Start of something big: Chapman's transition begins
Reds stay mum on details of left-hander's move from bullpen to rotation
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The bold decision by the Reds to have pitcher Aroldis Chapman shift from closer to the rotation this spring has been one of the most talked about scenarios in baseball all winter.
Lots of questions about how exactly the transition will happen, and the potential risks it could pose, have also followed.
"Quite frankly, I'm tired of answering the questions about it already and we're just starting [camp]," Reds manager Dusty Baker said on Saturday, after he was asked again about Chapman.
While the questions have been overflowing, specific answers from the Reds about the Chapman plan are in short supply.
That is entirely intentional. The club -- including Baker, general manager Walt Jocketty and pitching coach Bryan Price -- have a plan in place, but are keeping its details on the down-low from the general public.
"There is a pretty good understanding of what will be necessary to keep his innings at an area that we're comfortable with, should he be a starter throughout the course of the season," Price told MLB.com. "That being said, I think if I've learned anything, I've learned it's better to keep that stuff to ourselves. You just set the table for a little too much speculation and Q&A that I would not be comfortable going through."
While throwing 71 2/3 innings last season, Chapman was 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA, 23 walks and 122 strikeouts in 68 relief appearances. He converted 38 saves in 43 chances. In November, the club re-signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract, with designs on him becoming the new closer.
Chapman, who turns 25 on Feb. 28, has never publicly questioned his role. In 2012, following an '11 season as a setup man in the bullpen, he was groomed to be a starter in Spring Training. He was the team's best starting pitcher, but was moved back to a relief role when closer Ryan Madson and setup men Nick Masset and Bill Bray were injured.
At least for now, Chapman sees no difference in his preparation between this year and 2012.
"I prepared the same way I did last year, to be a starter," Chapman said via interpreter Tomas Vera. "I would like to start a season and throw as many innings as possible I can throw. Those are things that are controlled by the team and not by me.
"I feel normal. During the offseason, they called me and told me what the plan was -- to get back as a starter. They told me to keep doing what I've been doing."
The Reds believe that getting a starter's total number of innings -- whatever that might be -- would make Chapman more productive than the limited number a closer can provide. Since signing him to a six-year, $30 million contract out of Cuba in 2010, the hope was that the triple-digit velocity from his left arm could one day make him an ace or No. 2 starter.
All parties involved realize there is a level of risk to have a drastic increase in innings from one season to the next. Chapman's career-high was 118 1/3 innings in 2009 for his Cuban club, prior to defecting.
"We want to do what's responsible, what's efficient, what's smart and at the same time, I don't want to answer questions throughout the year about Chapman," Price said. "If he's in our rotation, he's going to pitch until he doesn't pitch. What I'm hoping is he'll pitch for us all the way through the World Series, whatever role he is in. Right now, he's getting prepared to start."
Baker and Price have declined to formally name a five-man rotation and still have last season's fifth starter, Mike Leake, in the mix along with Chapman, ace Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey.
"We have six starters, is the way I look at it," Baker said. "I still have confidence in Mike Leake, too."
During a morning media session when a reporter asked Baker about the decision, the manager defensively pushed back to emphasize that it wasn't entirely his alone to make. It could be sensed, too, that the debate from within the organization might still be ongoing.
"You talk like you is me. 'You' is plural," Baker said. "This is an organizational decision.
"I'm not the whole organization, OK? I'm the one who has to speak about it. When I'm asked to speak about it, I'm going to have a vote. I'm not one to run from questions."
The Reds were given three very different examples last season of starting pitchers who worked under highly scrutinized special circumstances. The White Sox converted young lefty Chris Sale from a reliever to a starter. Sale went from throwing 71 innings in 2011 to 192 innings in '12 and had an All-Star season with 17 victories.
Coming off missing most of 2011 with an elbow injury, Kris Medlen was used by the Braves in a relief role to begin 2012. Medlen was sent to Triple-A briefly and returned to start games. He went 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 50 games, including 12 starts. In the most controversial decision, Nationals star Stephen Strasburg, who was also coming back from elbow problems, was given a hard limit of 160 innings last season and shut down in early September and wasn't available for the postseason.
"As opposed to saying we're going to follow a Medlen plan or a Strasburg plan or a Chris Sale plan, we're going to follow our own plan," Price said. "I think the one thing I'd like to stay away from is defining that for scrutiny. There's enough scrutiny around about considering Chapman as a starter. Then there will be scrutiny over the amount of innings he pitches.
"For me, it can be a question all year because I don't care what people will think. But I don't feel the need to divulge the plan and again face the scrutiny of who agrees with it and who doesn't. By the end of the season, we'll see however many starts, innings or relief appearances he had and decide if it was a good plan or not."
What is known about Chapman is that he can easily top 100 mph with his fastball when working in short relief. But he rarely had to use the types of secondary pitches needed to be a successful starter.
Chapman won't be able to throw 100 mph often when starting, so he realizes he needs to expand his bag of tricks.
"Now I'm working a lot on my changeup and split-fingered [fastball] as well," Chapman said. "But I'm still working on my fastball and all of my pitches. I want to have a good amount of pitches to be a starter. You're never going to know how many innings you can throw. The way I prepare myself, I will throw as many innings as the team wants me to throw."
If at the end of camp the Reds asked Chapman to return to a relief role, would he be disappointed?
"I don't think so. If something happened like last year and they ask me to go back, I would do it," Chapman said. "I will do what they tell me to do."