Reds proceeding with caution in Aroldis' transition
As history shows mixed results, club aware of obstacles in shifting closer to rotation
CINCINNATI -- We already know why the Reds want to shift Aroldis Chapman from a successful closer to a starting pitcher. They feel there's a potential No. 1 or No. 2 power lefty starter in their midst and want to see if they can mine it.
As the offseason moves toward Spring Training, the pressing question will be exactly how they will go about making the transition while protecting Chapman's arm and the Reds' $30 million investment.
The answer is, very carefully and probably with a splash of imagination.
"I think regardless of where people stand on the question, I think the days of hiking a pitcher's innings number by 50 or 60 or 80 innings in today's standards would be considered irresponsible," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We're going to be very conscientious of that.
"However, we haven't set any exact numbers or even gotten to the point of naming our starting rotation. If we were to move forward with Chappy in the rotation, there will have to be some creativity involved in how we do it. That will be a challenge, but a challenge we're up to."
After setting up in 2011, Chapman trained last winter to become a starter and produced some of the best results at Spring Training. Injuries in camp to closer Ryan Madson and setup men Nick Masset and Bill Bray forced the Reds to shift Chapman back into the bullpen.
Turning 25 in February, Chapman hasn't talked about the details of his transition to starting with the Reds' brass yet, but he believes he can handle whatever is decided.
"I have no worries about my arm," Chapman said via an interpreter. "Since I've known about this, I've been working and getting prepared to do what I did before. Nothing has changed."
The Reds already know they have one of the best closers in the game in Chapman, who can bring 100-mph heat, especially in shorter appearances. He was 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA in 68 appearances last season. Over 71 2/3 innings, he issued only 23 walks with 122 strikeouts.
Although he did not become the Reds' closer until May 20, Chapman was tied for third in the National League with 38 saves in 43 attempts. He had a single-season club-record 27 consecutive saves from June 26-Sept. 4.
"He could very well be my best starter and my best reliever," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
Cincinnati re-signed free agent right-handed reliever Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract with designs on having him close and moving Chapman into the rotation. Chapman could join a strong rotation that already features four guys who reached 200 innings last season, including 19-game winner Johnny Cueto, 14-game winner Mat Latos, consistent veteran Bronson Arroyo and no-hitter-throwing Homer Bailey.
If Chapman makes the starting five out of camp, his innings could jump from 71 to 150 or more. His previous high was 118 1/3 innings in 2009 with his Cuban club prior to defecting. Of course, that isn't the Major Leagues, either. He also would have to develop secondary pitches, namely a changeup. He currently uses his fastball and slider the most effectively.
Some are skeptical that Chapman can be successful as a starter, including teammates.
"It will be difficult. It's not an easy move," Arroyo said. "He should get a fair shot. It's just my opinion. I'm just saying it's not an easy move -- if people think throwing 80 innings a year is any way comparable to taking the ball every fifth day and throwing 200, it's not. It's such a different ballgame that you don't know what you're going to get.
"I'm not saying he can't do it. I am saying it will be a large change. It will be a large change on the way you go about your business. It's running a marathon vs. running the 200 meters in the Olympics."
Examples that succeeded, and failed
Over recent seasons, pitchers working under special circumstances such as innings limits, hard pitch counts or other restrictions have had varying degrees of success.
One plan the Reds may not want to emulate is the one the Nationals set last season for phenom Stephen Strasburg. Because an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery limited Strasburg to 24 innings in 2011, Washington set a hard cap of 160 innings for the 2012 season. When he reached 159 1/3 innings in early September and was still healthy, the Nationals shut him down. Amid much controversy, the club did not have Strasburg for the postseason and was eliminated by the Cardinals in the NL Division Series.
On the other hand, the White Sox converted 23-year-old Chris Sale from a reliever over his first two years to a starter in 2012. General manager Kenny Williams and the team had Sale on a "college starting plan" at times, during which Sale basically started once a week. He was also given three extended breaks throughout the season.
Sale went from throwing 71 innings in 2011 to 192 innings in 2012 and was both healthy and successful. He became an All-Star as he went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts.
In 2006, after failing as a closer for the Indians, the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona was sent to the Minors and converted back into a starter. Carmona, now known as Roberto Hernandez, returned to make four starts at the end of the '06 season and made eight winter ball starts. In 2007, Carmona went from 74 innings to 215 innings while going 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 32 starts. The Reds have no plans to have Chapman pitch in winter ball this offseason.
Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and his hard fastball were under strict limitations when he debuted as a reliever in 2007. In 2008, Chamberlain began as a reliever before he was converted to a starter in June. By August, he developed shoulder issues and finished the year in the bullpen. In 2009, Chamberlain started the whole season with lackluster results as he went 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 157 1/3 innings. He did not earn a rotation spot in 2010 and has had multiple injury-marred seasons since.
Although he was just a young pitcher and never a reliever, the Mariners tried limiting 23-year-old Michael Pineda's innings as a rookie in 2011. By the second half of the season, Seattle used days off to skip starts when possible, and on a couple of occasions Pineda got 10-11 days off between starts. He finished with 171 innings in 28 starts, but developed shoulder problems after being traded to the Yankees last winter. Pineda needed surgery to repair a torn labrum in June and did not pitch at all in 2012.
And then there are the cases of relievers turned starters Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard. The 24-year-old Feliz saved 72 games as the Rangers' closer from 2010-11 and was moved to the rotation for 2012. He lasted only seven starts, including one that went eight innings and 119 pitches, before he went down for good in June with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.
Bard, 27, was switched from dominating setup man and potential closer to a starter by then-Boston manager Bobby Valentine last spring. The results were lousy as Bard went 4-6 with a 5.30 ERA in 10 starts before being sent to Triple-A and eventually brought back as a reliever.
Prior results reveal no clear path.
"Do you monitor his pitch count? We don't know what his maximum is yet," Baker said of Chapman. "Do you monitor his innings? Do you do a Strasburg situation where you sit him down the last month of the season? Or he could maybe relieve early or something and stretch him out."
No 'Sunday starter' in Cincinnati
With mixed results along the trails blazed before them, the Reds could come up with an entirely unique plan for Chapman. However, it's highly unlikely they would go the route of the college-like "Sunday starter" or a six-man rotation.
"For whatever reason, when you condition yourself to a five-man rotation, your body seems to respond that way," Price said. "Day 4, you may still have some tenderness from your previous start or bullpen session, but on Day 5 your arm and body are ready to go. You don't want to get into a situation where you ask the other four guys to compromise their routine out of respect for one guy. We're not going to do that. Even if it's an idea built with good intent, it would be a disaster."
Arroyo agreed that any plan for Chapman has to minimize the effect on the rest of the rotation.
"That causes a lot of problems. I don't think that would work at all," Arroyo said of having six starters. "If you want to give Chapman a shot to start, I think you run him out there like anybody else. You know he obviously has a body that can handle a lot of torque. Run him out there and see what you get. Spring Training is not going to tell you what you'll get. Hitters are so far behind that he'll dominate them no matter what. Run him out there for all of April or maybe all of May or whatever, but you have to give him a nice shot to get comfortable in that role and do his thing if you really want to get an honest read if that is the best move for this organization."
Price realizes that no matter what decision is made between himself, Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty, it will be highly scrutinized and probably criticized.
"I think everyone will want to know the plan and a solid hard number for innings," Price said. "I get it. It's a point of interest. It's a great talking point. It will be a debatable issue. Whatever we choose to do, there's always going to be an opposing side that feels we could do things better. We have to be satisfied with our choices, because our intent will be to get the most out of Aroldis without putting him in a high-risk position.
"I have some ideas, and I'm sure Walt and Dusty, our training staff and doctor do as well. We'll have a plan, and it will be something we can coordinate and feel good about going forward."