In January, 2010, the Cincinnati Reds surprised the baseball establishment by signing Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman to a six year, $30.25 million deal. The Reds staked a large chunk of cash on a raw, 21 year old Cuban defector with an electric arm. “What we think he needs now is some refinement in his delivery, because everything else is there,” Jocketty said in 2010. “This is a talent that doesn’t come along very often.” Jocketty’s statement could not have been more prophetic.
The talent was evident from the get-go. Chapman electrified radar guns throughout Spring Training, AAA, and the major leagues, earning the nickname, “The Cuban Missile”. It took time, however, for Chapman to refine his delivery. In the meantime, he struggled to throw strikes. It took the better part of two seasons for Chapman to begin to harness his command. The Reds made the decision to use Chapman out of the bullpen during that important time in his development.
In September, Chapman began to turn the corner. In his last five outings of 2011, Chapman did not surrender a run. He gave up one hit and four walks in six innings over that stretch. His ERA dropped from 4.09 on 09/10/2011 to 3.60 at season’s end. He has not surrendered a run since. In his last ten regular season outings dating back to 09/10/2011, Chapman has posted the following results:
“Chapman is much like Nolan and Randy Johnson were in their career when they had trouble finding the strike zone,” said Dusty Baker recently. “Sandy Koufax, too. A lot of hard throwers like that had trouble finding the strike zone and so a lot of them started in the bullpen like Chapman’s starting.”
Clearly, the Reds plan to eventually use Chapman as starter. Are the Reds convinced Chapman has permanently turned the corner?
Koufax turned the corner in his third big league season (age 21). In his fourth season, Koufax logged 26 starts. From that point forward, he never failed to start at least 23 games per season.
Johnson turned the corner in his third big league season (age 26). He averaged more than 30 starts per season over the next 20 years.
Chapman is now pitching in his third big league season (age 24). Unlike Johnson and Koufax, however, Chapman did not start a big league game in either of his first two seasons.
He started in Cuba. He started in AAA. He pitched extremely well, as a starter, in Spring Training. “I prefer to be a starter,” Chapman said, “but they’ve decided to put me in the bullpen and that’s the job I’m doing.”
Will the Cuban Missile continue to demonstrate the command we’ve seen since last Fall? If so, he could become one of the top 10-15 starting pitchers in the National League. If he is able to stay on his current performance trajectory, he will become one of the top assets in Major League Baseball as a player who will earn 40-50% of his market value through 2014.
So, when will the Reds unleash Chapman by giving him his first big league start? Yesterday, ESPN posted the following in its Rumor Central blog:
I understand the Reds have wanted to bring Chapman along slowly. Besides learning to harness his command, Chapman was challenged with adapting to a new country, a new language, a new life without his family, and new-found wealth. That’s a lot to ask from a young man. I get it.
The blog, however, states that sending Homer Bailey to the bullpen is a move the Reds “have been reluctant to make.” That one escapes me.
Bailey was also once a prospect with great promise. Seven years later, I believe, Homer Bailey is unlikely to get significantly better. Show me examples of major league starters whose careers suddenly picked up after five seasons of mediocrity. On most teams, Homer Bailey is a #5 starter or maybe a #4 starter. On this team, he’s #6. The “reluctance” is inexplicable. Let’s hope the Reds overcome their reluctance soon. Spring Training is over. These games count.
Bailey is out of options. He can’t be sent down. Move him to the bullpen immediately. If he sulks, so what? This is a business. Chapman didn’t sulk when he was assigned to the bullpen out of Spring Training. He did his job. As Jeff Brantley mentioned recently, pitching out the bullpen can condition a pitcher to be more aggressive in the strike zone. Perhaps that’s what Homer needs.
Get Chapman ready to take Bailey’s turn in the rotation. Watch the GAB turnstiles turn like a fan blade when Chapman pitches. Get your return on the kid, while he’s here, because 2015 will be here before you know it.
Since I posted this piece, Keith Law added this comment to the ESPN Rumor Central blog post:
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