Reds announce Chapman to return to closer's role
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One of the biggest questions in baseball this spring has finally been answered. Aroldis Chapman will return to the closer's role for the Reds while Mike Leake will again be the rotation's fifth starter.
Reds manager Dusty Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty revealed their choice before Friday's game vs. the Dodgers. The organization gave considerable thought to moving Chapman into the rotation since the offseason, but ultimately decided not to make a change.
"Like last year, it was a tough decision, but I think we felt what gave us the best opportunity as an organization to win this year would be to leave the rotation as is," Jocketty said. "We had four guys that pitched 200 innings. Hopefully we can do that again. We have another guy who is capable of pitching 200 innings in Leake. That's a very strong rotation."
Both Chapman and Leake were given the news on Friday morning.
"I feel really, really happy to be the closer of the team," Chapman said via translator Tomas Vera after pitching one scoreless inning of relief vs. the Dodgers.
"They kind of made gradual hints, but I didn't really want to believe it until they announced it," Leake said. "I'm glad the decision is finally made and I can just go out there and work on what I need to work on to get ready."
Chapman went through Spring Training last year as a starter, only to go to the bullpen when injuries put three relievers on the disabled list. During the season, the 25-year-old Chapman was 5-5 with a 1.51 ERA and 38 saves in 43 attempts after he became the closer on May 20.
In his 68 appearances and 71 2/3 innings, Chapman had 23 walks and 122 strikeouts. He often threw fastballs at or over 100 mph.
"It's not like he didn't have success," Baker said. "This guy was an All-Star."
After the season, the Reds moved toward having Chapman become a starting pitcher -- which was the ultimate goal when the Cuban defector was initially signed to a six-year, $30.25 million contract as a free agent in January 2010.
The plan seemed to be moving forward in November when the Reds re-signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million contract, with the potential he could take over as a closer. Chapman was stretched out in this camp, using more secondary pitches and was pitching well. He has a 2.00 ERA in four games, including two starts.
Baker let it be known that Chapman will be the primary closer while Broxton will return to setting up -- most of the time.
"On the days [Chapman] can't pitch, we'll have Broxton [close]," Baker said. "It's no different from last year. We're going to limit [Chapman's] consecutive days just like we did last year."
As for spending the money on Broxton and not using him as a closer, Jocketty pointed to the large contract of Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal before the 2012 season.
"Closers are getting $12-15 million," Jocketty said. "Late inning quality setup guys are getting in the range that Broxton got. It was important to sign him back to give us the deep bullpen and flexibility we have."
"That shows how important that job is," Baker said.
The Chapman as a starter vs. a closer question sparked heavy debate around the game -- and it likely will continue to be a hot-button issue even with an outcome.
Both Baker and Jocketty maintained that there was no divisiveness within the Reds' organization over the issue.
"You guys [in the media] made a big deal out of this," Jocketty said. "You've exaggerated to the point where you think there's a big in-house battle. There is not a big in-house battle. We approached this spring exactly the same as last year with Chapman that he was going to be either a starter or closer."
"Contrary to what people think, they're always trying to have a division or wedge between the manager and general manager," Baker said. "This ain't the first time that has happened. It's like for the lack of a story. It's not right."
Chapman weighed in last weekend after a start saying that his preference would be to go back to closing. It was a factor in the outcome, but not the prevailing part of the decision.
"No. 1, we don't let players tell us where they want to play," Jocketty said. "But it certainly is a factor because he's comfortable in that role and had success in that role."
"You want a guy at a comfort level," Baker said.
Many observers of the game believe a starting pitcher, especially with the stuff that Chapman has, could be more valuable to a team than a closer. There are times when a closer can be rendered moot if there is not a save situation for him to work. In the National League Division Series last year, Chapman pitched three games vs. the Giants but did not have a save opportunity.
The Reds, who saw Johnny Cueto go down with an oblique injury during Game 1 of that series, lost in five games.
"Where would we have been had he not been in that role? We might not have even made it to that situation to not be able to use him," Baker said. "What did Chapman account for, 60 percent of our wins?"
It was actually more. Cincinnati won the NL Central with 97 victories. In the games Chapman pitched, the team was 60-8.
"The No. 1 starter is worth more than your closer, but how do you know if he's a No. 1 or not?" Baker said. "Hopefully, some day we will find that out."
Like Baker, Chapman did not shut the door permanently to the idea of one day being a starting pitcher.
"I think I'm still young and there are still a lot of years ahead in my career where I can be a starter again," Chapman said. "I'm happy to be a closer now. I'm here in Cincinnati. Cincinnati is the team that I want and I will do what they want. If they want me to be a closer, I'm happy to be a closer. I will continue to do what they want me to do."
Baker has often mentioned that Chapman is both the Reds' best starter and best reliever. Generally speaking, having Chapman's arm for 150-200 innings rather than 60-80 innings would make him more productive.
"We wouldn't have gotten 200 innings out of him this year. That's a factor too," Jocketty said.
The long wait for a decision wasn't easy for Leake, who has had to pitch his way into the rotation each spring since he joined the club in 2010. This spring in four starts, he has a 6.75 ERA. He allowed four runs and five hits over five innings vs. the Dodgers.
"It had me grind a little bit more than I would have liked to," Leake said after the start. "But it makes it a little better than I can focus more."
Baker listed the Reds' 2013 rotation order as Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Leake.
"I didn't feel like I necessarily deserved it, but I think I feel I have somewhat earned it," Leake said. "Especially last year, we had five guys that went the whole season. I'm just glad that they're giving it a chance again and allowing us to fail before they make a decision."
Leake, 25, was 8-9 with a 4.58 ERA as the Reds' fifth starter last season. He made a career-high 30 starts and threw 179 innings. In 2011, he led the team with 12 wins and 118 strikeouts.
"As long as we felt he was back to where he was a couple of years ago, which we think he can be, we're a better team," Jocketty said.