Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Cuban Missile: Starting or Finishing?


  We all heard about him.  He and stud Stephen Strasburg were the shining stars of the 2009 rookie class.  The blazing speed, the smooth delivery, 105 MPH... how is that even possible?  Say hello to Aroldis Chapman... or find him on twitter and ask for a RT if the first is too difficult for you.

  Aroldis Chapman was on the radar way back in 2006 when he pitched Holguin Sabuesos (Spanish for Bloodhounds) in the Cuban National Series.  In his time with the Sabuesos, Chapman finished with 24-19 record, 3.74 ERA, and 365 K's.  His success had him on the Cuban National team in 2007 for the Pan American Games, and he pitched for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic in 2009.  In his first game on the big stage in 2009, he pitched four innings while giving up one run and striking out seven verses Australia. The Cuban National team went on to win in Pool B, and Chapman was given the start against Japan in the opening game of Round 2.  Unfortunately for Chapman, he went head to head with Daisuke Matsuzaka and didn't perform as well as the starter for the then Boston Red Sox.  He allowed three runs and also walked three in two and a third's innings while only sending one batter back to the dugout without putting the ball in play.  Cuba would get a rematch against Japan in the finals, but Chapman wouldn't be the starter this time around, and the team lost again to the Japanese.  Scouts didn't overlook Chapman because of his bad outing though, and he was highly sought after by MLB teams come the off-season of 2009.  The only problem for Chapman: he was Cuban and would need to defect in order to leave the country.  He broke this final barrier between him and Major League Baseball while in the Netherlands on July 1, 2009.  Chapman simply walked out the front door of the hotel the team was staying in and hopped into a car driven by another an acquaintance.  He lived in Andorra, a southwestern European state of about 84,000 people.  While there, Chapman then petitioned to the MLB to be granted free agent status in order to be signed by a MLB team.  Once the MLB okayed his petition, and Chapman obtained a visa, he was set to watch the bidding for him take place.

  At the beginning of this mad scramble for the hard-throwing 21 year-old southpaw, it appeared that the Boston Red Sox were the front runners in the race to sign him.  The Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Cincinnati Reds, and Miami (then Florida) Marlins were among the other teams trying to sign him.  When the dust had settled, the Reds of Cincinnati emerged victorious on January 10, 2010 when Chapman signed for $30.25 million over the length of six years.  As a part of the deal, he was also given a $16.25 million signing bonus that would be spread out over the next decade.  It was an amazing amount of money for someone who hadn't pitched against hitters in the U.S.A. yet.

  When asked about why he wanted to come play ball in the U.S., besides the lucrative amount of money, Chapman said, "The best baseball players in the world are in the United States.  Any baseball player in the world would like to play in the United States."

  The General Manager for the Reds, Walt Jocketty, shared his excitement for this young talent with words to go along with the cash he dealt out, "Every time I read the reports, I get more excited.  This is a talent that doesn't come along very often.  For the Cincinnati Reds to be able to step up and make this move is very important and significant."

  While most Cincinnati fans would've liked to see the lefty in the majors right off the bat, it was apparent that Chapman needed experience in the minors vs. MLB hitters, and Aroldis was sent to the Reds AAA farm team: the Louisville Bats for the start of the 2010 season.  Chapman made his professional debut four months and a day after being signed by the Reds against the Toledo Mud Hens.  He pitched exceptionally going four and two-thirds innings, giving up one run, and striking out nine.  His smoking fastball started turning the heads of less-informed MLB fan-crowd towards the middle of the season.  Chapman would go on to pitch 39 games for Louisville.  He started 13 games, but was mediocre in those starts with a 5-5 record and 4.11 ERA.  Chapman was still striking hitters out with great frequency, but the control was causing him trouble, as it does to most pitchers with high-velocity arms.  Another problem was that he only had two pitches: a blazing fastball and a dirty slider.  Scouts doubted that he would work as a starter with only those two pitches.  The Reds felt he'd be better suited in the short-term getting comfortable working shorter periods in the game.  Consequently, Chapman was shifted to the bullpen, where he pitched in 26 games with much more consistency with a 4-1 record and a 2.40 ERA.  The rookie finished his 2010 minor league season with a 3.57 ERA and recorded 8 saves.

  By the end of August, Jocketty was chomping at the bit to bring Chapman up to the majors so he could be a part of the team's 2010 playoff push.  However, the Reds weren't going to bring him up as the starter that he was signed the big bucks to be; instead, Chapman would serve as a bullpen asset at the end of the season.  The Reds called Chapman to the majors August 31, one day before he would lose eligibility for the post-season, before their game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

  Jocketty stated this before the game on moving Chapman to the bullpen, "We felt with his stuff, if you shorten the game more he should be successful.  That's why we put him in there for now.  We'll get him back in there starting next year."

  Sure enough, Chapman entered the game in the eight inning against the Brewers.  He delivered his first pitch: a 98-mph fastball right in the strike zone.  Chapman stayed out for the entire eighth inning and shut down the Brewers in consecutive order by throwing just eight pitches in an 8-4 win for the Reds.  Aroldis recorded his first career win one day later in his second appearance against Milwaukee during a seventh inning appearance where he struck out two of three batters he faced in the inning.  The Cuban Missile (as he was now starting to be nicknamed) went on to pitch in 13 more games during the 2010 regular season.  He finished with a 2-2 record, a 2.03 ERA, and struck out 19 batters in thirteen and a third innings.  Once the playoffs came around, Chapman didn't see action until Game 2 of the NLDS against the Phillies where he went to the mound in a crucial seventh inning with the game tied 4-4.  Unfortunately for the young lefty and probably due to the immense pressure on the young rookie, Chapman allowed two hits (somewhat due to fielding issues) which let in three runs, none earned.  The Reds couldn't come back from those runs, and lost the game 4-7.  Chapman would pitch again in Game 3 in the ninth inning with his team down 0-2.  This time, he allowed one hit, but held the Phillies to their two run lead into the bottom of the ninth.  However, the Reds couldn't get a run across home plate and were ousted from the post-season after just three games.

  The 2011 off-season would be an important one for Chapman if he was to reach his potential and start games on the mound instead of in a chair watching.  The initial plan from GM Jocketty was to have Chapman increase his arm strength in Goodyear, Arizona and then go to Puerto Rico to play winter ball.  The hard-working lefty made two appearances out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League in October and was scheduled to start on October 31.  However, he was scratched due to shoulder stiffness, something that was an immediate concern for the Reds for a player who hurles the ball 100+ MPH.  The plans were then promptly changed as a precaution for Chapman for the rest of the off-season.

  Jocketty explained, "We've decided against sending him to Puerto Rico.  He's on a strength-and-conditioning program in Arizona.  He'll go to Florida after that and continue to work out."  When questioned about the possibility of Chapman having an injury that would need to be dealt with, Jocketty stated, "There's no injury.  We just want to make sure he's 100 percent.  He had the shoulder issue during the season."

  The 23-year old opened the 2011 season on the opening day roster as the set-up man.  The Reds wanted to see how he would do in his first full-season in the bullpen, gaining more innings in relief if he could handle it.  Chapman responded well and didn't allow a run until his 13th appearance of the season.  However, including his 13th appearance, he would give up 9 runs in one and a third innings in his next four outings.  Chapman was optioned to the minor leagues in the middle of May where he pitched briefly in AA and AAA before rejoining the Reds in mid-June.  Again, Chapman started off hot and only allowed 3 runs in his next 20 appearances.  Aroldis finished the season with 50 innings under his belt in 54 appearances.  He was mostly limited to 1 inning or less stretches and only exceeded that mark seven times over the course of the season.  Chapman finished with a 4-1 record and a 3.60 ERA.  He also had 13 Holds, 34th in the National League.  The Reds missed the post-season and finished 79-83, eleven games out of the wild-card spot.

Chapman doing a somersault after a game in 2012.
  So, 2011 was finished, this was the year Chapman would become the starter that Jocketty was raving about back in 2010, right?  Well, that was the plan.  Up until the Reds traded for ace Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres for a package around catcher Yasmani Grandal and infielder Yonder Alonso.  Now, there were six players vying for five spots in the starting rotation.  The 1 and 2 spots were locked into Mat Latos and stud Johnny Cueto.  That left three spots for the foursome of durable Bronson Arroyo, young Mike Leake, the often injury Homer Bailey, and the erratic, but promising Aroldis Chapman.  At first, Chapman was a front-runner to get the job.  He had worked hard over the off-season to develop his curveball, but in the end, an injury to closer Ryan Madson and relievers Bill Bray and Nick Masset forced Jocketty's hand, and the GM placed Chapman once again in the bullpen.  However, after closer Sean Marshall struggled greatly during in his new role as closer for the Reds, Jocketty made the decision to put Chapman at closer and downgrade Marshall to set-up man.

  The decision turned out to be the right one, and Chapman was soon making every penny of the $30.25 million worth it.  The now 24-year old southpaw dominated the 9th inning with the best of them.  Chapman was nearly perfect at the start.  He didn't allow an earned run until his 25th appearance.  That 0.00 ERA looked unreal for awhile.  Chapman was rolling, and the league noticed.  Aroldis was named to the 2012 All-star game along with Craig Kimbrel, Joel Hanrahan, and Jonathan Papelbon as the relievers for the National League.  Chapman made an appearance and pitched to two batters, walking one and striking out the other.

  After his first all-star game, the "Cuban Missile" (the name was starting to catch on for Chapman) continued his success in his end of game appearances.  He went on an amazing stretch from July 15 - August 12 where he recorded a save in every appearance he made.  He was named the Delivery Man of the Month for both July and August after the amazing 28 day period.  At the season's conclusion, Chapman was eight in the MLB in saves (5th in the National League) with 38 in 43 chances.  He compiled a 5-5 record with a 1.51 ERA.  Amazingly, he struck out 122 in 71 and a two-thirds innings for a 15.3 K/9.  Chapman was also recognized at the conclusion of the season by finishing eighth in the Cy Young race and twelfth in the MVP talks.  Unfortunately for his team, the Reds were again finished after the NLDS after a loss in Game 5 to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.

  So here we are at the fork of two roads, will Aroldis Chapman be a starter or reliever for the Cincinnati Reds?  It's a perfectly legitimate question, regardless of Chapman's talent.  From the current standpoint, Jacketty is determined to have Chapman starting and has already said that Chapman will be starting come the start of the season.  Jonathan Broxton is in town, so there's no gaping hole in the bullpen that the Reds need to fix.  So where should Chapman fit in this Reds ball club?

  Now that we know his past, and the present state of the Reds, so let's look at the debate (pros and cons) of Jacketty's decision to move Chapman to the rotation:

The sky, and I mean the clouds that would freeze your head off if you got that high, is the limit for this kid in the rotation.  He has his three pitches: fastball, nasty slider, and an average change-up... (he trashed the curve) so that isn't an issue anymore.  Chapman throws extremely hard, and struck out a ton of batters in his bullpen experience in 2011 and 2012.  He has the potential to be a top 5 pitcher in the league with that kind of speed with the off-speed pitch.  However, the reason he ended up in the bullpen in the first place was because was struggling with the control factor over the long periods over time over the course of starting games.  Also, Chapman did have the issues with his shoulder back in the 2010 off-season after some AZL games.  Injury is a legitimate concern for the lefty who's throwing the ball 100+ MPH every inning of work.

Examining a couple of other situations where this has happened, the results haven't been good:

  Neftali Feliz:

Bullpen Numbers (2011): 32 Saves, 2.74 ERA.

Starter Numbers (2012): 3-1, 3.16 ERA.  Season ended with an injury after those four starts.

  Daniel Bard:

Bullpen Numbers (2011): 3.33 ERA, top set-up man in American League.

Starter Numbers (2012): 5-6, 6.22 ERA.  Injury ended his time as starter.

Both of these young pitchers were hurt when they tried to make the jump from reliever to starter.  However, there are success stories as well.  Think of Ryan Dempster's terrific season last year!

  In the end, I think that Jocketty is ultimately making the right decision for Chapman's career.  The Reds invested a ton of money into him, and it would almost seem like a waste not to see if he can make it as a starter after his incredible season in 2012.  A part of me wants to say no, keep Chapman at the closer spot.  He's had the shoulder problems, he's had issues with his command, you don't want to have him getting injured like Strasburg and then you're on a 2 year recovery plan.  But you could say that about almost any player... why not just limit Lebron James to 15 minutes so he doesn't have as much of a chance to have an injury scare like the one against the Knicks last Sunday?  All in all, there comes a point where you have to simply let Chapman pitch.  This is baseball, America's pastime.  Stop worrying about the what ifs and simply watch in amazement as a 25-year lefty throws a baseball 105 MPH towards home plate.  He isn't called the "Cuban Missile" for nothing.

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