Starting Aroldis Chapman could be risky for Reds

Aroldis Chapman long tossing in spring training
Aroldis Chapman is preparing for a role as a starter for the Cincinnati Reds. (Gary Landers/The Cincinnati Enquirer)

There is an anxious sense of anticipation hovering over the Cincinnati Reds training camp again this season. There is excitement in the furnace-hot Arizona air and lots of buzz among the media crews. Flame-throwing lefty closer Aroldis Chapman has been handed a slot in the starting rotation, which was a plan last year that never materialized. And I can’t help but wonder what general manager Walt Jocketty is smoking in early spring, since he normally has a solid baseball mind.

Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker has distanced himself from the Chapman chatter, saying it was an “organizational decision.” Besides, says Dusty, the Reds will probably go with a six-man rotation when games start to matter. That’s code speak which suggests the “Cuban Missile” will have his innings closely monitored.

When the Reds signed Aroldis Chapman as an international free agent on January 11, 2010, the intention was to make him a future starting ace. Chapman threw a total of 328 innings over two seasons as a starter for the local Holguin team in the Cuban Professional League, although he made several relief appearances as well during his second year of duty. With Cincinnati in 2010, Aroldis Chapman pitched 105 innings between the major and minor leagues. But in 2011, he logged only 50 frames in 54 opportunities.

Aroldis Chapman was supposed to graduate to the starting corps last season, but former closer Ryan Madson suffered a torn elbow ligament, and Chapman was again dispatched to the bullpen. After a short weaning process, Chapman responded by racking up 38 saves, while whiffing 122 batters in 71.2 innings. Then, early last September, the lanky Cuban was shut down for about three weeks, experiencing what Baker called “shoulder fatigue.” For the Reds, that should have raised a red flag.

For his part, Aroldis Chapman likes the idea of starting, primarily because he feels such a role would position him to make more money. But that’s twisted logic. Looking for relief help in the offseason, Cincinnati signed Jonathan Broxton, who has seen better days, to a three-year, $21 million deal. Rafael Soriano just inked a new pact with the Washington Nationals worth $24 million, and Mariano Rivera has made a small fortune slamming the door for the New York Yankees, and he’s done it by using only one pitch.

Chapman has two pitches, and they are both very good. As most of us are aware, Aroldis throws a four-seam fastball that has been clocked at 105.1 mph, a major league record. His devastating slider reminds me of the pitch Randy Johnson threw a few years back. With that one-two combo, Chapman, who just turned 25, could close games for the next 15 years. He could become the left-handed version of Rivera, and that’s not too shabby.

On February 28, his birthday, Aroldis Chapman made his starting debut against the Colorado Rockies, retiring all six batters he faced over two innings of work. He only had one strikeout and recorded four ground ball outs, meaning his new pitch, the split-finger fastball, was doing its job. Still, his bread-and-butter fastball only topped out at 93 mpr, hardly Chapman-like and easier to hit. No more uno, dos and adios.

Veteran Reds hurler Bronson Arroyo feels that Chapman, as a starter, has to pace himself more and back off on his fastball, which takes away from his God-given talent.

“I just don’t think (being a starter) maximizes his effectiveness,”Arroyo reasons. “You’re not using how special he is.”

The Reds already have a solid rotation with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Arroyo and Mike Leake. They also signed former Milwaukee Brewer, Manny Parra, who could also spot start. I just believe a Broxton-Chapman combo to finish off opponents would be in the Reds best interest. Jocketty backed himself into a corner by giving the burly Broxton such a hefty deal, but the contract is back-loaded and the former Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander will make just $4 million this year. Chapman will pocket almost that much when his bonus payment kicks in this fall. So, there’s no need for any jealousy or bad blood.

Aroldis Chapman is a born closer because he has the perfect demeanor for the job. The guy is a daredevil. Aroldis drives cars almost as fast as he pitches, and has a suspended license to prove it. He is a moody enigma in the clubhouse, and is stoic and cocky on the mound. The first time he tried to defect from Castro’s regime, Chapman failed and was reprimanded. But he was successful on a second attempt, casually walking out of a Rotterdam, Holland, hotel and into a waiting taxi. Amigos, that takes some brass “cojones,” especially when getting nailed again could have meant jail time.

I wish the Cincinnati Reds the best of luck on their renewed experiment with Aroldis Chapman as a starter, especially if that’s what Aroldis really wants. But in my view, it’s foolish to mess with success, especially when it risks the longevity of a golden arm.

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