind, he’s the closer.”
Chapman lasted four innings and allowed one run in his most recent start, a 7-6 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday. Despite the solid numbers, he struggled with his control. He explained to MLB.com’s Chris Haft that, "The issue I had was I was not commanding any of my pitches. I was just throwing too many balls, too many bad pitches."
Chapman’s preference to close is a complete reversal of what he told (translated by his trainer Tomas Vera) ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick at the start of spring training when asked about his feelings on starting:
I will prepare the same way I did last year. I would like to start a season and throw as many innings as I can, but that's up to the team. When I was in Cuba, I threw 150 innings. I will prepare myself to throw as many innings as they want me to throw.
Although his recent statement contradicts his previous stance, the comments pleased his manager Dusty Baker, who told Knobler, “We're going to do what's best for the organization, for the team and for him. But it makes it a lot easier if you get the person's blessing. I'm happy he finally expressed something."
If Chapman opens the season as a starter, the Reds closer will likely be big right-hander Jonathan Broxton, who re-signed with the team on a three-year free-agent contract this past offseason. He would shift to a setup role if Chapman returned to the bullpen.
The Reds are expected to make a decision soon, but that can’t come fast enough for Baker, who shared his thoughts about the situation with the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay:
I’d like to decide soon and get my team together. I don’t like having guys in the middle. That’s a bad situation when you’re in the middle of anything. An unknown. Then everybody else is in an unknown situation. That’s unfair to him or us—the situation he’s been put in. He was in that same situation last year.
I’d like to make a decision in the next week or so, so I can get my team together. The decision is not only mine, it’s ours. But I got my opinion.
Chapman’s fate is no easy decision for a team that won 97 games and the Central Division title in 2012, before losing to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. Whatever the Reds decide will have major implications on their pursuit of another playoff run.
With Chapman going on the record, all the cards are now on the table. All that remains is the Reds determining what is in the best interests of their prized lefty and those of the team, and hopefully finding a solution that will work for all involved.
Statistics via Baseball-Reference