Chapman decision looms large for Reds' rotation
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Cincinnati Reds have a good thing going.
They want to get better.
The question is how.
And the debate has begun.
Shifted into the bullpen last spring because of injuries to expected relievers, Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman evolved into one of the most dominant closers in the game, the foundation for what was baseball's best bullpen in 2012.
A year later, the Reds are opening Spring Training with the idea of moving Chapman back to the rotation. It is the role they envisioned for him when he was originally signed.
That, however, was before Chapman overpowered big league hitters in the short bursts out of the bullpen. And that's why Cincinnati's spring experiment with Chapman has become a major topic of discussion among baseball folks.
"We have a lot of depth in the bullpen," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "We were fortunate last year that we had five healthy starters all year. There is some concern about that repeating itself. We are just looking at our options."
And that look not only focuses on Chapman, but also Jonathan Broxton, a closer in the past, and Mike Leake, the No. 5 starter who had second-half problems last season. The Reds' season-opening five-man rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Leake combined to start 161 of Cincinnati's 162 regular-season games. Todd Redmond was called up Triple-A Louisville to start the second game of an Aug. 18 makeup doubleheader.
The Reds' concern about protecting the rotation is serious enough that they blocked Cueto from pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Cueto, the ace of the rotation, survived only eight pitches in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against San Francisco because of a right oblique strain.
Cueto reported to Spring Training without any lingering problems, but the Reds had the right to block his World Baseball Classic appearance because he ended the season with an injury, and it's apparent they want to keep a close eye on their arms this spring.
No pitcher will have more attention this spring than Chapman, whose fastball hits 100 mph and whose command was a real eye-opener given his youth. Chapman, who turns 25 on Feb. 28, averaged 15.32 strikeouts per nine innings, second in the Majors to Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel (16.66).
Chapman had a 5.30 ratio of strikeouts to walks, the eighth-best ratio in the Major Leagues. His 1.51 ERA was the third lowest in the Majors among pitchers with at least 50 innings, behind Fernando Rodney of Tampa Bay (0.60) and Kimbrel (1.10). Chapman converted 38 saves, including 30 of his last 31, despite not getting his first save opportunity until the 37th game of the season.
"We really believe Chapman has a chance to be an outstanding starter," Jocketty said. "It may take a year or two to get him to the level we think he can reach, but that's an investment that might be worthwhile."
Nothing, however, is definite. That's what Spring Training is all about.
"He ain't in there yet," manager Dusty Baker said. "At this time last year, he was going to be in the rotation, too. There was even talk about send him to the Minor Leagues to get innings to be a starter. Then [Ryan] Madson was hurt and we had to adjust."
Baker, however, isn't saying the move to starting won't happen.
"It will be an organizational decision," Baker said. "Will it be a gamble? Last year, there was a feeling that we were taking a gamble putting him in the bullpen. People second-guessed us last year, but they aren't second-guessing that [bullpen] decision now."
What feeds into the Reds' consideration of making Chapman a starter was the acquisition of former Dodgers closer Broxton from Kansas City in a Trade Deadline deal last season. Broxton, who battled injuries in 2011, saved 23 games for the Royals. In two months with Cincinnati, he was 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA and four saves.
They liked what they saw of Broxton enough that he was re-signed after filing for free agency, and the veteran righty received a three-year, $21 million deal that includes an option for 2016.
Of course, the Reds like what they saw out of their rotation last year. It did compile a 3.64 ERA, fourth best in the NL and fifth best in the Majors, and worked 1,018 2/3 innings, second most in the Majors behind Philadelphia.
But only one of the four starters, Arroyo, who is 35, was older than 26. Can the young arms handle that type of work load again? And will they make the adjustments to offset hitters, who have another year of familiarity with them?
"The tough years are years three, four, five," said Baker. "Now everyone has a book on you. They have had a chance to study your approach. Now you have to make adjustments to the hitters, because they are making adjustments to you."
The first challenge is for Leake, who saw a drastic hike in his ERA a year ago when he had a 4.01 ERA in the first half and 5.27 in the second half. Only eight of his 14 post-All-Star starts were so-called quality starts.
"He's a better pitcher than he was last year," Baker said. "He knows that. He talked with Greg Maddux in the offseason. He worked during the winter on a changeup. We know what he's capable of."
What the Reds don't know is what Chapman is capable of as a starter. They will scratch the surface this spring and make a decision whether it's worth a shot to put him in the rotation.
"The beauty is if we find out this is not going to work, we can always push him back into [a closer] role," said Jocketty. "It's easier to stretch him out and decide to put him in the bullpen than the other way."
After all, the Reds, and the rest of baseball, already know that Chapman can handle that bullpen role.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.