TEMPE, Ariz. — The buzz question in the camp of the Cincinnati Reds this spring is: “Aroldis Chapman or Mike Leake? Mike Leake or Aroldis Chapman?”
The Reds are experimenting this spring to see what works best for the good and betterment of the team. There is no question Chapman was one of the best closers in the game last season, but some segments of the organization envision him as a rotation guy par excellence.
And while some already have Chapman toeing the rubber as a starter with Leake relegated to the bullpen, in the words of a George Gershwin song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Both manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price are keeping their eyes wide open and their minds even more wide open.
Both Leake and Chapman pitched Tuesday against the Los Angeles Angels and if numbers mean anything this round went to Leake. He started and pitched three innings — no runs and four hits to Chapman’s two innings, one run (a home run to Howie Kendrick) and three hits (24 pitches) in his first inning.
“There are things the organization is curious about,” said Baker. “We haven’t made the decision yet. Other people have made the decision and assume that the decision has been made. It hasn’t.
“We have no choice but to wait to make the decision because you can’t live too far in the future. You have to let things play themselves out,” Baker added. “Like last year played itself out big-time.”
Chapman was in the spring rotation last year, but injuries to projected closer Ryan Madson, plus relievers Nick Masset and Bill Bray forced Chapman’s move to the bullpen.
“This is one of those things that can go for a while before a decision is made,” said Price. “If we’ve learned anything over the last few years during spring training, it is that we sometimes have to make choices we didn’t anticipate. Last year was a great example — the reason Chapman ended up in our bullpen.”
And Baker dropped his feelings into the mix by saying, “We won 97 games last year and nearly half were Chapman’s saves or wins (38 saves, five wins).”
Baker, as is Price, is a big fan of Leake and not ready to dump him into a bullpen seat without a stern shove from Chapman.
“We are going to take the best 12 pitchers in their best suited positions when we head out,” said Price. “We know there is some division about it — what is best for the pitcher and what is best for the team. We want to take our best team because we are built to win and we feel we have a team that can win, so deciding the roles that is best suited for everybody is important.”
The situation now is a bit divisive on all fronts, some for and some against, and Price understands that, too.
“We have a right to speak candidly about how we think, but in the end we have to be unified in putting our best team on the field for Opening Day,” he said. “And the best team is still a question.”
Of Leake in the bullpen, Price says, “I don’t think Leake is best suited for that, even though most guys in the bullpen have been starters in their past.
“To me, though, Mike Leake is a very good major-league pitcher who hasn’t had his best seasons yet and is capable of being a very good starting pitcher,” Price added. “He has shown that already, especially in 2011 (12-9, 3.86 in 26 starts). I think his future is giving us 30 starts and 200 innings.
“The thing I don’t want to get lost in all this is the fact that Mike Leake is an outstanding pitcher and it isn’t a matter of, ‘Hey, we feel like we’re weak in one spot in our rotation,’” said Price. “There is no feeling like that. The question is, do we feel Aroldis can be a quality top-of-the-rotation type pitcher. We know he can close for a team that is ready to challenge for a championship.
“Are we better suited with him staying in his familiar closing role or testing the waters with him as a starter. It is a fascinating situation because we’d like to see what he can do in 28 to 30 starts. But is that in the best interest of this year’s team? That’s what you have to consider first and foremost.”
Leake knows there is competition and knows there are people in his corner and says, “That’s why I’m not worried about it and don’t think about it. No, I don’t exactly understand it, but it is whatever they do. I don’t know or understand completely, but they have their reasons.”
He doesn’t think about it until he asked about it, as in after Tuesday’s appearance.
“Do I like to be counted out? Yes and no. I like to be counted out because it gives me a little fire and it makes me feel I need to prove a little more. It is nice to be respected and feel like I belong.”
While nobody is counting him out, Leake feels a bit that way and says, “A little bit counted out, but I kind of like it. I like to be the guy who comes in and surprises rather than to be just counted on.”