- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The Cincinnati Reds made one of the most provocative moves of the Major League Baseball offseason without spending a dime or cracking the cover of a Scott Boras promotional binder. After an extensive internal debate in October, they decreed that Aroldis Chapman will move from the back end of the bullpen to the starting rotation, where they hope he will blossom into must-see viewing in installments of six innings or more.
Chapman stands 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and reached 100 mph on the radar gun a major league-high 242 times last season, according to the Bill James Handbook, so the best-case scenario calls for him to join fellow lefties CC Sabathia, David Price and Clayton Kershaw as a 200-inning workhorse and perennial Cy Young Award candidate. And if you want to really dream big, think back to a pitcher who spent two decades making left-handed hitters beg out of the lineup with stiff necks, head colds and other mystery ailments every time his turn in the rotation rolled around.
Yes, Randy Johnson.
Bryan Price, Cincinnati's pitching coach, knows it's both premature and unfair to categorize Chapman as a Latin version of the Big Unit-in-waiting. But if Chapman is going to evolve as a pitcher and reach his maximum potential, Price is convinced it will have to come in the rotation. Chapman turns 25 in late February, and if the Reds pigeonhole him as a closer now, it's going to become progressively more difficult to change his long-term career arc.
"I hear the argument, 'Why mess with something when it's gone so well?'" Price said. "I get that. We have a really good team and the window of opportunity is now, and we may be better suited to Aroldis closing rather than starting because we already have a strong five-man rotation without him. I totally understand that.
"But I also have a feeling in my heart that he's not going to be the best possible pitcher he can be until he throws enough innings to master his craft. I think this kid has untapped potential, but it won't come out until we give him an opportunity to mature as a pitcher. Does he have a chance to be one of the better starters of his generation? The longer we wait, the less chance we have of ever finding out."
The stakes are high because the 2013 Reds have designs on winning the National League Central division and making a deep run in October. Reds fans have reason to wonder if Shin-Soo Choo can play an adequate defensive center field or if Joey Votto's knee will allow him to return to MVP form, but the Chapman storyline makes for meatier give-and-take based on a classic risk-versus-reward debate: Is the potential long-term benefit of moving Chapman to the rotation worth the short-term minefields the Reds might encounter?
Chapman was otherworldly in 2012, when he ranked with Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel and Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney among the holy trinity of shutdown closers. He saved 38 games and averaged 15.32 strikeouts per nine innings, with a WHIP of 0.81. When he began popping the catcher's mitt in the bullpen, spirits immediately sank in dugouts throughout the National League.
Now the plan calls for Jonathan Broxton to slide into Chapman's old role and Sean Marshall to be the main setup man and Plan B closer. The success of the experiment depends almost as much on them as it does on Chapman.
Let the debate begin
The closer role has become so mythologized in recent years and is considered so integral to the success of contending teams, you don't have to look hard to find a scout or competing executive who questions the wisdom of the Reds' decision. Cincinnati's bullpen led the majors with a 2.65 ERA last season and ranked third with a .219 batting average against, and the Reds have weakened an obvious team strength.
"It's going to be fascinating to watch," said an AL talent evaluator, "but I think they're absolutely crazy doing what they're doing. They just won 97 games, and I don't think you mess with that. How many innings are you going to get out of him this year -- 130 or 140? They need to close out the games they're supposed to win, and it was damn near automatic when he came in the game. I would never even think about it, let alone try it."
Some of Chapman's teammates are similarly dubious. In December, starter Bronson Arroyo predicted that it will be "very difficult" for Chapman to move to the rotation, where he'll have to harness his fastball for much longer periods while navigating opposing lineups. Second baseman Brandon Phillips concurred with that assessment in an interview last week.
"If you want to go out there and win right now, I mean, I would keep him as the closer right now," Phillips told SiriusXM Sports. "That's my opinion. But hey, I'm not the GM."
Walt Jocketty, who is the GM, believes in freedom of expression. But he's not exactly hanging on the input of Cincinnati's players.
"It's fine," Jocketty said of the disparate opinions being expressed. "We didn't sit down and talk to the players about it and get their approval. All they see is a guy who was a dominant closer. They don't see the big picture."
The reality is, Jocketty and others in the Cincinnati hierarchy envisioned Chapman as a starter the moment he defected from his native Cuba and signed a six-year, $30.25 million contract in January 2010. Chapman was all set to join the Reds' rotation last spring until injuries to Ryan Madson, Nick Masset and Bill Bray prompted manager Dusty Baker to move him to the bullpen before Opening Day.
Despite Chapman's ninth-inning success last year, the Reds were smitten by the events of last March, when he dazzled as a starter in the Cactus League. Spring training stats are generally regarded as worthless, but Chapman made a lasting impression while going 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA and 18 strikeouts and two walks in 17 innings in Arizona.
"He was by far our best starter during the spring," Jocketty said.
Anyone who views Chapman as a thrower rather than a pitcher might have gotten a wake-up call after watching him command his fastball to both sides of the plate and make deft use of his slider and splitter in Arizona. Then the regular season began, and Chapman became more of a one-pitch pitcher. According to FanGraphs, Chapman threw 88 percent fastballs and 12 percent sliders during the regular season, and essentially junked the splitter.
As a starter, Chapman will be forced to embrace subtleties of the game that have been generally foreign to him. He'll have to swing a bat multiple times in a game, lay down sacrifice bunts and run the bases (assuming he can actually reach base on occasion) without injuring himself. He'll also have to be more adept at fielding his position and holding baserunners. Opposing hitters have batted .149 against Chapman in his 137 career relief appearances, so he's needed a pickoff move in the same way Raul Ibanez needs styling mousse.
Recent history shows that Chapman's move to the rotation could go either way. Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard all struggled with the transition or suffered injuries during the process. Jocketty, naturally, prefers to cite the examples of Adam Wainwright and Chris Sale, who quickly emerged as All-Star starters after apprenticeships in the bullpen.
The Reds are leaving themselves some wiggle room. Chapman will arrive in Goodyear, Ariz., and get lengthened out with his throwing regimen. But if the experiment isn't panning out, the Reds can always switch him back to the 'pen. As Price points out, the team doesn't have to settle on a specific course of action on Feb. 1 or even March 1.
"We can decide on April 1," Price said, "but we can prepare him to start. If it turns out we're better suited to win a World Series with Aroldis in our bullpen, then so be it. Believe me, I'm not going to be standing there throwing up a blockade."
Counting the innings
If the Reds stick to the plan, they'll have to carefully manage Chapman's workload. Last year Chapman threw 71 2/3 innings. The Reds are refraining from publicly setting an innings target, because they saw what a circus the Stephen Strasburg story became last year. But logic and recent historical precedent make it seem unlikely they can expect anything more than 150 innings from Chapman in 2013.
"That's something we plan to discuss in spring training," Jocketty said. "We have some ideas. If he begins the season as a starter, we'll have to watch his innings and bring him along slowly. Or we could possibly put him in the bullpen as a long guy for a while, then move him into the rotation when the time is right. As far as the number of innings, I'm not sure we've determined that yet."
Although Chapman generated his share of strange off-field news last season, the Reds say he's a conscientious worker who pays diligent attention to his running, lifting and throwing programs. Strength and conditioning coach Matt Krause and assistant trainer Tomas Vera have both checked in on him at his offseason home in South Florida and reported that it's all systems go.
Chapman is on board with the move to the rotation, and now it's up to him to make the Reds look smart. Rest assured that national media outlets passing through Goodyear will be monitoring his progress, and the debate will rage in April if Broxton starts blowing leads in the ninth.
"It's a fine line," said outfielder Jay Bruce. "You want to consider the best interests of your team and think about the best interests of the player, as well, because they've invested a lot of money in Aroldis and he's a big part of our future. It's a tough decision. I'm glad I don't have to make it."
If the move pans out, Chapman will join a rotation that includes Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Arroyo, with Mike Leake in the equation as a sixth starter. Cueto finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award balloting last season. Latos ranked seventh among NL pitchers with a 4.2 WAR. Bailey set a career high with 208 innings and pitched a no-hitter in September, and Arroyo provides stability and innings as the veteran craftsman.
"You can dream on a rotation like that," Jocketty said.
Before the dream begins taking shape, the hard work and ground-laying for the next chapter of Aroldis Chapman's career will begin on a bullpen mound in Arizona. If the Reds think the scrutiny has been intense this winter, they haven't seen anything yet.