Jim Bowden hears that there’s a disagreement about Aroldis Chapman’s role in 2013. ($) Dusty Baker, some staffers and some players believe Chapman gives the team the best chance to win as the closer. Meanwhile, Walt Jocketty and pitching coach Bryan Price are convinced he makes the Reds better as a part of the rotation. This shouldn’t be much of a discussion. Aroldis Chapman should start for the Reds in 2013.
Let’s discuss Dusty’s scenario of having Chapman remain as the closer. Jonathon Broxton was signed this offseason for 3 years/$21 million with a $9 million club option for 2016. Needless to say, he’ll be the 22nd highest paid reliever in history according to AAV at $7 million. (The highest paid reliever who wasn’t signed as a closer) Quite a hefty chunk of change for an 8th inning guy, especially when the Reds have Sean Marshall under contract for $4.5 million less through 2015. Their bullpen is one of the leagues best in 2012 with six relievers throwing 70% of their innings and pitching to under a 3.20 FIP. The finished with the third lowest FIP and SIERA in the majors in 2012. The Reds, who were one of only seven teams in history to get 30 starts out of five different starters in a single season in 2012, would reasonably have another lights out bullpen cemented by Chapman in 2013. Why mess with an excellent setup? Even if the ill-fated shoulder fatigue that Chapman experienced last summer resurfaced, the 9th inning duties could be shifted to Marshall or Broxton in a pinch.
So why doesn't Dusty move Broxton or Marshall to the closer role? Broxton was walking on a tightrope frequently with the Royals before coming to the Reds. His 1.92 K/BB in the first half of 2012 would be in the bottom 25% of relievers who threw more than 30 IP. He came to the Reds and started throwing a cutter and ultimately was very effective in the second half as Jack Moore points out at Fangraphs. His whiff rate increased from 6.3% in Kansas City to 11.6% in Cincinnati, which led to a 1.7% jump in K/9 and a 2.3% drop in BB/9. Perhaps Dusty doesn’t trust Broxton to continue his second half performance? Marshall struggled in his first two months as the closer, which ultimately led to Chapman’s shift to the 9th inning. Maybe he’s permanently landed himself in Dusty’ doghouse? Obviously, there are options for the Reds to plug into the 9th inning if Chapman would move to the rotation.
Price and Jocketty don’t want to jerk Chapman back and forth between starter and reliever. They have recent transitions to be hopeful for Chapman's successful move to the rotation.
Chris Sale pitched 71 innings with a 3.12 FIP, 10.01 K/9 and 1.5 fWAR in 2011. He had a small issue with his arm that made the White Sox consider moving him back to a reliever during his first year as a starter in 2012 but ultimately totaled 192 innings with a 3.27 FIP and 9 K/9, leading to a 4.5 fWAR. The White Sox are so confident in his transition that they just inked him to a 5 year/$32.5 million extension. CJ Wilson pitched 73.2 innings for the Rangers in 2009 with a 2.89 FIP, 10.26 K/9 and a 2.0 fWAR. In 2010, he accumulated 204 innings with 3.56 FIP, 7.5 K/9 and 4.8 fWAR. He had an even lower FIP in 2011 with a 6.1 fWAR and received a 5-year/$77.5 contract with the Angels in the offseason. Sale had some trouble in the second half of 2012 where his FIP increased to 4.03 from 2.61 in the first half, likely due to his BABIP regressing from .255 to .338. Wilson did not experience that much trouble during his first year but did struggle in 2012 with bone spurs in his elbow.
Not every recent transition from reliever to starter has been a success, as Neftali Feliz needed Tommy John surgery last year when he threw out his elbow and Daniel Bard lost nearly all of his effectiveness. But Chapman is a rare talent. Some may try to say that he shouldn’t be a starter due to only having two pitches in his arsenal or doubt his ability to stay healthy with an expanded workload, especially since he suffered from shoulder fatigue. How his arm holds up to more pitches will likely be the main concern. Still, the Reds will probably receive a higher upgrade by putting him in the rotation and moving Mike Leake (1.5 fWAR in 179 IP) to the bullpen, even if it’s for less than 150 innings. (Chapman produced 3.3 fWAR in 60% less innings in 2012.)
Essentially, the Reds should let Chapman start, limiting his workload during the second half of the season to avoid fatigue. A similar innings limit to what the Nationals set for Stephen Strasburg last year would be a good benchmark. At the least, the Reds wouldn't have to worry about his game closing antics anymore.