What Feels Like the Easy Aroldis Chapman Solution

If it seems like you’ve read dozens of articles about Aroldis Chapman potentially being a starting pitcher over the years, it’s only because you’ve missed hundreds more. This is an old topic, as is usually the case with relievers who appear to have the potential for more. The Reds invested a lot in Chapman when they first signed him, and as of 2012 he’s mastered the bullpen. Coming into 2013, Chapman was to move into the rotation, but now it’s a question again. Sometime within the next few days, the Reds hope to decide whether Chapman will open as a starter or a reliever. We’ve done this before, and we’re doing it again.

This has all come to a head once more because of something Chapman said over the weekend. From an AP article:

“The truth is, if they were to make the decision, I would want to be the closer,” Chapman said, “but it’s not in my hands.”

Let’s re-visit that quote again, with some selective edits:

“The truth is […] I would want to be the closer,” Chapman said.

Aroldis Chapman has been a closer, and he liked it, and he’d like to do it again. Some people with the Reds would like for Chapman to start, but other people with the Reds would like for Chapman to close, and now Chapman has expressed his personal preference. He hasn’t been this declarative before, and it isn’t something we can just sweep away as irrelevant. Generally, in the past, people in Chapman’s situation have expressed a preference to start. Fewer and further between have been the relievers who wanted to stay as relievers.

Chapman’s words are significant. If his heart lies with closing, that might mean something with regard to his motivation. Maybe he just doesn’t feel good trying to start, and Chapman knows Chapman best. At the same time, players aren’t the ones in charge of making these decisions, because players are under-informed and executives know best how to manage a roster. If players could individually determine their own roles, there wouldn’t be players on the bench.

I don’t think I need to go through the arguments. A quick summary: the potential benefit of Chapman as a starter is that he could be more valuable. He could, conceivably, be an ace, and it could be considered wasteful to leave him in the pen. Chapman could stand to make more money in his career as a starter, and the Reds already have a closer. It isn’t all that hard to find closers. The potential benefit of leaving Chapman as a reliever is that he’s already proven his ability to dominate. As a starter, his velocity would come down, and his command might come down, and his statistics would presumably come down. As a starter, Chapman might increase his injury risk, maybe to a significant degree. Chapman might just not be built for starting, and not every good reliever needs to be tried out as more than that. It matters that a lot of Reds baseball people see Chapman as a short-inning guy.

That’s all familiar. That’s how it goes with almost all these guys. It seems to me there’s room for an easy compromise, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this. I’m just the first person to post it on FanGraphs this week.

Driving the Chapman-to-the-rotation bandwagon is, at its heart, curiosity. What if Chapman has the stuff to be a #1? Wouldn’t people want to know? Wouldn’t people want to try to find out? Rare is the player blessed with Chapman’s sort of arm, and aces make more history than closers. What-if questions have a tendency to haunt if left under-explored.

Let’s think of Chapman as a starter for the time being. In Mike Leake, the Reds have a hell of a sixth starter — a guy Dave Cameron has referred to in the recent past as the best sixth starter in baseball. For his career, Leake owns a 99 xFIP- and a 103 ERA-. He’s young and able. In Jonathan Broxton, the Reds have a guy they just guaranteed good money for many years to close. Broxton’s a proven veteran in that role, he’s familiar to the Reds now, and they signed him with confidence. The Reds wouldn’t have guaranteed Broxton his contract if they didn’t feel like he could do the job in a competitive season.

It seems to me like Chapman should open the year in the rotation. The Reds should inform him that he’s a starter, because they want to see what he can do. The uncertainty would be lifted from Chapman’s shoulders. But the thing about decisions made in spring training is that they’re hardly permanent, so the Reds could think of it as a bit of an experiment. They could give Chapman five, six, seven starts, and then see what they have on their hands. It wouldn’t be a big sample, but there would be observable information, and the Reds could get an idea of Chapman’s velocity and mechanical consistency.

If Chapman were effective, the Reds would be pleased, and Chapman would presumably take more of a liking to the role, since some of his uncertainty surely has to do with a lack of familiarity with starting in the bigs. Dusty Baker would be happy, too, since it’s not like the Reds would hand the closer role to some unproven kid. Leake would be around if and when the Reds need a sixth starter, be that in the event of injury, or if Chapman needs a break.

And if Chapman were ineffective, then Chapman could be shifted. Right now, it’s evident that the Reds would be willing to demote Broxton to a setup role, despite the contract he signed. That’s not going to stand in their way, given what Chapman just did in 2012. If that willingness exists now, it would exist in a month or two, with plenty of the season left to play. Shifting from starting to relieving would be a lot easier than shifting from relieving to starting. Last spring, Chapman threw five innings on March 24, and five more innings on March 29. He relieved in the regular season on April 5, and he didn’t allow an earned run for more than two months. Chapman wasn’t messed up by the switch — he was immediately dominant, virtually unhittable.

If Chapman got bumped back to relief, Leake would join the rotation, and he’s adequate. Tony Cingrani might then stand as the would-be sixth starter, and Cingrani’s not far off. So the Reds would still have some rotation depth, and they’d have a question answered, if not quite conclusively.

Chapman might not like being jerked around like that, but it’s not his decision to make. Broxton might not like being jerked around like that, but the Reds are already willing to demote him in March. The real risk is that an over-extended Chapman might get injured as a starter, and that can’t be ignored, but Chapman could get injured as a reliever, too, and the Reds presumably have him carefully monitored. A trial as a starter might somewhat increase Chapman’s injury risk, but the risk wouldn’t go up by leaps and bounds unless there’s something we really don’t understand from the outside.

It seems so simple to me. People want to know if Chapman can start, and the longer he remains in the bullpen, the more difficult it would be to stretch him out. The Reds could start Chapman on a trial basis, and then they could re-evaluate things in some weeks, since they don’t have to make long-term commitments with these things. The Chapman situation would be unlikely to sink the Reds’ season, since Broxton can close and starter Chapman probably wouldn’t be a disaster. Whatever preference Chapman might have for closing could reverse if he started and pitched well for six or seven or eight innings at a time.

I don’t know what the Reds are going to do. The Reds might not know what the Reds are going to do. They’re going to make that decision soon. I know what I’d do, though, even from my relatively uninformed position. Start Chapman for a bit and then see. Maybe I’m biased by my own curiosity, but when presented with an arm like Chapman’s, who wouldn’t be?

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

45 Responses to “What Feels Like the Easy Aroldis Chapman Solution”

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  1. lester bangs says:

    Talk about burying the lede.

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  2. B.C. says:

    I thought you were going to say put Chapman back in the bullpen and trade Broxton for Rick Porcello.

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  3. RMR says:

    It’s all pretty straight forward.

    Chapman is a known adrenaline junky and likes the “rock star” aspect of closing over the more workman-like pace of starting.

    Dusty wants the best chance to win the next game and therefore likes have Chapman available for, theoretically, every single game.

    Jocketty is responsible for championships, and when it comes to that, the value of a true ace is irreplaceable.

    Ultimately, Jocketty has got to win here. And as you point out, the path is simple. If you make him your closer now, you basically pass up on the possibility that you have the next Randy Johnson or a LH Verlander. If you try him as a starter, you find out if he’s that or not. And if he’s not, you can still shift him back to closing.

    But to give up even trying to see if you have an ace can only be justified by a thought process which says that ace closers are just as valuable as ace starters. And unless you torture leverage index to give credit to guys for their use but to not do the same for their hypothetical replacement, that’s simply not true.

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  4. dp says:

    It is, at the very least, worth a trial shot. There are risks, obviously, but there are always risks with a pitcher with his sort of stuff and makeup. If it doesn’t work, and he doesn’t get hurt, then it’s a loss and you move on with the nastiest left-handed reliever in baseball. If it works, then you have an absolute stud. There is more to it than that, especially for a team that seeks to contend for a championship like the Reds, and with a manager who is damn good at what he does but prefers certainty over risk. Then again, this is what a GM has to deal with every day. Being a GM, suffice it to say, is damned hard.

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  5. Jake says:

    Why is there not more discussion about stretching Chapman out to throw both the 8th and the 9th? Should only have to face a batter once and if he goes through a stretch of 5+ innings in 3 days… then the Reds have Broxton to close. There is no reason Chapman can’t close games and throw over 110 innings this year.

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    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      My thought exactly. I think most people expect that he wouldn’t be a guy that pitches deep into games anyways. He never has. So if you get 5-6 innings per week from him as a starter, or 5-6 innings from him as a reliever, wouldn’t his value be the same, as possibly better? Hell, have him pitch the 7th-9th twice a week and let him rest in between while still being available for the arbitrary ‘save situations’ I’m sure Baker will be worried about.

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    • GoodasGoldy says:

      That was my thought on Chapman too. It’s a piece of the old 3 inning closer model. Use Chapman every 4th or 5th day for 2-3 innings. By the mid-point he’d be around 60 innings. From there you can stick with that model if it’s giving a lot of value. Chapman relieving for 120 critical innings in a season could provide huge values. It would also allow the Reds the option at the half-way mark to move him into the rotation since he’d be close to being stretched out. Or it’d be fairly easy to put back as a 1 inning closer.

      I’d line Chapman up with Cueto and Latos. Odds are good the Reds will be in a tight game or ahead by the 7th when it’s Chapman time.

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      • Jack says:

        Dave Cameron says the Reds can’t use Chapman like that because he wouldn’t like it.

        Decide for yourself whether that’s a legitimate reason for the Reds not to give it a shot.

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    • AJT says:

      Because Baker.

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  6. M G says:

    Do we have many examples of guys who have excelled as relievers becoming dominant starters?

    Bard = fail

    Chamberlin = fail

    Sale = Success

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    • Rusty says:

      Wainwright = Success

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      • Ty says:

        I don’t know if you can count Wainwright in the same group as the others. Wain-o started all the way up until 2006 when he slid into the bullpen, and then began starting once more. Chapman’s missed almost 3 years of starting games. Wainwright missed 1/3 of that.

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      • chuckb says:

        Not the same at all. Wainwright pitched his first year out of the pen, as a lot of young pitchers have done from time to time. He wasn’t turned from a reliever into a starter, as Braden Looper was. He, of course, was far from dominant.

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      • rotowizard says:

        If you’re counting Wainwright, you have to count Smoltzy

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    • JayT says:

      C.J. Wilson would have to be considered a success. Jeff Samardzija had a good 2011 in the bullpen, and if he turns out to be for real then that would be another success story.

      Dempster went from starting to relieving back to starting and has done well with it.

      I think that there are more then enough examples of successful translations that it makes the risk worth it.

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    • Gordon Shumway says:

      Only ones I can think of off the top of my head:

      Pedro Martinez = success.

      Derek Lowe = success?

      Jeff Samardzija = verdict still out

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    • LantermanC says:

      Brandon Morrow was a SP, who then became an RP due to durability, pain, and control issues. Did pretty well (except for some melt downs), then went back to be a pretty good SP.

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    • DD says:

      How about Dempster? He was a closer for s time and went back to the rotation with success.

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      • Gordon Shumway says:

        I don’t know if I would classify Dempster and his career .500 winning ways as a success, more a lack of failure

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    • RMR says:

      Johan Santana

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  7. Paul Morgan says:

    We have a lights out closer. Every team in baseball would love to have what we have. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. If necessary, Marshall or Broxton in the 7th and 8th. Chapman in the 9th. What else do you want? What we have now isn’t just working, it is smoking! And so many of you want to change it? Over the years we have had good closers, out of all of them Chapman has the greatest potential. Just listen to Reds announcers, “we not go to the ninth with a one run lead, and here comes Chapman”. And this one belongs to the Reds.

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    • Doug Gray says:

      And yet Chapman had a save percentage that was right in line with what David Weathers and Coco Cordero posted as Reds. Yeah, he looked better in doing it, but at the end of the day, they gave up the lead just as often as Chapman did.

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      If there’s a manager I’d trust to use a pitcher as much as possible, it’s Dusty.

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    • RMR says:

      Firstly, with Chapman, the Reds converted the same % of save chances as with other closers. As purely a “closer” of games, Chapman was not special last year.

      Secondly, if you are getting better, you’re probably getting worse. You know what every team in baseball would like? A LH Justin Verlander.

      But the thing is, we don’t have to make a permanent decision. Unless Chapman hurts himself, you lose virtually nothing by trying him as a SP. Maybe he fails to excel as a SP and goes back to closing; no harm done.

      But let’s put it this way. If Chapman had just give the team 175 IP of a 3.50 ERA, would we be talking about how awesome of a closer he might be? No way.

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  8. Colin P says:

    I think the writing is on the wall that he is going to be a starter. Last season he was primed to join the rotation until the injury to Madsen caused them to make the move. People criticize his lack of secondary stuff, but his changeup and splitter weren’t getting better unused in the bullpen. I think they need to give him a good 10-15 starts, mixing in extra days off with Leake starts to allow Chapman to make it to October if they get that far.

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    • Two More Cuts says:

      This is the most understated aspect of why Chapman should start. His velocity isn’t going to last forever at its current pace, he needs improvement on his secondary pitches. Starting, and struggling could also have the positive impact of improving his command and feel of secondary pitches.

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  9. Hank says:

    I don’t think this is the slam dunk most people are making it out to be. i think it’s worth a shot but it is hardly an easy or cut and dry type decision.

    How did Bard look when he went back to the bullpen after they pulled the plug on him as a starter? It’s easy to say “well if it fails, you just stick him back in the pen as a dominant arm”, but that is not a given either. People are treating that as the worst case scenario/floor in this decision.

    I’d rather see them bump his usage in the pen… he should come in the 8th inning of any close game and close it out (or even say 2 out in the 7th in a tight spot). At some point he won’t be available the next day, but you can have Broxton or whoever close. I think at that point you get him closer to 100 innings. The other option is Rivera circa ’96… give him the ball in a close game and have him hand it to a guy in the 9th inning who can get 3 outs with noone on base. Rivera put up 4.4 fWAR that year… without looking I’m guessing there weren’t a whole lot of starters who did better.

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    • Sammy L says:

      Bard had also failed miserably as a starter in the minors. He really struggled to conserve his stuff and often would throw big heat in the first few innings followed big drops in the middle innings. He also never had a halfway decent changeup. His type of profile would lead to big platoon splits as a starter so the opposing team can stack up lefties.

      Chapman had shown good potential as a starter his first year in affiliated ball. He had shown the ability to maintain his mechanics and keep velocity in later innings. His splitter is a decent pitch, although he doesn’t need it as much as Bard. Chapman shouldn’t have extreme splits because righties can’t hit his slider whereas Bard’s slider apparently wasn’t enough against lefties.

      Overall, those comparisons aren’t very good. And I think Bard can rebound this year as a reliever.

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    • TD says:

      How did Bard look in the bullpen right *before* he was made a starter? Awful. His problems preceded the switch to starting. He is not a cautionary tale at all.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        I watched him lose it the last months of 2011. Right you are sir. You know both he and Andrew Miller were lights out at UNC as starters as their plus, plus fastballs were lights out. They both went first round in 2006. I’m wondering if going to UNC stunted their development. I’m gonna look into their repertoire and college stats coming out of college because both have been horrible as pro starters.

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      • Hank says:

        You mean how did he look over 11 innings in Sept?

        In August he had had 11.5K/9 (highest monthly split), 1.6BB/9 (lowest monthly split), FIP ~3.3, xFIP ~1.6 and a WHIP of 0.73

        I guess you could say he lost it, but in my view this is not really much different than a batter having a hot (or cold) Sept, looking at the following year and retroactively saying… the change occurred the previous year in the final month.

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  10. Tomrigid says:

    Closers suck. “Oh hey, it’s the ninth inning, we’ve got the lead, and I’m throwing fresh gas at the bottom of the order. Show me the money.” Closers suck.

    This whole thing is stupid. Maybe Chapman can pitch two or three innings every second day. Maybe those are the highest leverage innings of every game. Maybe the Reds pay him for his service instead of some arbitrary role.

    Maybe Dusty Baker will discover a species of flying pig.

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  11. TK says:

    I’m guessing right after Chapman said that, his agent pointed out what Greinke and Cain and Felix and Hamels signed for in the last year versus what Broxton and Soriano and League got, and Aroldis warmed up to the idea of being a starter.

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  12. Dane says:

    Chapman has a 2.25 ERA in two starts (albeit a total of 8 IP) this Spring. That said, he also has a horrible 1:1 K:BB ratio.

    Cuban League career stats:
    76G (63GS) 328 IP 3.74 ERA .227 OppBA 1.8:1 K:BB ratio

    Acknowledging his numbers in the minors and Cuban League as a starter, it’s entirely possible that Chapman isn’t anything close to a workhorse. If we give Chapman the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he was used no more than 1 IP for each of the 13 non-starts, we get 63 GS and 315 IP. That works out to exactly 5 innings per start.

    People are clamoring about Chapman being the next Big Unit or a lefty Verlander, but there’s nothing in his history to say this will happen.

    In his first season as a pro, Verlander posted the following line (across high-A and AA):

    1.29 ERA 136K 26BB 20GS 118-2 IP (just shy of 6 IP per start)

    The Big Unit’s stats:

    159 ER 418-1 IP 82G 80GS 445K 327BB (just shy of 5-1 IP per start)

    As should be clear, Chapman’s numbers don’t come ANYWHERE near these. There’s no evidence that he will be anywhere near an ace. So, the value comparison of ace starter v ace closer are very likely to be irrelevant. The question becomes:

    Is Chapman more valuable as a 2/3 starter or a closer?

    I think the answer still works out to a “yes” with qualifiers. Assume Chapman is able to produce something along the following:

    Up to 3 IP: 10K/9, 3BB/9, 7H/9
    4-5 IP: 5K/9, 5BB/9, 10H/9
    6 IP+: 2K/9, 6BB/9, 15H/9

    5 IP Start: 8K/9 1.333 WHIP
    6 IP Start: 7K/9 1.500 WHIP
    7 IP Start: 6.3K/9 1.619 WHIP

    8+ IP Start: 5.8K/9 1.708 WHIP

    Essentially, Chapman *might* end up being a good short starter, but nothing in his history has even hinted at the ability to be a workhorse or ace.

    I envision a pitcher who will “peak” at around 170-185 IP per season, putting up serviceable 3-starter numbers. Assuming his age is true, he’s able to put together a 10+ year career, and he doesn’t lose a lot of time to injury, his value as a starter would exceed his value as a closer for a mid-market team like the Reds. If Chapman were on the payroll of the Yankees, Dodgers, or Angels, maybe he’d be better served as a closer, but assuming a career with the Reds, his value is maximized as a starter.

    Also, to the comment from “ALF” about Pedro Martinez being a successful example of a reliever converting to a starter, that shows complete ignorance of how pitchers are often used as rookies. Martinez was a starter in the minors for three years (discounting his single start in 1993).

    Martinez’s minor league stats:

    590 Ks 229 BBs 90 GS 557 IP 2.81 ERA

    Clearly, Martinez was a dominant starter BEFORE being relegated to the bullpen as a rookie in 1993.

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  13. Greg says:

    The author’s “solution” – if Chapman fails as a starter, then promptly demote him to the pen – completely disregards the fact that Aroldis Chapman is human. Demoting Chapman after six or seven starts would not only be a blow to Chapman’s confidence, it would be proof that the Reds management has no confidence in Chapman.

    Johnny Sain, a very good pitcher and greatest of all pitching coaches, said, “Pitchers, even big strong pitchers who can throw fast balls through the Washington monument, are at their core delicate flowers. They need to be nurtured, encouraged, supported, admired.”

    I think if the Reds decide to put Chapman in the rotation, then they need to nurture, encourage, support, and admire him. And that means tolerating some growing pains, permitting Chapman to occasionally fail, with the hopes that he will develop into a great starter. Chapman’s natural talent is on par with the likes of Koufax, Ryan, and Randy Johnson. All of them struggled early in their careers. If the members of the Reds brass decide they cannot afford to give Chapman room to grow due to the pressure to win now, then they need to keep him in the pen where he’s already proven to be an elite performer.

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  14. Dave says:

    The Reds are an extremely interesting team this year. If the Chapman starter/Choo CF experiments work out they could be the best team in baseball. Either way it will be fun to watch.

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  15. Antonio Bananas says:

    How about going outside the box? Give him 40 pitches (2-3 innings depending on situation, score, opponent, etc) and pitch him every 2-3 games. Like a super closer. Who shuts the game down from the 7th on.

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  16. Mr Punch says:

    The thing about Bard, and to some degree Chamberlin, isn’t that they failed as starters – it’s that their value has been destroyed. To the extent that Chapman is a significant asset, the Reds take a big risk by attempting to convert him. Does anyone doubt that the Red Sox would have been better off to make Bard the closer and keep Reddick? (Of course, instead of spending $54 million on Bailey, Hanrahan and Victorino, they would have been better off just re-signing Papelbon, too.)

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  17. Joel says:

    Jeff says, “He hasn’t been this declarative before, and it isn’t something we can just sweep away as irrelevant.”

    For what it’s worth, he has been this declarative before. Last spring, before the season, he told Cincinnnati Enquirer writer John Erardi that he wanted to start. And then he went to the bullpen and dominated.

    Chapman was reported as saying earlier this spring that if he had to choose, he’d choose to close because he has had success there before. I think that’s what his opinion boils down to. Chang is scary.

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  18. Jesse says:

    The whole thing seems very fishy. Isn’t he in line to be a 27 year old free agent next year? What if he has pitched two great seasons as a starting pitcher and still has less than 600 ips in the bigs? He’s getting a 150 million dollars from someone. Another two closer years and he’s not going to top 50 mil (hopefully)

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    • Joel says:

      No, the Reds control him through 2016. His contract runs through 2015 (which is an option year, though if he’s arb eligible after this season, he simply goes into the arb pool), but his service time means that the Reds have 4 more years of control. Also, he just turned 25 last November.

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  19. Quigglesworth says:

    “Dusty Baker would be happy, too, since it’s not like the Reds would hand the closer role to some unproven kid.”

    Quigglesworth likes this.

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  20. Tim says:

    Shouldn’t they keep him as a closer just to keep Dusty from letting him throw 150 pitches half the time?

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  21. Tanned Tom says:

    I agree with a player being more valuable as a starter, but completely disagree with a 5-7 start experiment. If you want him to start then committ to it. Let him go all year, and all next. Young pitchers take time to develop, even Koufax had troubles before he stopped overthrowing. If we consider the Chamberlain scenario, the problem wasn’t that he sucked as a starter, he was actually quite decent for a kid starting for the first time, it’s that the team gave up on him after only one season. Now they don’t know what to do with him.

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