2013 Reds / Aroldis Chapman / Editorials

Editorial: On Aroldis Chapman and Unilateral Disarmament

[This post was written by Steve Mancuso and co-signed by the editors of Redleg Nation.]

Research on the brain shows that when we witness or learn of an emotional and shocking event, a surge of adrenaline encourages the formation of vivid, lasting recollections. They’re called “flashbulb memories” because of their nearly photographic nature. Depending on your age, you might have flashbulb memories about assassinations, the first moonwalk, the OJ Simpson verdict, and of course 9/11.

We carry flashbulb memories about sports as well and I have a few about the Reds. Some happy, some not so much.

Hal King’s dramatic homer, Joe Rudi’s catch at the wall, Joe Morgan’s bloop single in the ninth and Tom Seaver’s no-hitter. More recently, Jay Bruce’s homer and Drew Stubbs’ catch that same game, the Mat Latos trade and Homer’s no-no. Buster Posey’s grand slam.

It’s time to add another painful memory to the list: The day the Reds made the discouraging choice to keep Aroldis Chapman in the closer role.

And the organization’s reasoning is as obsolete as a 1950s magnesium filament.

Since the onset of Chapmania, everyone who has watched Aroldis Chapman pitch recognizes his immense natural talent. As a dominating left-handed ace, he would tremendously boost the Reds’ chances to win the World Series the next few years. Ace starters are really rare. Left-handed ones even more so. Bryan Price likes Chapman’s chances to become an effective starter, but no one is saying it’s a certainty. The Reds should give Chapman a legitimate look and find out. If it doesn’t work, they can move him back to the pen.

That’s it. The rest of the argument is window dressing.

The greater value of starting pitchers is convincingly proven by the size of the contracts that starters earn compared to those of elite relievers. The strategic importance of the role of closer itself has been fundamentally questioned by research covering decades of ninth-inning outcomes.

But in this case, no one is saying the Reds should do without a closer. The team has three other veteran pitchers who have been or could be successful closers. You think Sam LeCure couldn’t close? In a non-bizarro world, we’d be seriously talking about whether J. J. Hoover is ready to be the team’s closer. The Reds’ bullpen is so stacked the club may not take Hoover with them to Cincinnati, even though he has struck out 14 batters in 8 innings, with only one walk.

The “if it ain’t broke” argument for Chapman in the bullpen is the most brain-dead of all. Like most clichés, it’s utterly wrong. Remember the NLDS?

Dusty Baker managed the NLDS like the regular season, holding Chapman back for his carefully proscribed closer role. The Cuban Missile stayed holstered against the Giants, waiting and waiting for a small lead in a ninth inning to protect. The Giants, on the other hand, urgently and creatively deployed every arm in their arsenal, with devastating effect. They used Tim Lincecum out of the bullpen. Twice. The soon-to-be world champions got their best arms in the game when it mattered.

Try this counterfactual. Aroldis Chapman starting Game Four. Then tell me there wasn’t something broken in the Reds’ thinking.

The Giants won the World Series using a closer who had three saves going into 2012. The Cardinals, who faced the Giants in the NLCS, relied on a closer who had only 13 saves prior to last season. So yeah, established closers are essential.

Overall, the Reds’ front office has made fabulous strides – in financial commitment and assembling talent – that have propelled the team to the top of the NL Central and into MLB’s circle of premier clubs. Ownership and the G.M. deserve huge praise.

But a messy smudge now taints that big picture. Among elite teams, even the smallest edge can be decisive. By consigning Aroldis Chapman to 65 innings of work, mostly in games when the Reds are already ahead, the Reds are sacrificing a crucial competitive asset. You can’t play it safe and expect to beat the best teams, because they aren’t standing still.

The key players are all singing from the same hymnal now, but Dusty Baker’s role in this terribly mismanaged decision has been pivotal and public. Has there been a behind-the-scenes power struggle, with Baker coming out on top? Only the insiders really know. But outsiders can fairly judge that this process could scarcely have been handled any worse.

The most important take-away from this embarrassing and depressing episode though, is substantive, not procedural. It’s this: As long as the Reds continue to cater to Dusty Baker’s anachronistic ideas for assembling a team, they’ll never reach their full potential.

The acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo demonstrated that the Reds – at least for one season – ditched the archaic notion that the main quality for a leadoff batter is his ability to “create havoc” on the bases. In the Choo trade, they rightly paid a premium for a high on-base-percentage hitter.

With that move, the organization appeared finally to be breaking free of the crippling gravitational pull of old-timey baseball. But today’s Chapman decision profoundly calls that into question. Other teams are more modern about the closer’s role. A few of those – unlike Dusty Baker – have won the World Series.

But Walt Jocketty has won a World Series. And he’s the one person in the organization who is responsible for making sure the hard, up-to-date thinking about baseball gets done and implemented. That job is not on the owner, or the manager, or the players, pitching coach or scouts, or certainly not local Hall of Fame sportswriters. Practicing modern baseball falls squarely on the shoulders of the G.M. In this case, Walt Jocketty either made an awful decision or didn’t put his foot down.

We badly needed Walt on that wall.

Yes, yes, yes, the 2013 Reds are still a talented and exciting team. Barring a load of injuries, they’ll win plenty and may even be in it to the end. I’ll be there cheering all the way.

But because of today’s announcement, in the blink of an eye – one might say, in a flash – the Reds are greatly diminished.

Aroldis Chapman may have the best left arm in baseball. And the Cincinnati Reds just tied it behind the team’s back. What a self-inflicted waste of talent.

Yep, there’s the emotion … the adrenaline … and a new lasting, painful memory from when the Reds committed this act of unilateral disarmament.

125 thoughts on “Editorial: On Aroldis Chapman and Unilateral Disarmament

  1. A couple responses to some points that were made here last night.

    A big part of what played out may have been a reluctance to harm Mike Leake. That explains the one-sided public comments from the players, anyhow. You don’t expect Leake’s best friend, Bronson Arroyo, to come out and say “Yeah, moving Chapman to the starting role would be a great idea!” My guess is the players were as divided over this as the fans. It’s not the players responsibility to figure out the overall team strategy.

    I wonder how many of the players would rather face Aroldis Chapman instead of Mike Leake in the batters box.

    It’s not accurate to say that Chapman “only has one pitch” – good grief. Pretty soon you’ll be saying , yeah his fastball isn’t that fast anymore either. From watching hitters trying to hit that slider last year, it sure looked like he had two devastating pitches. Maybe he didn’t have great control over his slider, but he sure used it to strike guys out. I’ve heard reports that his change-up was his second best pitch when he was a starter. Maybe he doesn’t have a reliable third pitch yet, but please don’t exaggerate and say he only has one pitch.

    From the public evidence out there (what the Reds told Chapman last fall, what Bryan Price said all spring, what Jocketty has said for months, the Broxton contract, the Parra signing) it looks like the Reds were planning to have Chapman be a starter and then lost their nerve. They settled on the comfort of playing it the way they did last year. Playing it safe makes it harder to be second guessed. It’s like punting on fourth and one. The Reds punted yesterday.

    • @Steve Mancuso: There are arguments that Chapman should close that at least make a little bit of sense to me.

      That the players think he should close is not one of them.

      That the Reds need to win now is not one of them.

      That the injury risk is higher is not one of them.

      That he won’t be able to pitch in the postseason because of an innings limit isn’t one of them. This is under the Reds’ control, after all.

      I really don’t understand why people keep talking about the Reds likelihood of making the postseason with the way things are (Chapman closing). Of course they are a good bet to make it. The issue is that some people are interested in maximizing the chance of actually winning a World Series, and I honestly do not understand how the chance of winning 3 postseason series is not maximized by having Aroldis Chapman start in the postseason. No, I don’t know if he can make it as a starter, but I know that if he doesn’t make it, he can be moved back to the bullpen.

    • @Steve Mancuso: It may “look like” the Reds lost their nerve, or are playing it safe, but I’m (somewhat) ok with letting the situation play out. I loved the IDEA of Chapman in the rotation, particularly come October. Gotta believe that WJ had good reason to doubt his ability to be there and be effective in October. Whatever his ultimate rationale was, we’re not going to hear it from the tight lipped Walt Jocketty.

      As for his decision making it “harder to be second guessed”, LOL. The majority of us here, as well as most hard core Reds fans, were strongly in favor of Chapman starting (look at the number of posts here anytime this issue arose).

      I sincerely doubt that Walt concerns himself with being second guessed by the more casual of fans. He wants to win as much or more than any of us.

      Let it play out.

    • @Steve Mancuso:

      I agree they chickened out, both last year and this.

      this is like the preposterous punt situations that are a staple of Gregg Easterbrook’s TMQ column on ESPN.

  2. Less than two years ago Walt Jocketty said he thought Mike Leake didn’t have what it takes to go around a lineup a third time. I can’t find the quote, but I remember it pretty well.

  3. Could be worse, could be a Yankee fan right now! I think the most puzzling part of this process is the over abundance of highly paid relief pitchers and a fairly thin lineup and rotation. For a baseball fan in general and a reds fan my whole life it really is a shame that we won’t get to see chapman start a major league game possibly ever? i don’t think that can be understated. Would have been fun

  4. Could be worse, could be a Yankee fan right now! I think the most puzzling part of this process is the over abundance of highly paid relief pitchers and a fairly thin lineup and rotation. For a baseball fan in general and a reds fan my whole life it really is a shame that we won’t get to see chapman start a major league game possibly ever? i don’t think that can be understated. Would have been fun

  5. The Reds really painted themselves into a corner here. Leake’s value to the Reds now becomes greatly inflated relative to his worth on the open market because we only have 5 starters. At the same time, if he bombs, we’d get less for him on the open market than he’s worth right now. That’s a bad place.

    It’s time to visit the idea of trading Broxton and using that money to sign Lohse on a one year deal. It bolsters the rotation, eliminates the possibility of rushing Cingrani/Corcino, and Walt can thumb his nose at Dusty by taking away one of his security blankets. I mean, just the fact that the Reds are mentioned on mlbtraderumors in the Lohse articles tells me Walt has at least kicked the tires on the idea. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    • @Sultan of Swaff: I never understood the point of your 5th starter not having to be good because he is your “5th starter”. Shouldn’t your team strive to have all 5 starters be very good? Why does it seem like Mike Leake gets a pass from the Reds because he is the “5th starter” and not much is expected from him? sorry for the double post earlier

    • The Reds really painted themselves into a corner here.Leake’s value to the Reds now becomes greatly inflated relative to his worth on the open market because we only have 5 starters.At the same time, if he bombs, we’d get less for him on the open market than he’s worth right now.That’s a bad place.

      It’s time to visit the idea of trading Broxton and using that money to sign Lohse on a one year deal.It bolsters the rotation, eliminates the possibility of rushing Cingrani/Corcino, and Walt can thumb his nose at Dusty by taking away one of his security blankets.I mean, just the fact that the Reds are mentioned on mlbtraderumors in the Lohse articles tells me Walt has at least kicked the tires on the idea.I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

      Okay, you trade Broxton and then sign Lohse to a one year deal at around $10-12 million, you now have 6 starters, exactly how many teams go with 6 man rotations? And no until he bombs during the regular season Leake is not going to be demoted to AAA, not going to happen.

  6. We have one week+ to opening day. Moving Chapman to closer just created a hole in the major league roster that could become critical. Last season, the Reds fielded all five starters for every game. This was a major contributor to their success last season. When the Reds needed an additional starter due to a scheduling manipulation, the Reds reached out to the best available starter from AAA. That starter has now been cut loose by two major league teams this spring and that was the best option the Reds had for a replacement starter in 2012.

    This season, the Reds young minor league starters have moved one step closer to major league ready, but none of them are major league and that includes Cingrani. If one of the 5 starters goes down, the Reds prospect for a division title could be in jeopardy and Cingrani, like BHam, may not even be major league ready by 2014 when the Reds will almost certainly need to fill a starting rotation slot. From this Cossack’s perspective, I find this potential problem very disconcerting, but it is a problem that can be addressed.

    WJ doesn’t have to make a move and that’s a good thing since if he wants to trade he needs to trade from a position of strength. Those major league GM’s can be vulturistic (it’s a word used out on the steppes) when they smell blood. With the excess of quality RP, especially back end RP, available on the Reds roster and the need by other teams for quality bullpen help, especially back end RP, the opportunity is there to make a major play during the next week+. Lohse also becomes an interesting name if he is still available after the June draft, but I can’t see the Reds relinquishing a 1st round draft pick to sign Lohse, unless they get desperate for a starting pitcher.

    As I contemplated realistic trades that would upgrade the Reds roster and benefit the team going forward using the excess quality from the bullpen, every viable option I could see happening, started and ended with Chapman, not Broxton or Marshall. Now that would be a significant twist to this entire situation.

    • @Shchi Cossack: Speaking of teams needing relief pitching, Jason Motte just went down with an elbow injury. Could start the year on the DL, but these things tend to linger for alot longer.

      The Cards have alot of pitching from year to year, but also alot of injured pitchers …

      • @earmbrister: The Cardinals’ players seem to be dropping like flies. Carpenter, Furcal, Motte – gotta wonder who’s next. Is Jaime Garcia going to be ready for the season?

        In Reds country we’re worried about how the Reds will do based on their decision for 5th starter and closer. I think the Cardinals help to put the Reds’ problems in perspective.

    • …..
      As I contemplated realistic trades that would upgrade the Reds roster and benefit the team going forward using the excess quality from the bullpen, every viable option I could see happening, started and ended with Chapman, not Broxton or Marshall.Now that would be a significant twist to this entire situation.

      When I read this I went over to Cot’s contracts because I thought I recalled some quirks in Chapman’s deal.

      If the MLB service time listed for Chapman on Cot’s is accurate, he will be arbitration eligible at the end of this season assuming he spends the entire season on the 25 man roster and/ or the MLB DL list.

      If Cot’s has the terms of the contract accurately and I understood them correctly, being arbitration eligible at this season means Chapman’s contracted salary for 2014 ($3M) becomes due as a 2013 performance bonus and his 2014 salary is status becomes arbitration eligible.

      So, right off, one sees a potential financial angle to the closer decision from the player’s side. Chapman and his reps were not going to be happy (to say the least) if he went down to AAA to continue working on being a starter since that figured to cost him a $3M bonus plus arb eligibility which likely would earn him twice that amount in 2014 salary.

      From the club’s viewpoint, a couple of months at AAA for Chapman to hone his starting skills would have saved them the same money (above). However the price would have been to have a likely very unhappy camper on their hands.

      The second point is that with three years of arbitration eligibility looming for Chapman versus the cost certainty of his original contract, he suddenly becomes a potentially much more expensive player as half or more of the original contract was front loaded as a signing bonus. Given this I would not preclude the possibility that they might let him go for the right return.

  7. One other aspect I contemplated regarding the Chapman decision, was that lineup changes the Reds made for 2013. The Reds added Choo and BP to the top of the lineup. Those upgrades alone should mean more runs scored, a lot more runs scored, especially early in games. The Reds should be an offensive force in 2013. Votto and Bruce should have career seasons with the opportunities available to them and that’s say ing a lot. The Reds should find themselves leading early and often, putting teams away. There are two scenarios where a closer is not particularly useful, teams with a great offense and starting pitching that put other teams away early and teams with poor offense and poor starting pitching that find themselves trailing late. How often will a closer really be essential or even useful to the Reds in 2013?

  8. Aroldis expressed a preference for closing. Don’t underestimate the power of the mind. All is not lost.

  9. MLB is a game of pushing small edges. The Reds give away a lot of small edges throughout the year with sub-optimal game strategy. The Chapman decision will not make or break this season or the next 2…it’s just another small edge given away.

    The one thing that the pro-Chapman starting camp could never really get the Chapman-closing camp to understand was that Chapman starting was potentially a BIG edge. The Chapman-as-closer side always had this implied assumption that the other side felt Chapman WOULD be a great starter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The odds were stacked against Chapman becoming an elite starter, or even a great starter. But the Reds had to take that chance…these opportunities just don’t happen everyday. In my lifetime (low 30s), the Reds have never had an elite starter. There have been some pitchers with single or multi-years of good-ness: Seaver, Soto, Jackson, Rijo, Harang, & Cueto come to mind. None of these guys were “elite” in the way that guys like Halladay, Pedro, and Clemens were or Felix and Verlander currently are.

    On the other hand, the nice thing about small edges is that it goes both ways. Teams like the Nats, Giants, Braves, Cards can easily give away edges of their own. And a short series can easily be decided by pure luck.

    • @CP: “And a short series can easily be decided by pure luck.”

      Like in the NLDS game 5 a call or two Latos did not get just prior to Posey’s salami or the two outstanding defensive plays the Giants in the 8th inning.

      Or one of the historically best 3rd baseman in the game flubbing an easy ground ball in the last inning of game 3 of the same series.

      Not to mention an ace starter pulling his oblique in the first inning of game 1 of the series.

      • @CP: “And a short series can easily be decided by pure luck.”

        Like in the NLDS game 5 a call or two Latos did not get just prior to Posey’s salami or the two outstanding defensive plays the Giants in the 8th inning.

        Or one of the historically best 3rd baseman in the game flubbing an easy ground ball in the last inning of game 3 of the same series.

        Not to mention an ace starter pulling his obliquein the first inning of game 1 of the series.

        There is no argument that the Reds got unlucky…it’s weird how 162 game seasons rest on things so small.

  10. Don’t know if this has been raised as an issue, or not, cause I didn’t have the time to read each and every of the 100 plus comments …

    If the Reds were concerned about whether Chapman could eventually have great success as a starter, maybe they were also concerned that they wouldn’t be able to simply plug him back in the closer’s role, if he got roughed up as a starter. Possible that the front office didn’t think he would have the mental toughness to put failure aside and go back to dominating as a reliever (Oral Hershiser’s nickname was Bulldog, how would you characterize AC?). Or that if opposing batters had success against Chapman as a starter, they would gain confidence when facing him as a reliever. Gotta believe a good part of Chapman’s success as a reliever has to do with the batter feeling overmatched. Did the Reds not want to mess with the mystique?

    I like the Cossack’s thoughts regarding Chapman’s value in a trade. Could be that WJ actually agrees with those of us who view the closer role as over-hyped. I believe that the original Reds’ Cordero signing was pre-WJ. If he has any thoughts of trading him because they want to: (1) shed his contract before he gets to his big $ years, (2) get something in return before he hits free agency, and/or (3) don’t think they can re-sign him for 2015 and beyond (is 2015 just if the player exercises his option?) his largest value may very well be this summer, when they control him for 2013 and 2014.
    I have to believe that trading Chapman would bring the Reds a lot of talent in return.

    Could we be having yet another series of Chapman blogs and comments come July?

  11. Leake is a good pitcher, so I don’t know where all this anti-Leake stuff is coming from.

    Chapman, however, could have been a once in a generation player. He COULD have been a Koufax, a Randy Johnson. That doesn’t mean he WOULD have been. But by keeping in the ‘pen, you lose the potential of that once in a generation type pitcher that he could have been. Instead of discovering whether he would or wouldn’t be, he just…isn’t. From one stupid decision.

    • Leake is a good pitcher, so I don’t know where all this anti-Leake stuff is coming from.

      Leake is a good pitcher, compared to me.

      Leake may be an average pitcher, compared to 5th starters.

      The fact that Leake has progressively gotten worse, the more the league has seen him, worries me greatly.

      • Leake is a good pitcher, compared to me.

        Leake may be an average pitcher, compared to 5th starters.

        The fact that Leake has progressively gotten worse, the more the league has seen him, worries me greatly.

        He had one good season and average season in his first two years in pro ball, let’s give him a few more seasons to mature before calling him a bust.

  12. Glad it’s behind us? You must be kidding. Every time the 5th starter sucks this will come back up. The longer we carry the salaries of both Chapman and Broxton, the more we will hear about this. Why in the world would anyone choose the advice of Dusty over Walt? Is it too soon to start the “Dusty must go” chorus?

  13. Pingback: Two more cents on Aroldis Chapman | Spring Training InformationSpring Training Information

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