Gammons: Reds dream big with Chapman
As phenom grows, club has pieces to emerge as force
The first pitch I ever saw Aroldis Chapman throw from behind home plate was one of the things you dream on. Here is this 22-year-old kid with the body of a young Randy Moss and the wingspan of a great blue heron, and out of his hand came a changeup for a strike. Perfect arm speed, dead fish.
Chapman's mentor and fellow Cuban refugee Tony Fossas later reminded me that in his previous appearance, Chapman was in a jam, 3-and-2, shook off the catcher and threw another changeup. Strike three. "And," says Fossas, "he didn't even have that pitch six weeks ago."
What happened Tuesday was that Chapman's back stiffened and he never made it through a second inning in which he threw 30 pitches, which for general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Dusty Baker was the good news. In that outing, his four-seam fastball was 94-97 mph, which he said afterward just wasn't right, and hadn't felt right for a couple of days.
Previously, he threw 101 mph, sat at 94 with his two-seamer, showed he has a slider with a tilt from the center of the earth and is developing this changeup.
"He has the best left-handed fastball I've ever seen," says the Dodgers' Andre Ethier.
To be a franchise-changing pitcher, Chapman needs to pitch in the Minor Leagues; truth be told, the Reds' first-round pick from last June's Draft, Mike Leake from Arizona State, may be closer to The Show, but they can dream on Chapman and think about the franchise's future.
The back happened. OK. Those things are part of the adjustment. The arm angle and the changeup and the tilt of the breaking ball are parts of the adjustment. He is different out of the stretch. He has trouble holding runners. Dusty pointed out that he'd hardly ever run the bases, which National League pitchers have to do. "Confused" is the way one coach put it.
"He'll get all that," says Fossas, who moved from Cuba to Boston when he was a teenager and is now a Minor League pitching instructor. "It's amazing what he's learned in a very short period of time. After he signed, he moved near me in Florida, and I was able to spend time with him, and of course I've been with him here in Arizona. There are basics he has to learn, like getting a Social Security number and a driver's license. But he learns well, and he's eager.
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"What people don't understand is that he is smart. Education in Cuba is important, and he has a year of college under his belt. He will learn what he has to learn."
"He's taken to instruction very well," says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "The talent is tremendous. The extension he gets with his arm is really unusual, and the breaking ball will keep getting better. He so badly wants to learn, and the pressure doesn't seem to affect him."
"Think about the pressure he's already been under in Cuba," says Fossas. "There's the pressure of performing for the national team. Then there's the pressure of pitching to get out and come over here. He gets here and everyone is watching everything he does. He's handled it well for a 22-year-old kid in a new culture."
Chapman is still in the running for the fifth spot in the Cincinnati rotation, with Micah Owings, Leake, Travis Wood and Kip Wells. But the odds are that he will go to the Minors and continue his baseball and cultural assimilation process. Which is no reflection on all that they dream.
When it's been suggested that Stephen Strasburg has nothing to gain by going to the Minor Leagues, what was forgotten is that he has yet to pitch on four days' rest for four to six months. In college, pitchers work once a week. In Spring Training, the appearances are short, the environment framed. In 1970, Steve Dunning came out of Stanford as the greatest college pitcher of all time, went right to the Indians and eventually finished his career 23-41. A year later, Pete Broberg of Dartmouth was called the best ever and started in the big leagues with the Senators. Tom Grieve, who was a teammate, says, "Strasburg can't have better stuff than Pete Broberg had." But Broberg never had a chance to prepare and was 41-71 for his career.
One scout watching the 1983 Eastern League playoffs proclaimed Roger Clemens to be the best he'd ever seen, and he may have been right. But Clemens started 1983 in Winter Haven, went to the Eastern League, started '84 in Pawtucket, went up to Boston in May, was 9-4 with a 4.32 ERA the rest of that season, was 7-5 in '85, needed shoulder surgery, and in '86 broke out with a 24-4 MVP/Cy Young campaign.
One scout who saw his last outing said he felt Strasburg's best pitch was his changeup. Maybe that pitch will be ready when Strasburg reaches the glare of the Washington stage this summer and will make him a dominant pitcher quickly.
Like Strasburg, Chapman will learn to recover from not having his best stuff, or having a stiff back, or getting hit around. It's all part of the process, and if he learns as Fossas believes he will, then Chapman could be a major contributor to the Reds in the second half of the season. Which will be no small matter.
If there is a sleeper team in Arizona, it is Cincinnati. Opposing managers, scouts and players alike think that the Reds can make a run in the National League Central.
"There's a very good feeling here," says Scott Rolen, whose health is an important factor. "There's a lot of talent here, the atmosphere is good, there's a blend of youth and experience and there's a very positive vibe. We can be pretty good."
To begin with, the Reds could have the deepest pitching in the division, especially if Chapman and Leake contribute in the second half. Aaron Harang went from winning 32 games and striking out 434 in 2006-07 to being 12-31 with an ERA over 4.50 the last two seasons ... and appears to be back. Two years ago, it was physical.
Last season, Harang says, "My mechanics were out of whack. But I've got them back." Lance Berkman says Harang's fastball is "as deceiving as anyone's, it jumps in on hitters," and he's a horse. Bronson Arroyo is a horse and had 13 straight quality starts at one juncture in 2009, Johnny Cueto is having a good spring and Homer Bailey was 6-1 with a 1.70 ERA to close the season. Edinson Volquez is throwing and could be in the midseason mix with Chapman and Leake.
Francisco Cordero has Nick Masset and two lefties (Daniel Ray Herrera and Arthur Rhodes) in front of him, and if Jared Burton bounces back and Logan Ondrusek delivers, Baker will have one of the best 1-to-11 staffs in the National League.
Jocketty believes they have upgraded the offense with Orlando Cabrera at short ("We win," O tells Baker, "because where I go, we win"), they have Rolen for a full year, and Baker cites Ramon Hernandez as a candidate for a big year. The reality is that they were 11th in the league in runs and second to last in on-base percentage, so they need better production than the .306 on-base percentage they got out of the leadoff hole last season. Center fielder Chris Dickerson has had a very good spring. Drew Stubbs has exceptional ability. Brandon Phillips has All-Star ability. But they need production up top.
They also need Joey Votto, whose .981 OPS trailed only Albert Pujols and Todd Helton among National League first basemen, to keep getting better, and for the gifted Jay Bruce to build off his finish and forget the .223 average.
"Jay could have a breakout season," says Baker.
While the spring storyline has been the $30 million Chapman -- right from his first bullpen session -- that glaring spotlight might turn out to be good for the Reds.
"It's not a bad thing to fly under the radar," says Baker. "I think we can be pretty good, but talk is cheap. You have to play."
You look at Votto and Phillips and Bruce and Harang and Arroyo and Cordero, and you realize the core is there. Then you see Leake, and, especially, you see Chapman and that changeup and the 101 mph, and if you are a Reds fan, you can dream. Yes, it is March, but this is a team the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers and everyone in the NL Central may be watching come the All-Star break, and beyond.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.