One of the most controversial decisions this off-season did not involve the exchange of a single dollar, as Jerry Crasnick notes in this fantastic exploration of the Cincinnati Reds decision to move highly successful lefty closer Aroldis Chapman back to the starting rotation. This decision comes after a season in which Aroldis absolutely dominated the 9th inning, with hitters batting .141 against him as he saved 38 games while averaging an astounding 15.32 strikeouts per nine innings. He routinely reached 100 MPH on his fastball (an MLB-leading 242 times last season according to the Bill James Handbook), but that number will probably drop next season as most projections have his inning pitch count doubling to somewhere around 150 next season from only 71 2/3 innings last season, meaning he may have to curb his heater if he plans on lasting that many innings.
The reason why this move is so controversial is because of the tremendous success that the Reds had last season, and the natural reluctance to want to mess with a good thing. The Reds won 97 games last season, running away with the NL Central by an MLB-leading 9 games, so many are curious as to why they would risk fundamentally altering their rotation and bullpen when the potential gains seem limited. Pitching coach Bryan Price, after acknowledging that skeptics have a very valid argument, had this to say about the decision: “… But I also have a feeling in my heart that he’s not going to be the best possible pitcher he can be until he throws enough innings to master his craft. I think this kid has untapped potential, but it won’t come out until we give him an opportunity to mature as a pitcher. Does he have a chance to be one of the better starters of his generation? The longer we wait, the less chance we have of ever finding out.”
I think that Price’s and the Reds belief in Chapman is honorable in terms of their seemingly earnest desire to help Chapman become the best pitcher he can be, even if it affects the Reds negatively in the short-term. The Reds are invested long-term in Chapman, and it makes sense that they would want to see him reach his potential while still under contract with the Reds. Additionally, I agree that this is the right decision for the Reds to make in the short-term and it is because of the high-level of pitching talent that they have in addition to Chapman.
The Reds are currently loaded with talent in both the starting rotation and the bullpen! Reds pitchers let up the least amount of runs in the National League last year, with their bullpen leading the majors with a 2.65 ERA last season while ranking third with a .219 batting average against. While it is true that moving Chapman from the bullpen may cause it to drop a few rankings, they certainly will not be lost without him. Jonathan Broxton, who has had success in the closing department before (36 saves out of 42 opportunities with the Dodgers in 2009 and 23 out of 27 saves converted with the Royals in 2012 before being traded to the Reds), will be replacing Chapman, with Sean Marshall (and his 4.63 K/BB ratio) moving into the setupman/backup closer spot. They have the ability to anchor a still very strong bullpen, giving the bullpen a very good chance of duplicating the success that they had last season, despite losing Chapman to the rotation.
Chapman has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s still only 24, so even if it takes a year or two to adjust back into the starting pitching role, the benefits of having a top starter who can pitch 200+ innings a year far outweighs the benefits of having a top closer, who usually top out at around 90 innings a year. The Reds rotation, led by the 4th-leading vote-getter for the 2012 NL Cy Young Award, Johnny Cueto, is strong enough to overcome Chapman’s potential struggles and growing pains as he adjusts to being a starter. The stability of the rotation and the bullpen make the decision to try Chapman out as a starter all the easier, as the amount of potential liability is limited in the Red situation. Therefore, I would have to say that while the Reds are making a gamble, they are making an informed and calculated gamble, as the potential risks may not be as bad as most people think, while the potential rewards are rather self-evident (see here).