Ailing Reds wonder how to use Aroldis Chapman

PHOENIX – The old scout with the barbecue sauce on his chin and the weariness in his eyes looked out at the mound and the bundle of power and rawness standing on it.

It was getting to be the bottom of the first inning. Aroldis Chapman would throw eight warm-up pitches, most from a windup-stretch concoction that communicated these little exercises were unnecessary.

One of his back pockets had gone inside-out, so it looked from a distance like he’d tucked a dinner napkin in there. The scout coulda used it, actually.

Aroldis Chapman threw a pitch 105 mph against the Padres in 2010.
(Associated Press)

Chapman, of course, is the left-hander who defected from Cuba at 21, signed a $30 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds, was in the big leagues at 22 and then threw a 105.1-mph fastball.

Do something like that and people don’t forget. They assume the best and expect it right this very second. They beg him to make that radar gun speak to them, to fill up that far-left line of vertical pixels on the video board, to suck that wordless noise from their chests that in any venue but a ballpark would come with a restraining order.

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But then, something that hard and fast, something heaved with that kind of effort, sometimes it goes where it wants to go. Sometimes there’s just no talking to it. So, at 23, Chapman pitched 50 innings for the Reds last season and walked 41 batters. That doesn’t count the eight he walked in 13 innings in the minor leagues.

The old scout shrugged. Chapman also has struck out 90 big-league hitters in 63 ⅓ big-league innings. He allowed only 24 hits, only two of them home runs.

“Guy like that,” he said, “you take the bad with the good.”

Simple as that.

The words barely were from his mouth when the umpire pointed to Chapman, who obediently went into his windup, came down on his right foot, uncoiled and released a fastball that cleared the catcher, cleared the hitter, cleared the umpire and – on a fly – struck the backstop with a clatter that would have startled a dozing stray under the stands in Maryvale.

B-b-ball one.

The next 88 pitches were slightly more precise, including the fastball that struck Milwaukee Brewers speedster Nyjer Morgan square in the back. That particular pitch induced in Morgan one of those there’s-an-arrow-in-my-spine-get-it-out dances all the way to first, while Chapman coolly fetched the baseball. Shot from Morgan’s kidney, it had rolled 35 feet up the first-base line.

In five innings toward Chapman’s case that he should be in the Reds’ starting rotation, he allowed two runs, struck out six and walked none. Across 17 spring innings, he has 18 strikeouts and two walks.

In another land on another team, this might be reason enough to slot Chapman in behind Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos and get on with the season.

Dusty Baker, however, is from this land on this team, and there are issues here. Reliever Nick Masset has a shoulder injury and, in a possible team-wrecking turn, new closer Ryan Madson is headed for Tommy John surgery. So the question is whether Chapman and his power and his previous dalliances with the strike zone are best in the rotation or in the emptiness toward the back of the Reds’ bullpen.

“I don’t know,” Baker said late Thursday afternoon. “Quit asking me, please. There are other people involved too.”

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So, now that Chapman is 24, the Reds find themselves at a place of some consideration. They’d signed him as a starter, let him do that for a while, then turned him into a relief pitcher, and as of six weeks ago made him a starter again. And just as Chapman was finding his rhythm there, the place became littered with ailing shoulders and elbows.

The Reds could finish the rotation with Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Jeff Francis still is in camp. Or they could decide exactly what Chapman is. Is he Randy Johnson or is he Mitch Williams? Or Sid Fernandez? Or Mark Langston? None of the above?

More important, perhaps: What is he now, today, less than a week from opening day?

The simple answer is that he is one of their five best pitchers, so he should be in the rotation. The baseball answer is that the Reds desperately need bullpen help, Chapman was pretty good at that, and what’s most beneficial to the club wins.

Chapman plainly prefers to start. The thing is, should he revert to being the guy who throws nearly 18 pitches per inning, that would mean not only is he not in the bullpen but also that he is draining it.

The topic brought a shrug and sheepish smile from Chapman. He does look different this spring. His chest is thicker. His shoulders are broader. He’s growing up some, finding his place in the culture and the game.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said through a translator. “I think I can be in the rotation. I don’t know. That’s not my decision. In the end, that’s a decision I cannot make.”

He did not, for the record, request that anyone quit asking. Maybe he knows how this works, and maybe he knows the truth of baseball. He should.

Sometimes, you gotta take the bad with the good.

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 30, 2012