The Cincinnati Reds took one giant step forward in their game plan Wednesday when they signed relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract.
When Broxton fills out an employment form, he lists his occupation as, “closer.”
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And there is no doubt he would not have re-signed with the Reds without assurances that his job description contains the word closer.
That job, of course, belonged to Aroldis Chapman last year, a job he did to near perfection. He was 38 for 43 in save opportunities, including saving 27 straight at one point during the season.
The Reds, though, have always envisioned the slender left-hander as part of their starting rotation, from the day they invested $30 million to sign him after he defected from Cuba.
Chapman, who will be 25 next season, was always a starter for the Cuban national team and even during his ultra-successful stint as a closer with the Reds last year continued to profess a desire to be a starter.
Now he gets his chance. And the question is: Are the Reds taking a big chance? Can Broxton be as good or as close to as good as Chapman was? Can Chapman be as good in a starting role as he was as a closer?
Chapman almost got that chance last year. That was the plan and he was the team’s most effective starter during spring training.
The Reds had signed free agent Ryan Madson to be the closer and traded for Sean Marshall for a set-up role.
Madson, though, encountered arm problems early in the spring and ended up undergoing season-ending surgery.
And when relief pitcher Nick Masset and Bill Bray also were unable to pitch during the spring, the Reds had to do a fast shuffle.
First they installed Marshall as the closer and put Chapman in the set-up role. When that didn’t pan out for Marshall, Chapman was elevated to the closer’s role and he ended up with a 1.55 earned run average in 68 appearances.
They Reds had hoped to re-sign Madson. They signed him for 2012 at $8.5 million with a mutual option at $11 million for 2013.
Madson spent most of last season rehabbing his arm near his home in California, which just happened to be at a facility owned and operated by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. And that’s where Madson signed, taking his $8.5 million from the Reds, with a $2.5 million buyout, after not throwing a pitch for the Reds.
So the Reds turned to Broxton, whom they acquired at July’s trade deadline from Kansas City.
The 6-4, 300-pound right-hander began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and spent nearly seven years there, becoming the closer in 2009 with 36 saves. He had 22 saves in 2010. He made only 14 appearances in early 2011 and needed bone spur surgery that ended his season.
He couldn’t find a closer’s job in 2012 and eventually signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Royals to be the set-up man for closer Joakim Soria.
But, like Madson, Soria didn’t make it out of spring training and needed Tommy John surgery and Broxton inherited the the closer’s role. He then saved 23 games in 27 opportunities for a bad Royals team before he was traded to the Reds.
At the time, general manager Walt Jocketty gave a hint of what might be ahead when he said, “Broxton will be used in set-up the rest of this year but he is a good option for us to be a closer in the future.”
Broxton auditioned in September when a fatigued shoulder knocked Chapman out of action for 10 days and Broxton became the stand-in closer and was 4-for-4.
Broxton’s contract calls for $4 million in 2013, $7 million in 2014 and $9 million in 2015. There’s a club option for the 2016 season at $9 million, with a $1 million buyout. He also has a limited no-trade clause in which he can select 10 teams to which he would accept a trade.
The Reds five-man rotation last year never changed and not one missed a start among Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake.
If Chapman is moved into the rotation, one has to go and the likely candidate is Leake, who was 8-9 with a 4.58 earned run average in 30 starts and was left off the postseason roster until he was added after Cueto was injured while pitching in Game 1 of the Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.