Aroldis Chapman—Starter or Closer?

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The Reds have experimented with Aroldis Chapman as a starter this spring after he spent the first three seasons in the majors as a reliever. He was their closer in 2012 and saved 38 games with dominant 122 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Overall, in his three years, he’s thrown 135 innings and struck out 212. It’s obvious why the Reds would like to see how he’d do as a starter with those kinds of strikeout numbers and a Randy Johnson/Sandy Koufax potential for left-handed dominance if he has the durability to start.

Let’s look at the various factors in Chapman as a starter or reliever from the point of view of the participants.

Aroldis Chapman

He’s said he wants to go back to the bullpen. How much of an influence the player has on his role depends on the player, his contract, how much of a pest he can make of himself if he doesn’t get his way. Chapman’s statement that he wants to close was said in a sort of passive aggressive manner of, “I want to close, but it’s not my decision.”

Some players would exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy and say they won’t be able to start and stay healthy and effective over a full season if they want to be in the bullpen, and then come up with a malady that may or may not be psychosomatic. In the age of heavy stat use, the mental aspect is regularly ignored but no less important. Years ago, the Dodgers’ on-again/off-again third baseman Pedro Guerrero was so miserable at third base that it affected his hitting. When the Dodgers finally said enough and moved him back to the outfield, he went on a tear. It took Jonathan Papelbon to go to the Red Sox in 2007 and basically “save” their season by saying he wanted to close. It’s not to be ignored what the player wants.

What the Reds need

The 2007 Red Sox didn’t have a closer and were on the verge of making the same mistake they made in 2003 by going into the season without someone who could get the outs in the ninth inning and having it cost them games and teamwide confidence. The Reds are not in that position. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton to close if the Chapman-as-starter experiment worked. What they promised Broxton is unknown. Given the closer market and how it crashed, Broxton wasn’t in a position to be making demands that he be the closer or he wouldn’t re-sign. He’s making $21 million over three-years to soften his bruised feelings and gaudy save stats if he’s not closing.

The Reds don’t need Chapman as a starter. He’s competing with Mike Leake for the fifth spot and they’d be perfectly fine with the rotation they’d have with Chapman in the bullpen.

Management

GM Walt Jocketty is not an ideologue as Theo Epstein was when he continually insisted that he wanted Papelbon to start. Brian Cashman did the same thing with Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees succeeded in nothing more than destroying Chamberlain. Because of that, it’s clear that Jocketty believes that Chapman could be a very good starter and he’s not trying it based on theory or what’s popular.

With that 100+ mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that he rarely uses as a reliever, he certainly has the stuff to be as good as Johnson and Koufax were. At age 25, it’s a tough thing to relegate him to the bullpen for his whole career when there’s that chance that he could be a Hall of Fame, Cy Young Award winning starting pitcher if only given the opportunity. An old-school baseball man like Jocketty also doesn’t want to be seen as having his decisions dictated by the players or by new orthodoxy.

Manager Dusty Baker wants Chapman to close.

For all the outsider talk that closing will be “easier” on a pitcher’s arm, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, John Smoltz, did both and said that closing was tougher on him than starting was and he preferred being a starter. He was great at both. It depends on the pitcher.

If Johnson, Koufax or Nolan Ryan came on the scene today, it’s very possible that the powers-that-be would have said, “No way they can maintain this velocity over 220 innings. Make him a closer.” The White Sox made Rich Gossage a starter in 1976. His record was a dreadful 9-17, but the team was awful and he was mostly effective in the role. His strikeout numbers plummeted and he hated it. He was moved back to the bullpen and went to the Hall of Fame.

The best decision

Considering the Reds depth in the starting rotation, there’s no reason to move X here and Y there to accommodate the Z theory for the sake of it. They have five starters and their bullpen would be devastating with Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman in the late innings. If they weren’t legitimate World Series contenders, it would make sense to let Chapman start and see what happens. But they’re in it to win now and that’s not the time to experiment. For 2013, they should move Chapman back into the closer’s role and keep it in mind that he might be capable of starting at some other time in his career, just not now.

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National League Patience Or Panic?

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Earlier I wrote of the American League teams that either need to have patience or panic. Let’s look at the National League teams in the same predicament.

Miami Marlins

It’s safe to assume that Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria’s office is outfitted with escape hatches, listening devices, nefarious contraptions and trapdoors at various spots on the floor—one of which sends the hapless victim to the airtight, windowless room (complete with Lazarus Pit) in which Jack McKeon is kept.

There’s one small vent as a concession for McKeon’s cigar smoke.

Along with these amenities is, presumably, a dutiful assistant carrying a black box. Inside that black box is the panic button.

When said panic button is pressed, something happens: a manager is fired; a player is demoted; a son-in-law is sent to speak to the media; a pretentiously gauche extravaganza masquerading as art is activated; a fealty-induced political marker is cashed.

Something.

Is it time for the Marlins to panic?

Just about.

Already under investigation by the SEC for the way the new Marlins’ Stadium was financed, with manager Ozzie Guillen under siege for his pro-Fidel Castro comments and the team playing poorly, it’s not long before a Steinbrennerean missive is issued on stationary emblazoned across the top with the words:

From the Mildly Artistic Mind of Jeffrey L.

He learned his lessons from George Steinbrenner in terms of morally-challenged behavior under the guise of business and personal interests and now his team is eerily similar to the Yankees of the 1980s: expensive, underachieving, fractured, dysfunctional and disinterested.

Heath Bell and Jose Reyes have both been atrocious; Hanley Ramirez isn’t hitting; and, on the whole, they look like a group that not only doesn’t know how to play together, but don’t like each other very much.

Loria thought he was buying a contender and that the attendance to see that contender would be commensurate with the amenities of a new park and a good team.

The winning team would attract the real baseball fans; the nightclub, pool, dancing girls, acrobats, restaurants and art would attract the eclectic denizens of Miami who go where it’s cool regardless of the venue.

They’re seventh in the National League in attendance.

The team is flawed and, right now, just plain bad.

Loria’s finger is itching to hit that panic button and it should be because veteran teams in disarray tend to spiral out of control early once they sense the season is lost.

Philadelphia Phillies

No team could function with the spate of injuries that have befallen the Phillies. All they’re trying to do is keep their heads above water until Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee are healthy.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been trying to find a lineup combination that works. He’s playing small ball to account for the lost power and it’s failing. Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco aren’t hitting and as good as Freddy Galvis is defensively, the Phillies currently can’t afford to carry his popgun bat.

If they get healthy, they’ll be fine. The question is what level of Howard and Utley are they going to get when they return and how long is Lee going to be out with a strained oblique? They don’t want to fall too far behind, but the second Wild Card added this year makes it much easier to be patient even in a demanding city like Philadelphia.

Cincinnati Reds

Amid all the preseason talk that the Reds’ decision to trade chunks of their farm system to get Mat Latos and Sean Marshall and the pending free agencies (in 2014) of Joey Votto and (in 2013) of Brandon Phillips made them a “win now or else” team, they’re well-situated for the future with all their pieces in place.

Latos, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are all under team control for the foreseeable future; and they signed Votto, Phillips and Marshall to contract extensions.

The loss of Ryan Madson was a blow, but they’ve replaced him with Marshall and Aroldis Chapman can close if necessary.

The pitching has been solid; they just haven’t hit. This core of this Reds team was second in runs scored in 2011 and first in 2010. They’re going to hit.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ strength was in their starting rotation and that they had a deep, diverse and organized bullpen with a horse of a closer.

The rotation should be fine but the bullpen is in flux with the loss of Brian Wilson. Bruce Bochy is not the closer-by-committee type of manager, but that’s where he is as of now. He named Santiago Casilla as the closer and proceeded to treat him as if he’s just another arm in the bullpen as soon as he got in trouble in one of his first save chances after being dubbed the closer.

The lineup has been better than expected, but is still carrying potential black spots at shortstop, second base, first base and right field.

And Angel Pagan, being Angel Pagan, will inspire the entire team—individually—to strangle him at least once by forgetting how many outs there are; running the team out of an inning; throwing to the wrong base (or wrong team); or something.

The Giants don’t need to panic, but they do need to be vigilant that unless they settle on a reasonable plan with their bullpen, they’re going to fade by August.

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Trading Joey Votto Is Risky For The Reds

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The Reds are said to be prepared to listen to offers for Joey Votto.

It will only be known in retrospect whether this is similar to the Diamondbacks “listening” on Justin Upton before ultimately deciding not to trade him or the Rockies trade of Ubaldo Jimenez.

I’d be willing to listen on any and all players, but for Votto—age 28 and signed through 2013 at $9.5 million in 2012; $17 million in 2013—they’d better get at least one established, young, star-caliber player and two blue chip prospects.

At least.

Reds GM Walt Jocketty has received an undue amount of credit for circumstances out of his control. The Cardinals won regularly with him as GM and he made some solid moves in getting Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter, Mark McGwire and Darryl Kile for very little. But his drafts were never particularly strong and he made some drastic mistakes such as trading Dan Haren for Mark Mulder.

Relying on a Hall of Fame manager in Tony LaRussa, a brilliant pitching coach in Dave Duncan and having players accept less money to stay in St. Louis were greater factors in the Cardinals success under Jocketty than Jocketty himself.

With the Reds, he again is benefiting from a foundation already in place upon his arrival.

The 2010 team that won the NL Central was put together before took over. Jocketty didn’t hire the manager, Dusty Baker; didn’t acquire any of the key players apart from Scott Rolen, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman. And Chapman is the only one for whom Jocketty receives accolades for foresight.

On the subject of Chapman, I will never understand how the same people with the Red Sox and Yankees thought that it was a good idea to give the amount of money they gave to acquire Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa chose not to spend the $30 million it cost to get that raw talent and searing fastball of Chapman.

Either they were gun-shy or stupid. Or both.

As for the Reds taking offers on Votto, they have a first baseman in waiting in Yonder Alonso and payroll constraints make it difficult to keep one player making $17 million in 2013.

But they’d better make sure they know what they’re doing, what they’re getting and that Alonso and others can replace Votto’s bat, glove and leadership.

It does make some semblance of sense. They’d ask a lot for Votto. And if they pull the trigger, they’d better get it.

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