Chapman looks to be headed to Minors
GM Jocketty says fifth starter is between Wood, Leake
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- This much is known about the outcome of the fifth-starter battle in Reds camp: He will be young and have no Major League experience. It's possible he will have no professional experience in the Minors, too.But Cuban sensation Aroldis Chapman isn't one of the two finalists, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty indicated on Tuesday morning. Chapman, 22, had a setback with back spasms during a 1 2/3-inning start on March 22 and only returned Sunday. He worked a scoreless inning in a Minor League game. "The injury set him back to the point where it's going to be tough for him to be ready to start the season as one of our five starters," Jocketty said. That means the final rotation spot is down to left-handed prospect Travis Wood and right-hander Mike Leake, who was the organization's first-round pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft. Both have had strong springs but were overshadowed by the hype of Chapman's arrival. So it's come down to this: Leake and Wood will get one final chance to impress on Wednesday, when both make starts in split-squad games. Leake will pitch five innings for the Reds against the A's in Phoenix in the afternoon game while Wood gets five innings vs. the Dodgers in a night game at Las Vegas. Chapman is scheduled to follow Leake with three innings of relief. "I think we want to see how both guys throw tomorrow," Jocketty said. "We'll probably make a decision sometime on Thursday." Had Chapman not been injured, it was very possible he'd be in the race, too. In his four games, including one start, he posted a 1.04 ERA over 8 2/3 innings with four walks and 12 strikeouts, which ties Wood for the team lead this spring. A six-year, $30.25 million investment, Chapman came as advertised with triple-digit velocity. He also surprised many with his command and a strong slider and changeup. How he'd fare was a big unknown because he came from isolated Cuba and was unpolished. "He was still in competition," Jocketty said. "I think we needed the spring to figure out what is the best route for him. Even without the injury, we may have decided to send him some place to get established first." It wasn't known yet which Minor League level Chapman would begin his career. The 22-year-old Leake has a 3.00 ERA in five games, including one start. In 12 innings, he's walked three and struck out eight. He's a sinkerball pitcher that's showed strong command and few adjustment issues against big league hitters.
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Only a handful of pitchers, especially in recent years, have bypassed the Minor Leagues entirely for the big leagues, including Darren Dreifort, Jim Abbott and David Clyde."I'm hoping they make me one of that handful," said Leake, the eighth overall Draft selection in 2009 out of Arizona State University. "I have to try and not worry about it. I think I've done what I can. We'll have to see what they end up deciding." Leake was expected to move up fast when he was picked, but to break camp with the club would definitely put him ahead of schedule. He's never pitched in a five-man rotation before, since most college games are held over weekends. When camp opened, Leake was aware the odds were against him for winning the spot. "Realistically, kind of," Leake said. "But in my own mind, I knew that I could. I figured why not just do well and see what happens?" Most young pitchers get at least some time in the Minors to get adjusted to professional baseball. The overall No. 1 pick of last year's Draft, Stephen Strasburg, was already sent to Double-A this spring. "You also have to look at these guys as individuals," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "With Leake, it's what is in his best interests? That's going to be an organizational decision about what's best for him and our team for the short term and long term." Wood has a 2.57 ERA through his five games, including one start. In his 14 innings, he walked nine and struck out 12. He was named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 after he moved up from high Class A to Triple-A and posted a 13-5 record with a 1.77 ERA in 27 starts. The 23-year-old Wood has only eight starts at Triple-A Louisville on his resume. Like Leake, he was considered to have an outside chance at the fifth spot behind older players like Matt Maloney, Justin Lehr and Micah Owings. "In Wood's case, you're talking about a guy that did a double jump last year," Price said. "He had a terrific season and basically pitched himself into consideration. He's impressed us to the point that he will take this thing down to the wire with a chance to win the fifth-starter's spot." If both Wood and Leake fare well on Wednesday and all things are equal, Wood seems to have the inside track at the job based on his having more experience. "That certainly works in his favor, yes," Jocketty said. "I think we just have to figure out what the matchups will be the first couple of series." The Reds probably will not need a fifth starter until April 11 because of a day off the first week. Both Jocketty and manager Dusty Baker said it was possible the winner would remain in camp to keep throwing when the team heads to Cincinnati on Saturday. That would allow the Reds to carry an extra bench player or reliever. Baker, Jocketty, Price, the coaching staff and front office will certainly have some interesting meetings before making a decision that's expected on Thursday. "The guys have put us in a tough situation to make a really difficult decision and have debate, difference of opinion and eventually when the smoke clears, we'll pick somebody and explain why we've picked them," Price said.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.