By signing catcher Brayan Pena to a two-year deal—as reported by Mark Sheldon of MLB.com—the Cincinnati Reds have dropped a not-so-subtle hint that All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman is moving into their 2014 starting rotation.
A longtime backup who broke into the majors with the Atlanta Braves, Pena batted .297/.315/.397 with the Detroit Tigers last summer. More importantly, he maintained that while receiving a career-high 243 plate appearances. In his career, the 31-year-old has thrown out would-be base stealers at a better-than-average rate (28.5 percent).
It's clear that this guy isn't coming to the Reds to do the team's laundry; they plan to fit him onto the active roster. This is far more than mere speculation, as Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has already tweeted that Ryan Hanigan is on the trading block.
How do these developments relate to Chapman?
Consider that both he and Pena are Cuban defectors who have an existing relationship. Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today noted that they worked out together during the winter leading up to Chapman's MLB debut.
Chapman and Hanigan actually form a dominant duo. Chapman has had more experience and success with the Washington, DC native than with other Reds catchers, as Baseball-Reference.com illustrates:
Then again, we must realize that starting situations require batteries to become much more intimate.
A language barrier isn't problematic when working together for only one inning at a time and relying exclusively on fastballs and sliders. Pitching out of the rotation, however, often requires planning for specific opponents and the implementation of a third pitch (in Chapman's case, a changeup). Hanigan is a more accomplished catcher than Pena, but the Reds are seemingly fine with making a minor statistical sacrifice if it creates an environment that allows their overpowering lefty to reach his full potential.
We have good reason to believe that Cincinnati has adopted this line of thinking. There's been heated internal discussions during the past couple offseasons about whether to stretch out Chapman for starting duty.
ESPN Insider Jim Bowden takes us back to 2013 spring training when manager Dusty Baker clashed with his boss about the handling of the then-25-year-old (subscription required):
Now at the helm of the Cincinnati Reds, Baker is convinced leaving flame-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman as his closer gives him the best chance to win. Most of the players and staff think Chapman should close, too.
However, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is convinced his team is better with Chapman starting. Pitching coach Bryan Price agrees.
Chapman's teammates frankly shouldn't have any input in this decision, and Jocketty fired Baker seven months later after the club's premature playoff exit. Price was promptly named his successor.
MLB.com's Mark Sheldon passes along this quote from his introductory press conference:
In regards to Aroldis, I was on record last Spring Training that pitchers get better throwing innings, especially pitchers that don't have a lot of innings under their belt or pitchers that struggle to throw strikes or throw their secondary pitches over the plate. I haven't changed that philosophy.
Even without Chapman, Cincinnati's starting rotation was among baseball's best a year ago:
|Cincinnati Reds 2013 Starting Rotation|
|Stat||MLB Rank (Out of 30)|
|Earned Run Average||3|
|Walks and HIts per Innings Pitched||1|
|Batting Average Against||5|
However, veteran innings-eater Bronson Arroyo has become a free agent. He admitted to Mark Sheldon last month that he believes the Reds are "going in a different direction," and their decision not to extend a $14.1 million qualifying offer supports that sentiment. His departure means that they need to replace someone who—quite literally, according to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors—hadn't missed a scheduled start in his eight years with Cincinnati.
On paper, the Reds can still assemble a fearsome quintet with Homer Bailey, Tony Cingrani, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake. Unfortunately, Bailey is due a big raise in arbitration that could compel Cincy to trade him, Sheldon explains. Cueto has top-of-the-rotation potential, but recurring lat issues make him a long shot to take the mound every fifth day.
Chapman's contract status also gives the Reds incentives to start him.
We're approaching the final guaranteed year of his deal. Barring a catastrophic injury or horrible performance, he'll decline his 2015 player option, which is worth only $5 million. With a strong possibility that Chapman will find his best long-term contract offer elsewhere, perhaps the Reds want to get as much production as possible from him while they can.
No need to consult Sherlock Holmes—these dots practically connect themselves.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.