Aroldis Chapman has impressed many this spring with his 2.25 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 8 innings, as he continues to be stretched out for the purpose of becoming a starting pitcher. Or is he? Who really knows at this point, the Cincinnati Reds certainly don’t have any idea what they are doing. Certainly, prior to giving three-years and $21 million to Jonathan Broxton to become their closer this winter, they should have had an idea of where they were going to put “The Cuban Missile”, the rotation or the bullpen.
Chapman was absolutely dominant in 2012, posting a 15.3 K/9 with a 1.51 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and a 122:23 K:BB over 71.2 innings. A one-time starter for the Cuban National Team, the Reds have flirted with the idea of returning him to the rotation a couple of times, falling in love with his fastball and brilliance out of the bullpen, instead, while basking in the glory of having all of their starters healthy (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake) for the entire 2012 season.
With those same five guys back for the 2013 season and Tony Cingrani and Daniel Corcino reaching the upper levels of the Cincinnati Reds minor league system, the Reds are still debating as to how to handle their flame-throwing lefty, with less than two weeks remaining before Opening Day at Great American Ballpark.
For the Cincinnati Reds, the potential that Aroldis Chapman has as a starter seems to be the enticing factor in the thoughts and decision-m aking of the upper management, while the dominance that he has shown as a relief pitcher is overlooked.
That way of thinking isn’t terrible, it has happened many times in recent seasons…
Daniel Bard went from a dominant Boston Red Sox relief arm (2.62 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and a 150:54 K:BB over 147.2 innings in 2010 and 2011, combined) to an afterthought in a devastatingly disappointing 2012 season for the Saux. Bard was moved to the rotation, where his potential was greater, getting 54 innings over 10 starts and posting a 5.33 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and a 32:36 K:BB. After going to Triple-A Pawtucket to work on his release point, he posted an even worse 18.71 ERA, 3.23 WHIP and a 4:6 K:BB over just 4.1 innings. Needless to say, Bard won’t be starting any games for Boston in 2013, and he may not have a spot in a very deep Boston bullpen to start the season.
Neftali Feliz was one of the top relief pitchers in baseball from 2009 through 2011, posting a 2.54 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and a 164:56 K:BB over 162.2 innings, while saving 74 games for the Texas Rangers. With those fantastic numbers, how great would he look pitching every fifth day, providing the Rangers with 200-plus innings instead of the 60 to 75 that he was giving as their closer? In 2012, Feliz went to the rotation and did pretty well. For whatever reason, he was brought out of the bullpen for one outing on April 25 against the New York Yankees, four days after tossing 119 pitches in a complete game loss to Detroit, and then the wheels came off. Not right away, though, as he did manage four starts with a 3.32 ERA and 1.38 WHIP before being shut down due to Tommy John surgery, which he didn’t even undergo until August, which will cost him the entire 2013 season, as well. When he returns in 2014, the Rangers will have other starters coming up through their impressive minor league system, which may allow Feliz to move back to the bullpen, taking over the closer role for the aging Joe Nathan.
Joba Chamberlain…what might have been for the one-time dominant reliever for the New York Yankees. After coming up in 2007 and posting a 0.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 34:6 K:BB in just 24 innings in 2007, the Yankees moved the powerful right-hander from the bullpen to the rotation on June 3, 2008, before moving him back to the bullpen September 2, when he came back from a stint on the DL due to shoulder tendinitis. He was solid over 12 starts, posting a 2.76 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over 65.1 innings with a 74:25 K:BB. After returning from his shoulder injury, though, Chamberlain posted a 2.38 ERA over 11.1 innings with a 14:3 K:BB. That didn’t stop the club from trying him in the rotation again in 2009, this time making 31 starts and amassing 157.1 innings while posting a pedestrian 4.75 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. Chamberlain was moved back to the bullpen in 2010 and wasn’t nearly as dominant as his first go-round there, posting a 4.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and a 77:22 K:BB in 71.2 innings. However, since the start of 2011, it has all been downhill for the big righty. He had Tommy John surgery in June of 2011, he broke his ankle while recovering from that and missed most of the 2012 season, and now, heading into his contract walk year, Joba Chamberlain wants to start, but seems to be on the outside looking in to the Yankees rotation.
The reason that teams will want to move young, successful, dominant relief pitchers to their rotations lies in the results of those like Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox. After dominating out of the bullpen in 2010 and 2011 (a combined 2.58 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and a 111:37 K:BB in 94.1 innings), the White Sox moved Sale to the rotation in 2012. He didn’t disappoint even the harshest observers, posting a 3.05 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and a 192:51 K:BB over 192 innings. The issue now is whether or not Sale’s elbow can handle the rotation, as jumped from 71 innings in 2011 to the whopping 192 in 2012, while missing a couple of starts with “shoulder fatigue” in late-July and early-August, and he was rail thin, standing 6’6″, 168 pounds last season. Chicago seems to have faith in him, though, as Robin Ventura named him the Opening Day starter and the team extended him for five-years, $32.5 million already this spring.
Some other converts from the bullpen to the rotation (or even flip-flopping during their careers) include: C.J. Wilson, Ryan Dempster, John Smoltz, Derek Lowe, Adam Wainwright, Pedro Martinez, Mark Buehrle, and Brett Myers. While some of those names aren’t very…attractive…they did have some success in the rotation during their careers and there are a couple of Hall of Fame pitchers there.
Potential is a scary thing in sports. It is why players get several opportunities before finally being shipped off to become Triple-A depth. It is why roster spots are wasted on Rule 5 draft picks. It is why teams go over slot recommendations to land their draft picks. It is why teams risk injuries to their superstars to see if they can get a little more out of them. You don’t see the Atlanta Braves trying to get more out of Craig Kimbrel, do you? Why should the Cincinnati Reds try to get more potential out of Aroldis Chapman when they know what they have: the second best reliever in baseball (next to Kimbrel), who is nearly a lock to close out the game when you have the lead in the 9th inning.
For every Chris Sale, there is a frayed elbow ligament and a Joba Chamberlain or Neftali Feliz story…and Chris Sale is no sure thing to repeat. Pete Schourek won 18 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1995 at the age of 26, throwing 109 more innings than he did in the 1994 season, and he followed that up with elbow and shoulder injuries before being out of baseball at the age of 32.
Which do you prefer: Domination or Potential?
- Chapman decision looms large for Reds’ rotation (mlb.mlb.com)
- Reds’ Chapman wants to close, not start games (tracking.si.com)
- Teams should go with youth in bullpens (espn.go.com)