Spring Training: Aroldis Chapman


GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Aroldis Chapman burst through the doors of the Cincinnati Reds’ clubhouse into a bright sunny Saturday afternoon. He had an ice pack on his left shoulder and his interpreter, Reds assistant athletic trainer Tomas Vera, by his side.

Chapman was squinting ever so slightly, but that might have been the product of a hazy future rather than a high desert sky.

The 24-year-old is the focus of one of the most intriguing stories of spring training (non-Biogenesis Clinic division). The Reds are planning to move him to the starting rotation from the back end of the bullpen, where he was virtually unhittable last season, and the decision is generating lots of reaction in the baseball world in a very Joba Chamberlain-Neftali Feliz-Daniel Bard way.

General manager Walt Jocketty and pitching coach Bryan Price have endorsed the transition, under the thinking that Chapman has considerable upside as a pitcher and will ultimately be more valuable throwing 200-plus innings a year as a starter rather than 70 in the bullpen. They're convinced that's true even if 140-150 innings might be the best they can hope for this season.

Cincinnati’s marketing folks also seem cool with the arrangement, judging from the Chapman Pick 6 ticket plan that the team is pushing and the inclusion of Aroldis Chapman Bobblehead Night on the schedule May 11 versus Milwaukee.

Reds manager Dusty Baker … not so much. Conventional wisdom is that Baker preferred the old system because it was so comforting to hand the ball to Chapman in the ninth inning, watch him flirt with triple digits or surpass it and know that within a matter of minutes, he was almost certain to be shaking hands with catcher Ryan Hanigan or Devin Mesoraco.

The Reds won 97 games and a division title under the old format, and the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it crowd wonders if they’re courting bad karma by doing something overly drastic.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Reds believe it isn't a stretch to think Aroldis Chapman can thrive as a starter.
Chapman saved 38 games, averaged 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings and logged a 1.51 ERA, so he didn’t experience a lot of off days as a closer. Jonathan Broxton, his successor, made back-to-back All-Star teams with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009 and 2010 but hasn’t performed at nearly the same level since.

Baker’s demeanor in a morning bull session with reporters Saturday confirmed that Chapman’s shift to the rotation is not his favorite topic of conversation. He made it clear that: A) he’s already tired of the topic; and B) it wasn’t his call.

“This is an organizational decision,” Baker told reporters. “I’m not the whole organization. I’m the one that has to speak about it.”

While others in the organization have Chapman’s best long-term interests in mind, Baker is more inclined to focus on winning today’s game. He is like most managers in that regard, so it’s no surprise that there is some division within the Reds hierarchy over whether this is the right thing to do. If this doesn’t exactly qualify as a rift, it certainly makes for spirited debate.

One scout told ESPN.com that Chapman is a “thrower, not a pitcher," but Price and Jocketty beg to differ. They point out that Chapman was the Reds’ best starter in spring training of 2012, before a run of injuries prompted them to move him to the bullpen out of desperation.

Chapman threw his fastball 88 percent of the time as a closer, according to FanGraphs. He won’t have the luxury of blowing fastballs past hitters for five, six or seven innings, so it’s imperative that he works on his slider and splitter in spring training and incorporates them into the mix by Opening Day.

He has yet to swing a bat in the big leagues, and Chapman said he's more concerned with his bunting than his offensive contributions at this point. He will also have to spend more time working on his fielding and his pickoff move, which didn’t come into play often when he was closing games as hardly anyone reached base. But Jocketty thinks he has the physical gifts to handle the complementary demands of starting.

“He’s a great athlete," Jocketty said.

If Chapman has any misgivings or second thoughts about the move, he’s in no mood to share them. But when asked which role he would prefer if given a choice -- closer or starter -- he provided some telling insight into his frame of mind.

“If you have to choose, you choose what you’ve been successful with," he said through his interpreter. “I haven’t started in the big leagues. As a closer, it was great. If you have to choose, you choose where you’ve been great."

Lest someone think that Chapman is quietly resistant to changing job descriptions, Vera quickly set the record straight.

“You have to understand Chapman," Vera said. “He’s going to do what they tell him to do. If they tell him tomorrow to go out and take fly balls in center field, he’s going to do it. He doesn’t question. He’s a soldier. He just works. He doesn’t create controversy, because he doesn’t think that’s going to take him anywhere."

In this case, Chapman might wind up in the middle of controversy regardless of his best intentions. The success of Cincinnati's grand experiment will ultimately hinge on his performance, Broxton’s performance and the Reds’ win total.

That’s the great thing about baseball debates: They always play out on the field.

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