What can fantasy owners expect from Aroldis Chapman?
There are a lot of question marks surrounding Chapman, the Cuban import signed by the Cincinnati Reds to a six-year, $30.25 million contract in January, most notably -- and most recently -- the back issues that kept him on the shelf for a few days this past week.
Chapman's back is apparently improving, according to the team's official Web site, and he might resume throwing by the early part of next week. But with a little more than a week until Opening Day, there isn't much time for him to reestablish himself as a legitimate contender for the team's fifth-starter role.
Rob Neyer pointed out in a recent blog post that fellow prospects Mike Leake and Travis Wood are the Reds' most likely winners of that fifth-starter battle, and CNATI.com reports that in addition to those two, Chapman is a third contender for the spot. The Reds first need a fifth starter on April 11, a date that falls directly in line with Leake and Wood's current pitching schedule, but that's also more than two weeks away, more than enough time for Chapman to claim the gig. The way this battle is playing out, it seems the Reds want Chapman to win it, and if he doesn't it's only a matter of his back not quite affording him the opportunity.
"I can't speak for the organization, but my feeling is that he's going to need a certain amount of innings and pitches thrown to compete for that spot," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price told CNATI.com. "This window of opportunity doesn't stay open until April 5, at some point it's going to become fairly urgent that he get on the mound to compete for the job."
It's curious that the Reds so strongly desire having Chapman in their opening-day rotation, since his contract has stipulations that benefit player more than team the quicker he approaches arbitration. From ESPN's report when he signed: "If Chapman is eligible for salary arbitration after the 2012 season, he would get $5 million converted to a bonus and become eligible for arbitration."
Since so many teams have been going out of their way to delay prospects' arbitration eligibility in recent years, one would think that the Reds might follow suit and keep Chapman in the minors for as long as possible. Then again, he's making $1 million already this season, and if he's talented enough to break camp with the team, by 2012 he might have developed to the point where the money he earns in arbitration is a mere afterthought anyway.
The case can easily be made that Chapman's career path might very well be headed toward superstardom. That's not only because he managed a 3.74 ERA, .227 batting average allowed and 10.02 strikeouts per nine innings during his four years in Cuba, or a 1.04 ERA with 12 K's in 8 2/3 innings so far this spring. Those might be eye-popping numbers, especially in the strikeout department, but neither set has a tremendous amount of relevance when formulating a big league projection.
It's Chapman's stuff that hints toward his All-Star upside. Keith Law offered an excellent scouting report on the 22-year-old left-hander from early in the spring, and his insights confirmed that Chapman sports a mid-to-high 90s fastball, a slider Law termed "absolutely toxic" and a changeup more than 15 mph slower than his fastball. Numerous reports also had him touching 100 mph this spring. That's the kind of package that might make any young pitcher an instant success, so Chapman's spring numbers shouldn't be so casually discarded.
Maybe that means Chapman indeed steps into the Reds' rotation on April 11, or if the team chooses to take the conservative approach with his back injury, perhaps he'll be ready to join the team by May 1. Either way, it sure seems manager Dusty Baker would love to have him in the rotation.
"If he comes back, he will have a couple of starts and we can still get him up to four, five innings. Is that enough? We don't know," Baker told the team's official Web site.
Of course, having Baker on his side might be another black mark for Chapman. Anyone who has played fantasy baseball for more than a few years knows all about Baker's overreliance on young pitchers. He's frequently blamed for the injury issues endured by Kerry Wood and Mark Prior from back in his Chicago Cubs days, and many blame Baker for Edinson Volquez's injury issues in Cincinnati. Now, Baker certainly didn't abuse his starting pitchers to any great degree in 2009, with no Reds pitcher ranking higher than 24th in pitches per start and only three total from the team throwing 120-plus pitches in a game, but it's curious that Baker and his crew wouldn't have immediately scratched Chapman from the rotation competition upon word of his back problems. A conservative approach might have been warranted.
A bullpen assignment is also a possibility for Chapman in the season's early weeks, a prospect fantasy owners surely dread. There might be no worse conclusion to Chapman's spring quest than that, being that he wouldn't be in the mix to close, would throw considerably fewer innings and might then need a somewhat lengthy period to build stamina if he's eventually shifted to the rotation. In the event the Reds go that route, it might be time to run far, far away.
The smart move, however, is for Chapman's prospective fantasy owners to assume he's not going to spend the entire year in the Reds' rotation, but rather a large chunk of it. A 25-start, 150-inning campaign isn't impossible, though those in redraft leagues shouldn't expect more than that.
This is a pitcher you draft for the strikeouts, and fear for the WHIP, as he did average greater than five walks per nine innings (5.57 to be exact) during his career in Cuba. Chapman might struggle with his command at times, and it's possible his 2010 value will be as a matchups pitcher. But at this stage he's definitely draftable in mixed formats, and a decent mid-round gamble in NL-only formats.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.