Monday, April 2, 2012

Aroldis Chapman: Starter or Reliever?

By: Scott Eddy
Staff Writer

As Opening Day approaches and final roster cuts loom, the attention of Reds Nation mostly rests on the battle for the fifth spot in the rotation and more notably, what the team will do with Aroldis Chapman. It marks a defining moment in Chapman’s young career, as the Reds decide whether to take the leap and send their headline attraction to the rotation or back to the bullpen in the wake of Ryan Madson’s season-ending injury.

In essence the Reds have come to a fork in the road with the Cuban Missile. With the amount of hype surrounding Chapman since his defection from his homeland and surprise signing with Cincinnati two winters ago, it is sometimes hard to remember he’s still just 24. Chapman hasn’t reached his peak seasons yet – but one can’t help but wonder if he’s returned to the bullpen now if Cincinnati might be missing out on its best opportunity to turn the lefty into the ace they thought they were getting to begin with.

In an ideal world, Madson and Nick Masset would be healthy; giving the Reds the lockdown ‘pen they envisioned entering camp. In that perfect world, Chapman would be allowed to start the year at Triple-A Louisville to be stretched out as a starter without issue.

Unfortunately, it has been a bumpy spring in the pitching department for the Reds. Madson is gone and Masset is sidelined with an injury of his own.

And so, with the calendar turning to April, the Reds are left with a potentially season-turning and perhaps career-defining decision to make.

Chapman logged 118 IP
in 2008-09 for the
Holguin Sabuesos

The organization is undoubtedly tempted to send Chapman to the backend of a ‘pen that has sprung a leak over the past two weeks. That move, though, would be a huge mistake. The team needs to make the best decision for itself – and for Chapman – in the long run and send him to AAA to stretch out as a full-time starter. It might not be the best public relations move, but it is the best baseball move.

The bullpen will be fine without Chapman.

The rotation will be too; at least to start the season. There simply isn’t room for Chapman in the rotation at the break of camp – essentially the only two guys he could bump are Homer Bailey or Mike Leake. Regardless of how you feel about Bronson Arroyo, he’s going to be taking the ball every fifth day for the foreseeable future, so forget that solution. While Chapman has tantalized us with 17 excellent innings this spring, is that really enough to risk the development of Bailey in what’s likely a make-or-break season with the club, or send Leake down because he’s the only remaining guy with options? Either of those decisions would be the type of rash moves the Reds don’t have to make.

Chapman hasn’t been given a true opportunity to work as a starter since coming stateside. Since signing with the Reds, he’s made just 16 professional starts – 13 with Louisville in 2010 and three more in the minors last year. That A) isn’t a big enough sample size to give him the job now over their other options and B) is greatly risking his future ability to be a full-time starting pitcher. If the team is serious about making him one, as they should be, now is the time to jump in with both feet and not look back. Sending him back to the bullpen only resets the clock. If he is to start the year as a reliever, he’ll most likely spend the entire campaign in the ‘pen, another season gone without working as a starter.

The Cuban Missile has been lighting
up radar guns the past two seasons

In terms of the pen, the Reds still have two of the best left-handers in baseball in Bill Bray and Sean Marshall. Both are lights out against lefties, diminishing the need for Chapman the reliever.

Bray has fought to get healthy this spring, limited to only three innings, making his first appearance on March 26 after dealing with a groin injury. Still, he says he’s 100 percent and has pitched scoreless frames in all three of his Cactus League outings through Saturday.

As for Marshall, about that perception that some have about his supposed inability to be a closer – yes, the ninth inning numbers don’t mirror his stellar numbers while pitching in the seventh and eighth – but, his ninth inning sample size is much smaller (34.1 innings) and isn’t awful either (3.67 ERA). He’s made a name for himself as one of the top three setup men in baseball over the past two seasons and should project to post similar results if given a new role as the closer.

The setup situation is in capable hands. Aside from Bray, Jose Arredondo should be able to take the next step in his second year back from Tommy John surgery after a solid year last season. He should pitch in high leverage situations, and could well return to the dominant form he had pre-injury in 2008. Logan Ondrusek has been in midseason form (2-0, 1.74 in 10.1 innings) this spring.

With those guys, the back end of the ‘pen is set. Then there’s Sam LeCure, who seemed to find his niche last year as a reliever (2-0, 3.32 in 57 innings), as a perfect middle reliever who can pitch in multiple innings.

The Reds could be fine starting the year with 11 pitchers, sending veteran Jeff Francis to the bullpen. While Francis has never worked as a reliever, his seven innings of two-run ball Saturday against San Francisco on Saturday show his ability to help the team. The club also has the option of picking up a Mike Gonzalez or another player from a pool of relievers who don’t make the final cut for another team if they want a 12th man. Masset by all accounts won’t be on the shelf for an extended period of time.

It’s time to stop stunting the growth of Aroldis Chapman the starter. Cincinnati didn’t pay him $30 million to be a setup man. The Reds will need another starter before long – like every other team in baseball – and when that time comes hopefully Chapman will have proven his worth in Louisville. But he needs the time to work on the transition in the minors first. If the Reds ever plan on him pitching 200 innings as a top-flight starter, the time is now to make the right call.

Be sure to give Scott a follow on Twitter (@scotte97).

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