One day, the Reds promise, left-hander Aroldis Chapman will be a starting pitcher. But it can’t happen yet, not when two of the team’s top setup men remain on the disabled list. And not everyone with the team is certain it should happen it all.
“I honestly don’t think he can be as effective as a starting pitcher,” right-hander Bronson Arroyo, one of the Reds’ starters, said Wednesday. “I definitely think (relieving) is his forte.”
It’s difficult to argue right now — Chapman, who pitched a perfect, nine-pitch inning Wednesday night in the Reds’ 6-3 victory over the Mets, has yet to allow a run this season. He has retired 22 of his last 24 hitters, and his totals in 19 1/3 innings are nothing short of astonishing — six hits, five walks … and 34 strikeouts.
Arroyo, though, holds a minority opinion in the Reds clubhouse. Most players, while agreeing with management’s decision to keep Chapman in a setup role, view the pitcher, in the words of second baseman Brandon Phillips, as “the next big thing” as a starter.
Phillips compares the 6-foot-4, 196-pound Chapman to Rays lefty David Price. First baseman Joey Votto also references Price, then adds, “Best-case scenario, he’s a left-handed (Justin) Verlander. Probably not — he doesn’t have the repertoire Verlander has. But I’m just talking about the ability to throw hard deep into the game. Which I think is who he could be — a Randy Johnson type who is still throwing 99 in the seventh, eighth and ninth.”
Pretty exciting to think about, particularly when Chapman, 24, would join right-handers Johnny Cueto, 26, and Mat Latos, 24, to give the Reds three formidable top-of-the-rotation types, all under club control through 2015.
But here’s Arroyo:
“There’s a big difference between going into a game and overpowering guys in a clutch situation than it is to face guys three or four times,” Arroyo says.
“He’s going to throw a lot of pitches. As good as his stuff is, you’re going to get a lot of swings and misses. If you’re getting a lot of swings and misses, at times you’ll have control problems. And you’ll get a lot of high pitch counts for every hitter. So, you’re probably going to throw 100 pitches after five innings every time.
“And if you could do it (make Chapman) a starter, he would be backing down (his velocity) even more than he is now. He’s pitching at 95 percent now compared to last year. If he backs it down a little bit more, it makes him a little more hittable. And you’re not really using how special he is.
“You’re bringing him down to earth a little bit if you make him a starter. Not that he couldn’t do it. But I just don’t think you’re maximizing his effectiveness.”
Still, for some Reds fans, the move of Chapman to the rotation can’t happen soon enough — Chapman, in their view, would be an immediate upgrade over right-hander Homer Bailey or righty Mike Leake, who had a strong outing Wednesday night, allowing one earned run in six innings. General manager Walt Jocketty, in fact, says Chapman arguably was the team’s best starter in spring training.
But the Reds, after losing closer Ryan Madson to a season-ending elbow surgery, kept Chapman in their bullpen. Subsequent injuries to righty Nick Masset (shoulder) and lefty Bill Bray (groin) made that decision look even more prescient.
The bullpen, sporting an NL-leading 2.28 ERA, evolved into one of the Reds’ greatest strengths; Chapman and righty Logan Ondrusek have combined for 34 2/3 scoreless innings. And who knows? If the team at some point needs to replace closer Sean Marshall due to ineffectiveness or injury, Chapman could wind up pitching the ninth.
That settles it. For the moment.
Jocketty does not rule out that Chapman could start later this season, but manager Dusty Baker is not going to want to lose such a weapon in the last year of his contract, and the Reds shouldn’t mess with it, either.
“The longer we go, it will be harder to stretch (Chapman) to start,” Jocketty says. “We may be resigned to the fact that he will have to pitch in the bullpen all year.”
Or, as Baker puts it, “Everyone hollers, ‘Start Chapman.’ But what are you going to do, send him back to the minors to build up his endurance?’ You’re going to have to do it next year. And then you’ll have to replace what he’s doing next year.”
The situation is not unlike what the Rangers faced last season with right-hander Neftali Feliz, who remained the team’s closer out of need, only to move to the rotation this season after the team signed free-agent closer Joe Nathan. The Red Sox made a similar decision with Daniel Bard this season, as did the White Sox with Chris Sale.
The logic for such moves is irrefutable — a 200-inning starter is more valuable than a 70-inning reliever. The Reds did not sign Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million contract in January 2010 to make him a permanent reliever. And most with the team are convinced that Chapman could dominate as a starter, too.
Votto says that Chapman is a different, more confident pitcher than he was last season, working quickly, pitching aggressively, staying composed. Jocketty offers a similar analysis, saying Chapman’s “whole tempo is different,” while noting that the pitcher has learned he can succeed throwing 97-98 mph instead of 102.
Phillips says Chapman was “on a mission” to make the rotation in spring training, but Chapman, speaking through his interpreter, Reds assistant trainer Tomas Vera, declines to state a clear preference, saying, “I could be a starter, but I have to wait for the time to come.”
Which isn’t to say his transition to the rotation would be easy.
“There are challenges. There are different things you’ve got to manage,” Reds pitching coach Bryan Price says. “You’ve got to manage through a lineup multiple times. You’ve got to understand that the more frequency with which guys see you, the more competitive chance they have as the game goes on.
“The thing we saw in spring training was command of both sides of the plate, the two-seam fastball, a much-improved slider and the split. He has the aptitude and ability to be a three-pitch pitcher with above-average command and above-average stuff.
“But it’ll be very similar to (when Chapman started in) the bullpen. You’d have to expect a learning curve.”
For now, Chapman is on a different arc, pitching one or two innings at a time. His time as a starter is coming. Just not yet.