The general manager of the Cincinnati Reds is Walt Jocketty. Jocketty and the Reds have known there was a decision they’d have to make on Aroldis Chapman. Chapman has proven himself as a closer; Chapman has not yet proven himself as a starter, but it would sure be neat if he could, and if he did. This is what Jocketty had to say on the matter earlier in the offseason:
“We haven’t made a decision on Chapman as a starter or as a reliever,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. “We’re talking about it.”
“It depends on if we re-sign [Jonathan] Broxton and [Ryan] Madson,” Jocketty said. “Or if we get another closer.”
Today, there’s word that the Reds and Broxton are having serious discussions about a three-year contract. Obviously, no contract has yet been signed. Obviously, the Reds haven’t come out and declared that Chapman is moving to the starting rotation. But what it looks like is that the Reds will re-sign Broxton and try to get Chapman to start. Just because that might not be how it works out doesn’t mean that isn’t how it’s most likely to work out.
The less interesting part of all this is the Jonathan Broxton part. Broxton was a mid-season acquisition a year ago, and he pitched well for the Reds down the stretch. Somehow, he’s still only 28 years old, even though it feels like he should be in his 30s by now. Until Broxton signs a deal and until we have the terms, we can’t evaluate this potential contract, but Broxton’s a non-elite reliever, so once the terms are known, you can probably predict how we feel about it. Three years would be a heck of a guarantee for a guy whose big strikeout days are presumably behind him. Yet Broxton can’t cripple the Reds on his own. One should seldom overreact to contract terms.
The more interesting part, of course, is the Chapman part. Broxton’s no stranger to considerable displacement, and it’s Chapman who would probably get displaced. If this sounds familiar, it’s because people have wondered about Chapman as a starter since before he ever signed, and because Chapman came to camp a year ago prepared to start before he wound up back in the bullpen. Chapman got stretched out and he pitched pretty well in March before circumstances drove a return to relief.
So what do we make of Aroldis Chapman as a potential starting pitcher? You’ve read all this before, about other pitchers generally, and also about Chapman specifically. It’s always the same checklist of issues and concerns. Converted starters stand to lose some velocity, although the magnitude of the drop differs from player to player. They face potentially heightened injury risk, especially as they push their innings, and they face a greater need for broader repertoires. Where a successful reliever might need one or two legitimately good pitches, a successful starter usually needs two or three, plus another pitch or two on top of that. Reliever-to-starter conversions aren’t automatic, and they aren’t as simple as we’d all like them to be.
There were some high-profile examples of conversions during the 2012 season. None of those were by Aroldis Chapman, so we can’t just say that any of them predict the path for Aroldis Chapman. They also covered the entire spectrum of possible results. Chris Sale showed that relievers can be converted successfully. Daniel Bard showed that relievers can be converted unsuccessfully. Neftali Feliz showed that relievers can be converted and subsequently injured, possibly but not unquestionably as a consequence of the conversion.
So none of those examples really help us figure out how Chapman’s future could look. Obviously, Starter Chapman could be good, bad, okay, or hurt. With Chapman specifically, he does have the gift of incredible natural velocity. Though he’d sacrifice some ticks as a starter, he’d still be one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball, most likely. His fastball would be expected to remain a weapon, and a starter with a legitimately dangerous fastball has a hell of a building block. As for Chapman’s repertoire, he’s thrown a fastball and a slider. People like to say that starters need three pitches to succeed. Thus it’s suggested that converted starters need a changeup. “Need”, to me, conveys far too much certainty. It’s not that starters need functional changeups to be effective; it’s that starters can be more effective with a functional changeup. Justin Masterson throws two pitches. He’s succeeded as a starter. He’s posted obscene platoon splits and he certainly could be better, but Masterson hasn’t not worked out in the rotation. It all ultimately comes down to a matter of WAR.
If Chapman could learn a half-decent changeup, that would probably help him. As a starter, he’d face lineups stacked with righties. That’s where a left-handed changeup most comes in handy. But even without a changeup, Chapman could still conceivably get by, because his fastball stands to be a weapon against lefties and righties alike, and his slider isn’t exactly easily hittable. Chapman developing a good changeup would be more important if Chapman’s fastball were worse. If Chapman’s fastball were worse, we wouldn’t care about Aroldis Chapman so much.
Here’s the two-parted, obvious, ultimate conclusion: Aroldis Chapman could work out as a starter, and it definitely seem like it’s worth trying, because no decision has to be permanent. Just as the decision to keep Chapman a reliever a year ago wasn’t permanent, here the Reds could always change course if things weren’t working out as well as hoped. They know that Chapman can relieve, and presumably a starting stint wouldn’t disrupt that ability. His arm is too good for curiosity to go un-sated. The risk is that Chapman could get pushed too hard and end up hurt, and then he wouldn’t be able to start or relieve, but one figures the Reds will be cautious. They’ve been cautious with Chapman before, and he’s gotten this far.
One shouldn’t always give in to curiosity. I’m curious if I could jump from the roof of my apartment building to the roof of the clinic nextdoor. That’s pretty much all downside, with extremely limited upside. Converting Chapman would come with its downsides, but the potential upsides are too great not to be explored. Maybe this won’t work out for the Reds, but at least in time they and the rest of us would be given an answer.