Amidst a blinding array of camera flashes and under the blazing heat lamp of national scrutiny, Aroldis Chapman made his Major League Baseball debut on August 31st, 2010 and did what so precious few rookie phenoms ever manage to do: knocked our socks off.
Sure enough, the Cuban defector (6'4'' and 195 pounds of legs and arms) stared down the barrel of history that night. And, as smooth and easy as his delivery, Chapman mowed down three Milwaukee Brewers like grass under a tank.
His fastball was pure electricity, topping out at an other-worldly 103.9. His slider? Knee-buckling, stomach turning, utterly un-hittable.
That night, in his first appearance as a Red, Aroldis Chapman showed the world what many scouts already knew, and what most Reds fans had hoped for ever since Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty danced a ninja-tango under the noses of the MLB powerhouses, signing Chapman at the eleventh hour to a shocking $30 million contract.
Shocking, not because he wasn’t worth it, but because a team like the Reds (small-market, in size and ideology) was willing to pay him.
Since that torrid debut, Chapman has done nothing to quell the surge of collective excitement that brought a fan-base to its feet.
Working out of the Reds bullpen, Chapman posted a 2.03 ERA and recorded 19 strikeouts in 13.1 innings in his month of service.
Even this Spring Training, a time normally reserved for tinkering, getting acclimated and working out the kinks, Chapman has been just as dominant.
As of this writing, he had surrendered just two earned runs in 11 innings of work (good for a 1.64 ERA), due in large part to his 14 K’s.
That Aroldis Chapman packs obscene natural talent into his spindly frame has never been in doubt.
However, despite Chapman’s early successes, the same debate that has blurred his legacy thus far rages on today. As an organization with low-to-middling payroll (ranked 19th in 2010 at just over $72 mil), can the Reds REALLY afford to let Chapman remain a $30 million reliever?
Indeed, this is the question that Chapman has lugged behind him like an iron ball and chain ever since he signed with Cincinnati in January 2010.
While the Reds’ front office signed the willowy lefty with every intention of grooming him for a rotation spot (all of his professional experience in Cuba was as a starter), it quickly became apparent that not only did Chapman have some cultural and mechanical fine-tuning to attend to, but that there was little room at the proverbial inn.
With incumbent starters Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey available, and youngsters Travis Wood, Mike Leake, Matt Maloney and Sam Lecure ready to make the Minors-to-Majors leap, coaxing Chapman along in a bullpen role suddenly became the most tactical move, where it was already the most prudent.
However, here we are Reds fans. Fast forward to Spring Training 2011, and Reds brass has proclaimed again that their most talented arm will spend the season in middle-relief.
Now, more than ever, it’s appropriate to revisit the “Chapman question” as we head into year two of his six in Cincinnati.
And now, more than ever, it’s time to squash any debate that may still exist about where Chapman belongs, or what his eventual role will be. He’s a STARTER, folks, plain and simple. Anyone who says otherwise is a damn fool.
There are three main arguments for keeping Chapman in the bullpen. All have their merits, yet all are equally and irrefutably flawed.
First, it is common knowledge that, until now, Chapman has performed well as a starter but has been nothing short of SPECTACULAR in relief.
That, by itself is enough to make many fans affix the "closer-in-waiting" tag directly to Chapman’s size XL cap.
It doesn’t hurt that, even with the “loss” (pshhh..smirk) of Harang and the recent injury concerns of Cueto, the Reds have more starting pitching depth than most teams see in a decade.
However, let’s get one thing straight: the difference between a good team and a GREAT team is a dominant ace (or two).
And, until Volquez or Cueto show they can point their heads in the right direction for more than a couple batters at a time—the Reds don’t have one. Unless, of course, you look to their bullpen.
Chapman has all the makings of dominant power starter. His mechanics are pristine; one fluid motion that flows seamlessly from kick, to twist, to delivery.
And, of course, he throws 103 mph effortlessly on a bad day, which means that even with one out and the bases juiced, he has the stuff to bear down and buzz-saw through two quick K’s.
That’s what you want out of your stopper; someone who has the strength, talent and poise to go six-plus filthy innings every fifth night.
Chapman fits the bill, with talent to spare.
Now, there are some that will point to Chapman’s lack of a quality third pitch as a reason he hasn’t realized his potential as a starter.
To that I say: while Chapman’s third pitch (a change-up) is still a work in progress, ask any hitter in the league if they’d rather face four average-yet-varied pitches, or Chapman’s lethal one-two punch (fastball-slider) and you’ll get the same answer every time.
You can’t let one mediocre pitch hold the man back. If anything, you make sure his two breathtaking ones propel him forward.
There are also those who will point to Chapman’s so-so numbers in Triple -A Louisville in the rotation and question his ability to start.
In 65 innings as a starter, Chapman posted a 4.11 ERA and recorded 76 strikeouts and 40 walks. In 30 innings out of the ‘pen, his ERA improved to 2.40, and he coupled 49 K’s with just 12 BB’s. Clearly, the move to the bullpen didn’t hurt.
However, keep in mind that one of the most daunting hurdles facing Chapman upon his move to the USA (as stated by Reds’ coaches, executives and Chapman himself) was the strain that such a jarring cultural shift could present.
One minute Chapman’s eating beans and rice in Cuba, and the next he’s in a strange city, listening to people speak a foreign language, and expected to eat hot dogs covered in cinnamon-chili and cheese.
While, it is true that Chapman’s numbers improved after he was removed from the rotation, it’s also true that by that point he had had months to make an extremely difficult adjustment.
It’s hard to know whether his improvements on the field were a product of his comfort in his role, or his comfort in himself.
The second argument tossed around is that, as a spindly kid throwing fastballs at the speed of light, Chapman’s health might be in jeopardy should he be exposed to extended innings of work. Well, the answer to this one is simple.
Since baseball has been a sport, there have been hard-throwing starting pitchers. And, since the dawning of America’s pastime, there have been injuries.
Without a definitive history of arm injury (and Chapman has exactly ZERO), it would be downright irresponsible to NOT put this kid in the position he grew up excelling in, the position that would be most advantageous for the team.
If, out of fear, every team preempted their young, talented arms from reaching the rotation, there would be no Tim Lincecum's, no Felix Hernandez's and no Josh Johnson’s in the game today.
Nope, instead we’d have a league full of two-inning specialists, and Roy Halladay’s 2010 Cy Young would be the last one ever awarded.
The simple fact is that, until Chapman’s magic arm shows signs of fatigue, it belongs in the rotation, where it can best be put to use.
The third and final popular argument (and possibly the most preposterous of them all) is that moving Chapman to the starting rotation would only showcase his talents once every five days, whereas his current role promises the when-will-wee-see-the-missile intrigue every night.
How should the Reds handle Chapman in 2012?
This, if we are being honest with ourselves, is a purely fan-oriented perspective, and a selfish one at that.
OF COURSE it is awesome to go to the ballpark, knowing that at any given moment the bullpen gate could swing open and the nastiest man on the planet could swagger out. (Never mind, of course, that as a set-up man Chapman would usually only be called upon in the 7th or 8th innings, when a win was obtainable; equating, roughly, AT MOST once every other night.)
And OF COURSE as fans we love knowing that, with the game tied in the later innings, we have one guy who can shut down lefties, righties, switchies and Pujolsies.
Indeed, with Chapman waiting in the wings, we all breathe a little easier.
However, pretend for a moment that it’s Game 1 of the most important series the franchise has seen in 15 years.
And instead of getting to deploy your 195-pound Weapon of Mass Destruction in a crucial 8th inning jam, pretend that opportunity never comes along because the hapless starter you tossed out there gets destroyed and by the 4th inning the game is already lost.
Unfortunately for all of us, that nightmare already played out in grisly detail last fall.
As Reds fans found out the hard way, teams like the Phillies (with a balanced lineup and top-tier starting pitching) are built for the playoffs.
The Reds, rich in budding young superstars, must immediately begin to consider that philosophy, seeing as the "built-to-win-the-season" structure clearly will take them only so far.
Step one toward that end would be cutting the Cuban Cannon loose, and seeing how far he can take you.
I’ll close with a disclaimer: for now, the Reds are playing their cards exactly right.
Just as they made the right call last season when, after struggling as he got his feet wet in America, the Reds moved Chapman to relief, they are smartly using Chapman to their 2011 advantage.
Last season, unlike any in recent memory, the Reds had a chance to actually contend—and management knew it.
So, instead of rushing their investment into dangerous waters, they let him coast through the season on the strength of his God-given talent.
For the current season, Reds’ management finds itself in a similar position, and the right decision is again clear. With a glut of options in the starting ranks, there is no reason to oust Chapman from his new-found niche.
However, no matter the outcome in 2011, it’s incumbent upon the Reds management to give Chapman every opportunity to start in 2012.
From the day this season ends, Chapman should be preparing to be an ace. Volquez, Cueto and Bailey all have immense talent—but nothing compared to Chapman.
More importantly, the Reds didn’t pay $30 million for a reliever.
While the prospect of seeing Chapman any given night will put butts in the seats at first, there is only one key to sustained financial success—winning.
Putting a muzzle on Chapman’s talent doesn’t make business sense, and it doesn’t make baseball sense.
The Cincinnati organization, the Reds fan-base and Aroldis Chapman himself deserve to see what exactly the kid is capable of.
Odds are, the Cuban Missile will blow us away.