Not So Fast!

A report Thursday indicated that contrary to previous opinion, Aroldis Chapman would resume his role as closer in 2013 instead of moving to the rotation. That triggered a reaction from the Reds who denied that a final decision had been made. Within the past week Chapman made a comment indicating that he would prefer to continue protecting ninth inning leads.

When Cincinnati re-signed Jonathan Broxton this offseason it was considered a given that would release Aroldis Chapman for a long-anticipated move to the rotation. New reports are suggesting that is anything but a done deal. It started last Saturday when the Cuban expressed his preference to remain the team's closer. Yesterday stories broke that the Reds were going to announce that he would be getting his wish. Later in the day a statement was released that they were not going to announce anything and manager Dusty Baker denied that a decision had been made. It's ten days until the Reds opening day and the cat will be out of the bag soon, announcement or not.

The conversion was supposed to happen one year ago after Chapman took the mound to start some preseason games but a flurry of injuries in the Reds pen prompted a call to have him remain there. Two of his three Cactus League appearances this season had him throwing the first pitch, but he's only tallied eight innings thus far. Previously there were rumors that Baker preferred him to stay put, but then again the Reds skipper didn't reach into his pocket and commit $21 million to Broxton, or the money due Chapman in the remainder of his contract either.

Should Broxton not inherit the job it would cause some head-scratching because the relief core figures to be plenty deep already without Chapman. If Broxton gets bumped back to a non-closing role he'll join right-handers Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, Alfredo Simon, and J.J. Hoover while Nick Masset rehabs to return from the DL. There was some speculation that they might want a lefty specialist in one of those spots to go along with Sean Marshall and though Chapman is a southpaw the closer doesn't really count because when he takes the ball in the ninth it doesn't matter who is at the plate.

And take the ball he did. After Chapman moved to the role early last season he didn't really thrive as much as he utterly dominated. He struggled briefly for around two and a half weeks in June, allowed one earned run in an August game when he still picked up a save, and got tagged for three in a September game before he was temporarily put on the shelf for shoulder fatigue. Other than that he did not allow a single earned run the rest of the season….nada, nothing, zilch. One could go on and on citing superlative stats, but they just invoke memories of the kid that was ready to start shaving in the fifth grade competing against little leaguers.

Though a conversion into the rotation would have a lot of uncertainty, it's not surprising that Cincinnati would want to see Chapman utilized over more innings. Of course in that role he would have to learn to pace himself, keep good command, and rely on a third pitch. His control in 2012 was plenty good; before that, well, not so much. During times when his slider has been sharp it's appeared unhittable and if he needs to develop a changeup it's no secret that Mario Soto is on their payroll to teach the pitch that he perfected during his playing career. Besides, within Chapman's arm is the rare ability to reach back and create a good chance to power his way out of jam at any time after a walk.

An experiment starting him could yield anything from a disaster, a la Neftali Feliz, to a Cy Young winner. As the Reds have improved so have their goals. They're no longer looking to settle with a postseason appearance, but instead they're gearing up for a deep October run. A rotation including Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Chapman could be a formidable challenge for any lineup in a playoff series. On the other hand, closing is important, but often overrated. Fact is that a run allowed in the ninth inning does not count for more than one allowed in the first eight. It can be disheartening to lose a lead at the end, but the closer has little value when his team trails in the final frame.

That's not to say that the final rotation spot isn't in good hands with Mike Leake. Statistically he matched up favorably against all other #5's in the NL last season except Barry Zito who worked with a $19 million price tag. The Reds had big plans for Leake when they invested their first pick (eighth overall) in the 2009 draft. To say he was fast-tracked is an understatement because he was the first pitcher in twenty years to make his MLB debut without a minor league appearance. He answered the call with the best performance in the Reds rotation over the first half of 2010. Opening day injuries the next year pulled him back there again where he remained most of the season while posting a sub-four ERA, second lowest of all Reds starters. He's now 25 years old and should be entering the peak years of his career.

Converting Chapman to the rotation would be a bold move and not without risk, but sometimes risk yields rewards. Perhaps there's a fear that the extra work might cause an injury, but those are unpredictable and something serious isn't likely so he could probably return to the pen if necessary. Keeping status quo isn't a bad option either because the Reds 2012 staff tied for the lowest ERA in the NL despite pitching in one of the more hitter-friendly venues. Now management is tasked with determining which option is good and which one is better, which sounds like a "high quality" problem.

Chapman was expected to start when he signed a six-year/$30 million deal with the Reds. Now he's halfway finished with nary one on his resume despite of an opportunity to give him a try in 2011 when they were out of contention. Bronson Arroyo is in the final year of his contract so if Chapman remains a reliever the conversation might be revived in the future, especially if prospects Daniel Corcino and Tony Cingrani struggle in AAA. If he continues to electrify crowds out of the pen his time in Cincinnati will probably end with his current contract because higher payroll teams will offer more than the Reds can afford to pay a reliever. In the meantime Cincinnati will continue to ponder whether he can contribute more as a dominant pitcher for 70 innings or an unknown quantity in 200. Pondering will cease the first time the Reds enter the ninth inning with a save situation in April, at least for a while.

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