Tuesday, April 26, 2011

To Set-Up or Close?

Editor's Note: From time to time there are baseball topics that I can't manage to cram into the 140 characters of a Tweet. Therefore, I find that I need to mention them here. I know it feels like this blog has been taken over by America's pastime. Could be worse, right?

I don't pay much attention to the National League Central unless the teams in that division impact the standings in the National League East where my Braves compete. However, my fantasy baseball team requires that I pay attention to one team in particular--the Cincinnati Reds. I have nothing against the Reds. I even like Pete Rose. As someone interested in baseball history, I appreciate the Big Red Machine just as much as the next guy. However, there are a few things about the modern-day Reds that bug me and one of them really isn't helping my fantasy team one bit: Aroldis Chapman.

During the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Chapman pitched for the Cuban national team, but that came after a tumultuous few seasons where he had played in Cuba and then attempted to defect from Cuba unsuccessfully. After Raul Castro reprimanded Chapman for his unsuccessful attempt to defect in early 2008, he was suspended from the national team and was not allowed to play for Cuba at the Beijing Olympics. Eventually he was let back on the team, played in the WBC and appeared to be back in good standing with the Cuban government. Up until July 2009 when he walked out of a Netherlands hotel he was staying at with his Cuban teammates and eventually wound up in Andorra. From there he gained free agency from Major League Baseball and signed a long-term contract with the Reds in January 2010.

Chapman's time in the minors was as exciting as that of another young phenom, Steven Strasburg. Had Steven Strasburg not debuted last season with the Nationals, the most talked about debut may have easily been Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is a young fireballer like Strasburg and a strikeout king. In his big league debut last August, Chapman's threw fastballs ranging from 98 mph to 103 mph. The first pitch of his big league career was a smoking 98 mph fastball. In a matter of nine pitches, he struck out the side. It was an impressive beginning to what many think will be a shining career.

Now, taking his history and his talent into account as well as the fact that so far this season he has matched last season's velocity and command and has registered a 106 mph fastball, one could logically conclude that the best place for this young phenom is in the bullpen closing games for the Reds. Right? Well, not so fast. The Reds have him in the bullpen, but they've decided to use the young kid's gun to set-up for closer Francisco Cordero.

I've had successful fantasy baseball seasons in the past with Cordero closing, I may have even had him last year when the Reds were one of the best teams in the game. He's had success with the Reds, Brewers, & Rangers. Yet, Cordero is nothing like Chapman. Cordero has a hard fastball that can reach the high 90's, but he lives and dies with his slider. In addition to the difference in velocity, Cordero is much less consistent, blowing saves that seem a given when he comes into the game. Additionally, Cordero is 35 years old. Aside from Billy Wagner's success last season with the Braves and the ageless Mariano Rivera, closers, like most other pitchers, don't last as long as other players. Cordero is approaching the time-frame where the wheels have fallen off for other successful closers.

The question for the Reds seems to be why they don't let the veteran Cordero begin mentoring Chapman and grooming him for the closer's role. Unfortunately, the Reds seemed to be heading in the exact opposite direction. They'd like Chapman to become a top of the rotation starter. They think Chapman should be for them what Strasburg will eventually be (when healthy) for the Nationals. The problem? Great American Ball Park. The Reds play in what can only be described as a band box. So far in 2011, Great American ranks 8th in terms of hitter-friendly confines. With a pitching rotation that isn't as strong as it was a year ago, it is all the more important that the bullpen be able to shut games down, especially the closer. Yet, here again, the Reds seem to be ignoring these trends and hoping to make Chapman something he's not--a starter. Could Chapman be a starter? Sure. He has the stuff to pitch well wherever you put him, but his stuff seems to be best suited for 9th inning closing.

Having Chapman as a set-up man means one thing to those of us who are following stats closely for the sake of our fantasy teams--limited opportunity for strikeouts. With a basement ERA and the ability to strikeout every hitter he faces, it isn't helping fantasy teams anywhere when the Reds send him in to face a couple of hitters before Cordero takes the ball and either ends the game as painlessly as possibly or blows the save entirely. If I were a big league manager, I'd want the most reliable arm finishing the game and if Chapman keeps that velocity, he's going to blow it by every hitter he faces.

One other reason that I would much rather see Chapman as a closer isn't because I think setting up is a waste of his talent. I think that adding him to the starting rotation is a risk that nobody should take with this kid. When he defected from Cuba, he had to leave his parents, sisters, girlfriend and new baby. Even today with the changes that have taken place since 2006 when Raul Castro took power, Cubans like Chapman who have defected are not welcomed back by their government. The risks of putting Chapman in a position that leads down the road of, say, Kerry Wood, rather than someone who has had great success and few injuries are simply too great. He could be a long-time closer like Mo Rivera has been, pitching well and for a lengthy career, or he could be a short-term starter who encounters a career-ending injury, severely impacting his future in a country he doesn't know that well. I'd like for Chapman to be Livan Hernandez, but I wouldn't bet his future on it.

Until the Reds figure out what they're doing, I'll just be happy with the consistent two or three strikeouts I'm getting in my fantasy league because of Chapman's appearance on my roster. I just hope they really consider what they're doing to this young man and plan accordingly.

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