For several years there it seemed like Aroldis Chapman was the topic of every Reds article and blog post. The Reds were making the playoffs because of their extremely talented players and despite Dusty Baker serving as manager. Chapman was amazing to watch, his potential seemed unlimited, and he was used in seemingly the worst possible way. It was the ultimate gas can to heat up any Reds conversation.
That seems like a lifetime ago now. This year Chapman was the forgotten man, because no one cares about the closer on a team that’s losing nearly 100 games. Now Chapman’s time with the Reds may have come to an end. He’s only under contract with the Reds for one more year and the team doesn’t project to be very good in 2016. At this point he’s a Bentley hood ornament on a 94 Camry; it just doesn’t make sense. The Reds would have to sign him to a big extension if they want him to be the closer for the next good Reds team, and with money already tight a trade seems likely.
I’m taking this space to look back at the pitcher Chapman has been, the pitcher he is now, and what he may bring back in a trade, if that is indeed his fate. He’s been one of the most fascinating pitchers of the decade, and as Reds fans we got to see it all, for better and worse.
The starter we barely knew
The Reds stunned the baseball world on January 11, 2010 by signing Chapman, expected to go to the Yankees or Red Sox, to a large contract. Not only was the contract long, it was also very complicated, causing many reporters to get the details wrong for years to come. Chapman had last pitched in the Cuban league in 2008, and his journey from defection to MLB free agency was a long one. Despite not having pitched in more than a year, he came into spring training as Baseball Prospectus’s 10th rated prospect overall.
In spring of 2010, some scouts said Chapman was already the best pitcher the Reds had, and expected him to challenge for a rotation spot immediately. He pitched well, but was sent to begin his pro career in AAA, where he made 13 up-and-down starts. The issue seemed pretty clear: he was very raw. He struck out more than 10 per 9 innings, but he was walking nearly 5. Still, as a starter, he had an ERA under 4.00 in his first few months in the United States at AAA, which is pretty impressive.
The Reds were making a playoff push and Chapman was moved to the pen in AAA with some success. He was eventually called up and pitched 13.1 innings for the Reds, helping them to their first playoff appearance in a decade. I believe the Reds lost that series, but I don’t really remember it, it’s all a fog.
This is where it all basically goes to heck. The Reds had a closer (Cordero) and no real reason to need an extra lefty in the pen. Billy Bray had his best season as a Red in 2011 and the Reds’ pen was generally stacked. Despite this, the Reds (and I suspect mainly Dusty Baker) decided to return Chapman to the major league pen rather than send him back to AAA to continue to develop as a starter. Chapman was mediocre out of the pen, with a 3.60 ERA, 71ks, and 41BBs (!!) in just 50 innings. He was walking more than 7 per 9, and it was just ugly to watch. He obviously needed more time to develop, could have been in AAA working on command and his secondary pitches, and the Reds wasted that time during a season where they went nowhere anyway.
Over the next three years the will-he-won’t-he drama continued, and the Chapman-to-the-pen chorus always seemed to have some reason why he couldn’t start. Chapman did start a few games in spring training in 201 and looked good, but Ryan Madson got hurt and that was that. I still remain convinced though that if Madson’s injury in 2012 was the final nail in the coffin of Chapman the starter, the first 99 nails were hammered in during the inexcusable waste that was the 2011 season
The most dominant closer ever
As a fan it was hard to stomach Chapman be so misused, and it was made all the harder by the progress he made. In 2012 he had maybe his most dominant season, with his highest innings (71.2), lowest walk (23) and highest strikeout totals (122), and his lowest ERA (1.51). He finished 8th in the Cy Young and 12th in the MVP voting. The only problem was that he threw his fastball 88 percent of the time overall, and in 100% of situations that mattered because his slider was a roll of the dice at best. Still, he was the closer on a team that won 97 games, and it was hard to argue with the results.
In 2013, Chapman went about things in much the same way but his command wasn’t quite as good (still nowhere near as bad as it had been) and opposing batters’ flyballs went out of the park a lot more often. Now, that is often out of a pitcher’s control, but watching Chapman all year, it became pretty obvious that the other teams’ hitters knew that they were going to get fastballs whenever they were ahead in the count, and that probably didn’t help Chapman’s gopher ball total.
And then the light switch flipped. Despite taking a line drive off the face, in 2014 Chapman finally got control of his slider and change up and dramatically reduced the number of fastballs he was throwing (69%). The effect was equally dramatic. At-bats vs. Chapman no longer really looked fair. He struck out 17.7 per 9, (52.5% of all hitters he faced) and seemingly broke a new relief pitching record every night down the stretch. It was one of the greatest pitching spectacles in the history of the game, but the Reds were going the wrong direction as a team. 2015 was more of the same really. Chapman had slightly lower strikeout and higher walk totals than in 2014, but I have to wonder how much of that was just from pitching so rarely and for a terrible team. I’m guessing here, but it seems tough to focus as a closer on a last place club, when you may not pitch for a week or 10 days.
The trade chip (?)
Now Chapman has finally learned the craft of pitching and will turn just 28 years old during the 2016 season, having logged only 319 career innings in the big leagues. Relief pitchers are notorious for being the most volatile players from year-to-year, but since 2012 Chapman has ranked 1st, 11th, 3rd, and 2nd in fWAR for relievers (overall measure of value), the model of consistency. He looks like a great bet to continue his dominance for the next 4 to 10 years. A team in need of a closer could hardly ask for more, as there’s at least a chance he could be wearing their cap in Cooperstown, and you can’t say that about every player you trade for.
It’s hard to compare Chapman to anyone else in terms of trade value because he really is a unique talent. I could easily see an owner giving up the farm for him because they are captivated by the crowd appeal, while some GMs probably wouldn’t want to give up much for him because they know he’ll only pitch about 70 innings next year. Still other GMs might look at his age and innings and think they might be able to steal Klayton Kershaw if they give him another chance at starting, and that could get the bidding going. With those caveats, here are some recent trades involving closers, to get a sense of what the returns could be.
• At the deadline this year, the Phillies traded Jonathon Papelbon to the Nationals for Double-A RH starter Nick Pivetta. He was a 3rd round pick and ranked 10th in the Nats minor league system, and had a 3.02 ERA when traded. While this is probably the best comparison for a Chapman trade because Papelbon had a year of control left at the time and was a proven commodity, it’s still not great because Papelbon also had a no-trade clause, and this likely reduced the Phillies return. Chapman is also clearly the superior talent.
• The A’s traded Tyler Clippard to the Mets for right-handed pitcher Casey Meisner, who was the Mets’ third-round pick in 2013. He was listed as the Met’s 9th best prospect midseason, and had a 2.83 ERA at High-A. However, Clippard was not expected to close for the Mets and was a 3-month rental rental.
• In April this year 2015 the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel to Padres in a wild one. Kimbrel has been the second most valuable reliever over the last 4 years, so he’s the closest to Chapman’s talent on this list. However, he was traded largely so that the Braves could get rid of Melvin Upton, who was included in the deal, so the prospects don’t necessarily reflect what Kimbrel could have gotten on his own. Kimbrel had 3 years of team control left, and brought back 2013 second-round outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and the Padres best pitching prospect Matt Wisler (53rd overall rated prospect by BP).
• In July 2014 the Padres traded Huston Street to Angels for a package of four prospects: shortstop Jose Rondon, infielder Taylor Lindsey, and RH reliever R.J. Alvarez and RH starter Elliot Morris. Street is signed through 2017, so at the time he had 3+ years of team control left, though not at bargain basement prices. I won’t get into the prospects too much, but Lindsey cracked BP’s top 100 list, Alvarez looked promising, and Rondon has hit well enough to be a big league regular at SS if his defense could hold.
From that list, I would expect the Reds to be able to get more for Chapman than the Phillies or A’s did for Papelbon and Clippard, bu. t less than what the Padres got for Huston Street because Chapman only has one year left on his contract. A reasonable return for Chapman seems like one of a team’s top 2 prospects depending on the farm system, definitely a player in the top 100 overall, probably closer to 50 than 100. There might be an additional player included, depending on the quality of the central prospect, but probably not a prospect that projects as an impact player. This assumes that the Reds pay none of Chapman’s salary. If they decided to, and that appealed to the acquiring team, the return could go up considerably, maybe even netting two top 100 prospects.
The other possibility if for the Reds to go full-Kimbrel. That is, they try to package Chapman with some other contracts that they aren’t that thrilled with, to accelerate their rebuilding process. The only two players that would reasonably fit that bill are Bruce and Phillips. It’s hard to even speculate what a trade like this would look like because it could get crazy in a hurry, but unless the Reds took on a bad contract from the other team, I don’t think it would necessarily improve the prospects the Reds would get, the benefit would be in additional cash savings.
It was reported during the season that the Reds asked other teams for three “higher-level” prospects in return for Chapman, so the fact that they didn’t get a deal done makes sense. Now with the news of Dusty Baker getting the Nationals managing job, and their need to get rid of Papelbon for trying to choke the soon-to-be MVP Bryce Harper, it certainly seems like that could be Chapman’s landing spot. The Nationals still have a ton of talent and will be looking to go for it again in 2016 after a disappointing year. If the Reds lower their price to 2 prospects, and maybe take on some of Chapman’s salary to soften the blow of the Nats having to eat most of Papelbon’s (I’m guessing), this seems like a trade waiting to happen.
A fond farewell
I expect I won’t see Chapman pitching in a Reds uniform anymore, and that makes me sad. From the 105 MPH pitch, to the somersaults toward home plate, to fans going nuts for free pizza, it’s been a truly bittersweet joy to watch him pitch. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the Reds blowing the chance to have the next David Price or even Randy Johnson on their team, but if he had started, he wouldn’t have been striking out more than half of the batters he faced, and I’ll never forget that either. Chapman may be the ultimate representation of the 2010-2015 Baker/Price Reds. He was so much fun to watch, though sometimes incredibly frustrating, and at the end you can’t help but feel there was a lot of unused potential.
Now as the Reds turn the page on that team, it seems fitting that Chapman should go. Hopefully the Reds can get at least one top prospect in return who will be playing in all-star games when the next great Reds team comes together. I will wish Chapman all the best in his career, and probably follow his antics for years to come. For his sake and the sake of the game, I hope someone convinces him to start some time, just to see what might have been. If he ends up with Dusty again though, we know when we’ll see him: 9th inning, nobody on, Nats up by 3.