Aroldis Chapman: 'Pen Pal

Dear AROLDIS, What is life like in the bullpen? Your new friend, Red Reporter

For those of us with hopes that Aroldis Chapman will develop into the next Randy Johnson, this news was not entirely welcome: "The plans are to keep Chapman in the bullpen right now. We'll take a long look at Dontrelle Willis also." Given the talk from both Dusty and Walt this offseason, it seems pretty unlikely that Chapman's March performance will have enough weight to Spring-board him over Travis Wood or Mike Leake and into the rotation, nor give the Reds cause to put Chapman in AAA (potentially adding Willis to the currently-full 40-man to do so).

While Chapman may be less prepared to enter the rotation right now than a kid who not too long a go ate a slightly larger meal than usual is for the Tilt-a-Whirl (it's Bad Analogy Week on Red Reporter), the question remains as to whether it's good practice to stall his development as a starter. So, perhaps against my better judgment, I wanted to return to the issue: Is this a good idea?

The team seems at least partly motivated to keep Chapman in the 'pen by the fact that they've lost Arthur Rhodes to free agency. And they're surely aware of Cordero's decline in effectiveness. Without Chapman, it still shapes up to be a respectable bullpen, but without a lights-out Fire Man - depending on whatcha think of Nick Massett. Setting aside the ability of Chapman to get fans through turnstiles (not a negligible consideration, but debatable for a reliever) the more pertinent question is not whether Chapman would be the best reliever in the 'pen (probably) or throw the hardest (scoreboard), but how much better he would be than the available replacement. The Reds have some measure of faith in Chapman as a critical piece to defend the division title, grabbing a marginal win or two.

We can stack up Chapman with his possible replacements, assuming a supporting cast of Cordero, Massett, Ondrusek, Bray, Arredondo and Jared Burton. With little chance of an additional signing or trade, this is a pretty reasonable talent pool to represent the other six spots. Zips and other projection systems treat Aroldis Chapman like a spot starter, so it's hard to get a handle on his outlook - on top of the fact that relief pitching is especially difficult to project in the first place.

Let's see if making numbers up gets us anywhere:

Pitcher 2010 WAR 2011 projection that I made up Chapman Differential (ChDiff)
Aroldis Chapman 0.7 (13.1 IP) 2.2 WAR --
Dontrelle Willis -0.1 (65.2 IP) 0.3 WAR -1.9 WAR
Jordan Smith -0.2 (42.1 IP) 0.1 WAR -2.1 WAR
Matt Maloney 0.2 WAR (9.0 IP) 0.8 WAR - 1.4 WAR

 

Unscientific, but I would wager that most projection systems give Chapman minimum of a roughly 1 WAR advantage on other in-house relievers over a full season. The Reds can come up with better-than-replacement relievers in his stead, but the very best relievers the Reds have at their disposal are going to be in the bullpen regardless. Chapman's presence also has an effect on the roles of other relievers, potentially allowing them to be used more appropriately, improving the bullpen as a whole. Further, it's worth remembering that whatever wins Chapman could be more valuable in as much as they are more likely to be decisive in whether the Reds make it to the postseason in 2011.

The question, then, is this: Does netting at least one win next season, possibly even two, justify postponing Chapman's development as a starter for a season? To answer this question, we have to know what is foregone by not sending the Cubandolero to Louisville to work it out. It's possible Chapman could spend part of a season in AAA this year and add value to the rotation at a level equal to or great to what he brings to the bullpen. It's difficult to say how likely this scenario is - it probably involves injuries or sub-par performance from other starters - but the Reds are writing off this possibility by keeping Chapman in relief all season.

I don't pretend to know what kind of effect the starter-relief-starter shuffle has on pitchers, but I imagine it's case-specific and has something to do with "makeup." On the Yankees alone (where all good player comps begin), there's the Phil Hughes examples and then there''s Joba Chamberlin. We can assume it's neutral or slightly negative on Chapman's development. But more importantly, that development is set back by a season.

While the effect on future performance is hard to peg, there are implications to the Reds's decision farther down the road. It's hard to predict when he'd pop up again in the majors if he were to begin next season in the Bats' rotation, but if the Reds have Chapman locked in as a reliever for 2011, Opening Day 2012 would be the very earliest. It's a reasonable to estimate that Chapman in Relief sets Chapman the Starter's ETA back by about one year. It's also entirely possible that Chapman becomes a better starter after spending a year as a reliever, though maybe he gets more "prime years" into his career with the Reds if start him earlier. If you think he's destined to become a starter, I would put more weight on the latter argument, though an extra year of Chapman firing on all cylinders comes at a cost in arbitration.

By way of example, instead of starting July 2011, he comes up July 2012. The Reds get up to a season less of Chapman in a starting role over the life of his contract. A lot of factors influence when Chapman would be called up in our two parallel realities, not the least of which is whether one of the current starters is traded over the next year and a half. It's a leap to assume he would spend the same amount of time in the minors after a full year of relieving as he would by heading down to start this season, but if we assume the benefits of facing big league hitters vs. stretching out in the minors are a wash, then Chapman's total service time (and arbitration born-on date) isn't affected significantly by this decision.

(It's just too fraught to even guess at the answers to some of these counterfactuals, but you would have to assume that no matter what, the Reds would try to avoid landing above the Super Two cutoff with his service time, which would make Chapman arbitration eligible after 2013. Optioning Chapman to the minors to minors not only allows him to hone his craft as a starter, it also allows the Reds to avoid paying $2M on top of arbitration in 2013 as per Chapman's weird contract.)For the sake of pruning the possibility tree, assume an equivalent stint in the minors would happen either way.)

One potential additional benefit to making Chapman a reliever this year is how it may affect his arbitration case. Replacing a year of relief with up to a year of starting could be a considerable savings, especially considering Chapman probably won't rack up many saves in 2011. Both in their first year of arbitration, Joba settled for $1.3M less than Phil Hughes this offseason - where Phil started 14 more games over the same stretch. This is an imperfect comparison, but If you spot Chapman at least a half starts, his value would seem to be greater.

The ultimate difference is whether you think those found starts will be defined by struggling to adjust or by gradual improvement. When compared to his performance as a lights-out reliever, that would make the difference in an arb award - and that's the point of departure for the whole debate.

Costs and Benefits:

I think the Reds stand to gain the following by putting Chapman in the 'pen for all of 2011:

  • A maximum of 2 Wins Above Replacement in 2011
  • Possible arbitration discount in Chapman's first year

At the cost of:

  • Postponing Chapman's emergence as a starter by approximately one year
  • Up to one less year of Chapman (current contract) under team control as a starting pitcher
  • Opportunity for Chapman to provide excess value to rotation as early as Late 2011
  • Possible (though debatable) negative effect of one year of relief on future ability to start

Do the Reds get a bargain here or is the price for Chapman the 2011 Reliever too dear? It's a difficult decision to map, but I think it primarily turns on how important Chapman is to helping the Reds repeat a Central Division crown. Potentially sacrificing a future prime year of Chapman as a starter is difficult to evaluate, especially not knowing if the team's success will be sustainable or what Chapman's true development curve as a starter will be.

The Reds have made a defensible decision, but given Chapman's ceiling as an historically good pitcher in his prime, I would probably take the trade-off of Matt Maloney (with long-relief action) in 2011 over the above.

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