Closer uncertainty gives relievers chance to step up
Chapman's injury leaves huge gap in ninth inning, opens door of opportunity
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Reds feel fortunate that the most horrifying moment of Spring Training -- Aroldis Chapman being struck in the face by a line drive on Wednesday -- won't be a severe long-term injury for the closer to endure.
In the short term, however, the Reds will have to carry on without Chapman anchoring the back of the bullpen. That remains a touchy subject for the teammates who are closest to the left-hander -- his fellow relievers who also witnessed the incident.
"We have a closer. He is coming back," pitcher Sam LeCure said.
"Chapman is special at that role and will be missed," reliever J.J. Hoover said. "I'm just happy it's not as bad as it could have been. We were actually dealt a fortunate hand when it comes down to it."
On Thursday, Reds manager Bryan Price wasn't ready to address the subject of the roster machinations as it related to Chapman because it was simply too soon after he was injured. By Friday, when it was a little more appropriate to discuss, the picture of who could replace Chapman wasn't any clearer.
"At this point in time, I'm not going to name a closer," Price said. "We may never name a closer. I'm not sure yet."
Chapman, who sustained fractures above his left eye and nose after being struck by a liner hit by the Royals' Salvador Perez, had surgery to repair the injury on Thursday and can begin working out and throwing in 10-14 days. He could pitch in game conditions in 4-6 weeks.
Complicating matters for the Reds is that they are going to begin the season without their eighth-inning setup men. Left-hander Sean Marshall has yet to throw in a game because of a sore shoulder. Jonathan Broxton, who is coming back from August right forearm surgery, threw in his second game of spring on Friday against Kansas City.
Marshall's expected DL stint isn't new information, but Price didn't believe that Broxton could get ready in time to begin the season.
"They have to be ready to do what the other guys are doing -- that is to throw back-to-back games, have the durability to pitch on a regular basis, simply because the starters aren't going to be asked to throw 115-125 pitches in that first part of the season," Price said. "Our bullpen will be relied upon to pick up a fair amount of innings in the first month or so."
Broxton has closer's experience with the Dodgers and Royals and has stepped in to pitch the ninth for the Reds when Chapman wasn't available in 2012. He would likely get the role on an interim basis.
"We know Broxton hopefully will be ready in short order that first week or two of the season," Price said. "Then again, we have to get him acclimated and being back in the big leagues also."
Several pitchers, including Hoover, LeCure, lefty Manny Parra and Logan Ondrusek, will have the chance to step up to bigger roles in the eighth or ninth innings. Alfredo Simon, who was strong as a reliever last season for Cincinnati, is expected to be in the rotation to replace the injured Mat Latos.
"At this point in time, I haven't decided if I really want to name one guy [to close] or if we'll situationally pitch until we get to the ninth inning and see what's left standing in our bullpen," Price said. "I have confidence in the guys that we know are going to make our club."
Injuries to the bullpen have happened to the Reds three springs in a row. Two years ago, closer Ryan Madson missed the season because of Tommy John surgery and setup men Nick Masset and Billy Bray also went down. Last season, Marshall and Broxton missed extensive time with injuries.
"A lot of this group is guys just trying to establish themselves, really," LeCure said. "I think everybody feels confident in each other no matter what the situation is, that we can get that job done."
LeCure, Hoover, Parra and Simon stepped up their pitching profiles last season filling for Broxton and Marshall.
"Being able to do different roles, like our bullpen has had to do the past couple of years, I think it's made us better," Hoover said.
There are likely four bullpen spots up for grabs where someone can pitch their way on to the roster. Nick Christiani and Pedro Beato have had nice springs. Brett Marshall, who started on Friday, could be an interesting option as a long reliever if the club went that way. It's been a good camp for Trevor Bell and Jumbo Diaz.
Bell and Diaz are non-roster invites, while Christiani, Beato and Marshall are on the 40-man roster.
"I think guys are just ready to get in where they fit in. Nobody cares," LeCure said. "Do I think it takes a special mindset to close? Maybe mindset, but I don't think stuff, necessarily. Of course, that's coming from a guy with very average stuff. We have the guys here that we can approach the ninth inning like the eighth, seventh and sixth -- because all of those outs are important. You don't get to the ninth inning if you don't get the outs in the sixth or seventh."