Cincinnati's Cuban Missile: Closer or starter?

After Aroldis Chapman dominated as a closer, the Reds would like to see him in the starting rotation.

As the saying goes, if something isn’t broken why even tinker with it, why take a single screwdriver to it?

Such would seem to be the case with Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. And yet the Reds seem intent upon removing the closer title from his name and changing it to starter.

Should they do it? Will they do it?

A lot of factors need to fall into place for the Reds to accomplish that mission, but their aim is to put Chapman into the rotation, despite his dazzling display as the team’s closer in 2012.

Paste the pages back on the 2012 calendar and stop at February, when the Reds reported for spring training.

The Grand Plan was to include the 24-year-old Cuban refugee in the 2012 starting rotation, a chance for the Reds to get a bigger bang for the $30 million they invested in the 6-foot-4, 200-pound left-hander.

After all, he was a starter for the Cuban national team before he defected and the Reds won a bidding bee to sign him.

And everything seemed a go for the kid they tagged The Cuban Missile. In five spring training starts, he was 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA with only two walks and 18 strikeouts in 17 innings.

“He was, by far, our best starting pitcher in spring training,” manager Dusty Baker said.

Then disaster hit the Reds bullpen like two locomotives colliding on the mainline. They had signed free agent Ryan Madson to be the closer. But he never made it to the mound for the Reds and ended up with season-ending Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Shortly after that, top-shelf relief pitchers Nick Masset and Bill Bray went down before spring training ended, decimating the bullpen, acknowledged as the strongest part of the Reds’ roster.

What to do, what to do? Baker, pitching coach Bryan Price and general manager Walt Jocketty put their heads together, and the three-headed conglomerate decided to put Chapman into the bullpen.

The Reds had traded for setup left-hander Sean Marshall in the offseason and decided his veteran presence and experience was best-suited to be the closer. Chapman became a setup guy.

But when Marshall was shaky and so-so, a switch was made at the end of May. Chapman became the closer and, with apologies to Barbra Streisand, "A Star Was Born."

Chapman and his triple-digit fastball were an instant sensation. His stats were as staggering as his 102 mph fastballs that left batters swinging at a whispering wind.

He saved 38 games in the final four months of the season. He struck out 122 batters in 71 2/3 innings, more than 15 per nine innings. He walked only 23. He gave up only 35 hits and 12 earned runs, only five earned runs to National League teams.

Hitters would rather face a dentist’s drill than Chapman, and trying to catch up to his fastball was like chasing a Japanese bullet train on a bicycle.

But the Reds still see him as a starter. And with that in mind, they are trying Madson, again a free agent and the guy they wanted to be the closer in 2012 before his injury, or Jonathan Broxton, for whom the Reds traded at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline after he saved 23 games in the first half of last year for a mediocre Kansas City Royals team.

If they can accomplish one or both of those signings, that leaves Chapman to go after a rotation spot.

And, of course, the Reds have to make it through spring training without half the bullpen succumbing to life in the trainer’s room.

Will it work?

Broadcaster John Smoltz, who split his career being both an outstanding starter and an outstanding closer for the Atlanta Braves, watched Chapman’s bullpen work and said unequivocally, “If I’m the Reds, I don’t change a thing. I leave him in the bullpen. In his first year as a closer, he was one of the best I’ve seen.”

Chapman was basically a one-pitch pony — the fastball. Many times he threw nothing but fastballs. In some appearances he mixed in a few knee-buckling sliders.

As a starter, he would need at least one more pitch, probably a change-up — a pitch he was working on last spring before his shift to the bullpen. And he would need to use the slider more.

And for sure his consistent 100 mph pitches out of the bullpen would slow down over six, seven and eight innings.

Chapman’s velocity in 2012 did recede as the season wore on, but his 97, 98 and 99 mph offerings gave him better command and control.

One wonders if it is noteworthy that when he was being groomed to start last spring, his numbers were not as gaudy — 17 hits in 17 innings and a 2.12 ERA as opposed to only 35 hits in 71 2/3 innings and a 1.51 ERA out of the bullpen during the season. Batters hit .262 against him as a spring starter but only .141 during the season as a closer.

And there is the question of durability. Will his shoulder and arm, with his violent delivery, stand up for 170 to 200 innings? He had shoulder fatigue in September this season and had to be shut down for nine days.

Would the Reds have to pull a Stephen Strasburg with him as a starter next season and limit his innings, possibly having to shut him down before season’s end?

One thing is for certain. Chapman left a footprint on the mound the size of a T. rex as a closer. 

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