If you're like me, and I know I am, you love hard-tossing lefties. White Sox GM Kenny Williams confirmed yesterday that the team's top prospect, 21-year-old Chris Sale, will pitch out of the bullpen in 2011. Sale, who was Chicago's top pick (13th overall) in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft (and the first player from that draft class to reach the majors), posted a sterling 1.93 ERA in 21 appearances last fall.
In a similar story, the Reds have made the decision that Aroldis Chapman will light up radar guns in a relief role in 2011. Chapman is the top LHP prospect in the world, featuring a fastball that famously reached 105 mph last season, along with an electrifying slider. He started last season in the rotation at AAA Louisville, but made his major-league debut at the end of August out of the bullpen.
As of this moment, it appears likely that both Sale and Chapman will be the primary setup guy for their respective teams. The question is: Should both these guys be in the starting rotation?
Let's get this out of the way first: There is no reliever alive -- even a flame-throwing lefty -- that is as valuable as a top starter. Both Chicago and Cincinnati insist that the long-term plan is for each player to be groomed as a starter. It's fair, then, to be perplexed at the decision to eliminate Sale and Chapman from rotation contention before the competition even heats up.
A closer look reveals two completely different situations. The White Sox are hoping against hope that Jake Peavy will be healthy enough to take the fifth spot in their rotation. Peavy threw "nice and easy" in the bullpen Thursday, but no one ever went broke betting against Peavy's health. If Peavy's not ready ... well, as usual, you can't do much better than just quoting manager Ozzie Guillen:
As for a replacement starter if Peavy’s blip is worse than expected, Ozzie said a few pitchers were discussed in a meeting Thursday morning but he “can’t remember their names.”
Brilliant. So Ozzie can't remember the names of the pitchers who may be in the rotation (Phil Humber, Charlie Leesman and Lucas Harrell appear to be the likely candidates), but we know it won't be Sale. Period.
Cincinnati is facing an almost opposite situation entirely; the Reds have too many quality starting pitchers. Look at the list of potential starters in 2011: Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, Mike Leake, Dontrelle Willis. OK, maybe not Willis. Stop beating your heads on the wall, Reds fans.
Anyway, that's six average-to-good starters before the name Aroldis Chapman is ever uttered. Certainly, Chapman has the potential to be the best of the bunch -- by far -- but the Reds have more difficult decisions to make than do the ChiSox in this area. With Dusty Baker having a say in those decisions, however, things are always going to be interesting:
“He has No. 1 starter stuff. But he has, like I said, No. 1 bullpen stuff, too,” Baker said to laughter.
“We have seen guys go back and forth, but we wanted to keep him hopefully in one area versus, you know, back and forth. Because with a guy throwing that hard, I mean, is he more valuable to us every fifth day or, you know, every other day so to speak?”
The Reds maintain that Aroldis will be in the rotation eventually, but Dusty's quote above should make you squirm: Is Chapman more valuable to us every fifth day or every other day? He could be a No. 1 starter and a No. 1 bullpen guy. Here’s the answer: If Chapman or Sale have the ability to be a No. 1 starter, you don’t have to ask any more questions. Your choice is made. Placing a pitcher with this kind of talent in the bullpen permanently is a horrific waste of an asset.
Both Sale and Chapman are young and relatively inexperienced, and pitching out of the pen could have the benefit of keeping their workload down. It remains to be seen whether it aids in each pitcher's long-term development.