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…But is Chapman Valuable in the Bullpen?

Nobody could watch Aroldis Chapman‘s debut without coming away impressed. There is, however, the question of Chapman’s value, as the Reds paid 30 million dollars for the rights to Chapman’s services, and that’s no small investment for a MLB franchise. Not only that, but it’s $30 million on top of whatever arbitration rewards he reaps. From Cot’s Contracts:

-If Chapman qualifies for arbitration after 2012, $5M is converted to a bonus and he becomes arbitration-eligible
-If Chapman qualifies for arbitration after 2013, $3M is converted to a bonus and he becomes arbitration-eligible

As Chapman’s contract calls for $5 million after 2012 and $3 million after 2013, assuming he reaches arbitration after the 2013, the contract will actually pay out $25.25M plus three arbitration awards, with his 2015 arbitration reward replacing the $5 million player option in his contract for that season.

Essentially, Chapman looks to make $30.25 million over six years as a minimum and could see, based on Jonathan Papelbon‘s arbitration progression as an elite reliever, something like $58 million in that time as a reliever. Taking the absolute best-case scenario – the Tim Lincecum track – that salary could go up as high as $70 or $80 million.

Of course, if Chapman becomes Tim Lincecum, that would be a steal for the Cincinnati Reds. But there is still a legitimate question as to whether or not Chapman can start in the Major Leagues, particularly given his struggles as a starter in the minors. Chapman was still a strikeout maniac in that role, racking up over 10 per nine innings, but the control was completely lacking. The young Cuban walked over five per nine innings in the starting role, resulting in a 4.01 FIP as a starter and a similar ERA. Chapman’s current value as a starter appears to limited if even existent.

Chapman was successful as a reliever, striking out over 13 per nine innings and walking fewer than four. Given his success, it’s hard for me to envision the Reds moving him out of the bullpen and back into the rotation, and although it’s certainly possible, Chapman would almost certainly require at least one more season in the minors to start. Right now, his potential value as a starter is extremely high due to his insane stuff, but due to his seeming lack of control in that role, it’s also an enigma.

As a reliever, at least we can be somewhat sure that Chapman is ready for the show – he certainly looked it last night. ESPN’s Stats & Info blog compared Chapman to Francisco Rodriguez, which seems like a fair comparison given their uncanny minor league stats. But when a player has shown merely eight pitches in the Major Leagues, it would be irresponsible to project him as equal to a top player at his position. The cautionary tale of Joel Zumaya immediately comes to mind – a player with big time velocity and questionable control much like Chapman. Hopefully Chapman won’t suffer an injury as stupid as Zumaya’s first, but it doesn’t change the fact that Zumaya has only posted 2.7 WAR since 2006, partially as a result of his injury history and partially as a result of his inability to limit walks.

Francisco Rodriguez posted 13.1 WAR from 2003-2008 with the Angels, and given that 2.0+ WAR seasons are limited to the top 10 or so relievers in a given year, I wouldn’t be comfortable projecting much more than that. In that situation, the Reds would be looking at over $50 million for 13 wins, and probably something like $3.8-4.2 million per WAR. That’s roughly market value for the free agent market, which is basically how we should treat Chapman, and with the Reds looking like a team for whom wins will be valuable, that’s fine. But that doesn’t take into account the possibility of collapse, which is certainly real – this is a risky contract for the Reds, which, if it works out, is at best a market value free agent deal if Chapman reaches expectations.

That takes us back to the issue of Chapman as a starter. Although his current value as a starter is low, his future value as a starter is much higher than his future value as a reliever simply due to the inherent value of the two roles. It’s possible that his role in the 2010 Reds’ bullpen may simply be the team’s version of the David Price bullpen experiment of 2008. That would probably be the best way for Cincinnati to approach Chapman’s development, as he could aid in a playoff run now and provide more value than a simple free agent bullpen pickup over the long run. There’s no doubt that Aroldis Chapman is a special talent, but his best pitching should come out of the rotation. The Reds must recognize this, and although it will be tempting to keep that talent in the bullpen come 2011, sticking to the original plan and developing Chapman into a starting pitcher with A+ stuff will almost certainly realize more value for the franchise.