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02/21/12 5:25 PM EST
Chapman out to prove worth as starter
Flamethrower confident in physical and mental makeup
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Now in his third Spring Training for the Reds, the novelty about Cuban export Aroldis Chapman has worn off quite a bit. There is still curiosity about the left-hander who can throw a 105 mph fastball, but it's less about the pitcher and more about the role in which he will be throwing that kind of heat. Starter or reliever? Chapman has the answer in his mind already. "I am mentally and physically prepared to be a starter," Chapman said through interpreter Tomas Vera. "I feel I've worked real hard to do this. I am thinking like a starter and feel like I will be able to pitch all the innings they want me to pitch here in Spring Training." After Chapman spent his first full season in the Majors as a setup man in 2011, the Reds maintained all winter that he would transition to starting and compete for a rotation spot. On Tuesday, manager Dusty Baker indicated that a bullpen role still wasn't totally out of the question.
"We are going to stretch him out to see, and to see if there is time," Baker said. "If there is not time, or not quality, then you can always put the guy back in the bullpen."Chapman was supposed to begin the transformation and stretch out his innings load not long after the season, but shoulder stiffness limited him to only two relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League, totaling 2 2/3 innings. "We would have had an answer now if things had gone according to plan -- instructional league, fall league, [winter ball in] Puerto Rico," Baker said. "But it barely got through the instructional league and into the fall league when they shut him down. His arm wasn't ready to do that yet." Not being able to get a jump on competing for the rotation disappointed Chapman. "Unfortunately it did not happen," Chapman said. "I was looking forward to showing what I can do and pitch the innings and outings I was supposed to do in Puerto Rico. I didn't do it." Chapman eventually resumed a throwing program at home outside of Miami and arrived in camp 2 1/2 weeks early to work with the club. His ascension to working every fifth day is hardly a rubber-stamp procedure. The Reds have five starters they'd be happy to begin the season with in ace Johnny Cueto, new acquisition Mat Latos, veteran Bronson Arroyo and young pitchers Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Cincinnati had similar depth last spring before injuries to Cueto and Bailey put them on the disabled list and illness dogged Arroyo. That and inconsistency from the rotation greatly contributed to a down year for the club. "It could be another reason for Chapman to get stretched out early," Baker said. When the Reds pulled off a coup by signing the free agent Chapman to a six-year, $30 million contract in January 2010, months after he defected from Cuba, his preferred long-term future seemed to be as a starting pitcher. Because of a minor injury late in camp, he wasn't able to lock down the role to begin the season in the Majors. He started 13 games for Triple-A Louisville and was converted to a reliever midway through the season as the Reds chased down a division title. After his promotion, Chapman electrified with a 2.03 ERA in 15 appearances. Last season, Chapman remained in a relief role and went 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA in 54 games, walking 41 and striking out 71 over 50 innings. Following a stretch of four games in May when he couldn't find the strike zone -- he gave up 10 runs and 12 walks in 1 1/3 innings -- Chapman spent six weeks on the DL with left shoulder inflammation. Much of that time was spent in the Minors on a rehab assignment trying to straighten out command issues. Within a month after his return, Chapman retired 30 of 31 batters over a stretch of nine appearances. If Chapman doesn't make the Reds' rotation, it's possible he could return to Louisville and get starts until he's ready. Even with strong lefties in the bullpen (new acquisition Sean Marshall and holdover Bill Bray), Baker isn't entirely letting go of the notion that Chapman can help the club as a reliever. "I don't know. We have to see when we get there," Baker said. "It depends on our needs. I'm not opposed to going with three lefties in the bullpen, not at all. Some of these decisions are mine, but not all my decisions only." While the fate of Chapman isn't entirely in Baker's hands, it's even less in Chapman's. "There's nothing I can do in my mind except to prove I can be a starter," Chapman said. "But if they make the decision at the end that I can't, I will be ready to be in the bullpen and continue to work hard to prove I can be a starter." In his two springs, Chapman was of high interest to the media and press conferences were held early in both camps to satisfy the myriad inquiries. This spring, no press conferences were needed and there was no queue from reporters seeking answers. As the novelty sensation has waned, so too has Chapman's feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. While he still prefers to speak publicly in his native language over English, his comfort level has increased exponentially. "It is way, way different since the first year. That was really tough," Chapman said. "It's easier now to get around. I feel more freedom. I feel that I have a better connection with my teammates. The camaraderie is going up. I feel more relaxed and free around here."