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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