Aroldis Chapman: 'I ... want to be the closer'

USA TODAY Sports

In a break from spring tradition, Aroldis Chapman is a reliever-to-starter conversion that might not excite the player making the switch.

Aroldis Chapman doesn't want to be a starter. He wants to be the Reds' closer. This is a new one. Check out these headlines from the past:

Joba Chamberlain wants to start

(Neftali) Feliz's desire to start may not fit Rangers' plans

(Jonathan) Papelbon likely out for season, wants to start in '07

On and on, from Chris Sale to Ryan Dempster to Brett Myers, pitchers have gotten a taste of relieving, only to want out soon after. Being a reliever is baseball's version of milling around the airport because your flight is delayed. It's boring. Lots of sunflower seeds. Some reclining. Putting your feet up. Telling stories until you run out of them in May. And you know one of your bullpen mates is that guy. Maybe not in the same way every time, but you know one of thos five or six guys will annoy you to tears.

Oh, and another reason for preferring to be a starter, other than the excitement of it all: Starters make more money. Millions and millions more. Jonathan Papelbon's contract was one of the largest ever for a closer. Edwin Jackson's wasn't very unusual at all. They're roughly the same.

There's a counterpoint to those headlines up there, though. There is one guy who didn't want to start after all -- Daniel Bard. The rotation chewed Bard up and spit him back out in Triple-A, where he continued to struggle. His comments aren't coming from a "Relieving is neat! I like to relieve" standpoint, but rather one where he thinks, "I've been awful in this new job, but I sure was good doing my old job."

That's not where Chapman is yet. It's not like he's demanding to close, or begging to return to his old job. He just has a preference.

"The truth is, if they were to make the decision, I would want to be the closer," Chapman said, "but it's not in my hands."

Chapman said he relishes the role of closer because of the rush of pitching in the ninth inning. Baker said he'd planned to speak with Chapman about it after he'd pitched.

The rush of it all, yes. But Ken Rosenthal talked to a scout who said that Chapman didn't look very impressive, mentioning Joba Chamberlain as a comp and pointing out reduced velocity.

Chapman topped out at 93 mph on Monday and consistently threw 91, the scout said.

If that kind of velocity is enough to get people freaked out about Tim Lincecum, it's surely enough to warrant concern for Aroldis Chapman, who threw 10 miles an hour faster as a reliever last year. While Chapman's fastball was higher in earlier spring starts -- and we don't really know how much of a deal to make about spring velocity, anyway -- he was down in Cliff Lee territory for his last start, which is great for pitchers who have command like Cliff Lee. It's the kind of thing that could change the mind of a pitcher used to awing crowds with a triple-digit fastball. We knew he was going to lose velocity moving from the bullpen. This much of a drop is surprising.

Back when the Chapman conversion was announced, I wrote about the difference between him and a guy like Craig Kimbrel. When the Reds announced the Chapman move, it was a good idea. But if I suddenly started advocating for Kimbrel to start, it would be a stupid idea. The difference? The team came up with the first one, and they probably know what they're doing. Some couch coach thought up the second one because it sounded neat. When it comes to starter conversions, the team generally knows best.

In this case, though, the organization is split. Dusty Baker wants to keep Chapman in the bullpen. Pitching coach Bryan Price wants to keep Chapman in the bullpen. And we've heard that Chapman's preference is to close. Someone upstairs wants him to start, though, and you can understand why. The upside could be measured in All-Star appearances, trophies, and gold plaques.

Two factors to consider:

1. The Reds have a solid rotation already, with at least one qualified candidate out of a job, and ...

2. Chapman has had a history of abrupt mechanical shifts in the past, moving from a wild-yet-effective closer to a player on the DL with mystery ailments, and then emerging from that cocoon with a mythic fastball that he could command.

Chapman just might be too complicated of a machine with which to tinker. If the Reds were, say, like the Royals, and spent the offseason desperately looking for pitching, maybe the risk would outweigh the reward. But there's something unsettling about his lack of starter-related enthusiasm. His coaches share it. Scouts share it. The early returns on the risk don't make most of us all excited for the reward.

I'll guess that Chapman will start for a little while. But if his heart's not into it -- and more important, if his arm isn't into it -- he'll move back to the bullpen. Hopefully, he won't need more tinkering if he goes back there. Baseball is better with a healthy, dominant Aroldis Chapman. So are the Reds. The question doesn't have a right answer. I'm just glad I don't have to make it.

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