Chapman looks worthy of buzz in debut
With aplomb, Reds lefty spins two scoreless frames, fans three
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- A pitcher who will earn $30.25 million from his first big league contract, Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman showed indications on Monday that he will be worth every penny to the Reds.In a Spring Training debut that raised the bar for first impressions, Chapman pitched two scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and three strikeouts. He threw 26 pitches, including 15 for strikes, and was awarded the victory in a 14-5 Reds win. "I felt really good," Chapman said with Class A Dayton pitching coach Tony Fossas interpreting. "I felt better than the last [intrasquad] game that I threw." The crowd of 2,017 fans was sparse at a chilly Goodyear Ballpark, but there was a sizable contingent of national media watching along with a full armada of scouts behind home plate, aiming their radar guns at Chapman's pitches. The top reading on one scout's gun was 100 mph in the fourth inning as Chris Getz was called out on strikes. The Reds' radar gun had a highest reading of 99 mph. "I'll take 100 with command," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "It's hard to tell because he throws so easy. He doesn't put a lot of effort into it." After Bronson Arroyo started and pitched two scoreless innings, Chapman emerged from the bullpen and started the top of the third inning for Cincinnati. His first batter happened to be a fellow Cuban in Royals catcher Brayan Pena, who caught some of Chapman's bullpen sessions before he signed with the Reds in January. Pena began the inning with a sharply lined single to left field and was forced at second base on a Kila Ka'aihue fielder's choice play. After Ka'aihue was caught stealing, Chapman fell behind Brian Anderson and settled down after a mound visit from catcher Ramon Hernandez.
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Chapman walked Anderson on a 3-2 changeup -- the only changeup he threw in the game -- but still appeared to benefit from Hernandez's visit. The 22-year-old pitcher escaped the situation by striking out David DeJesus with a fastball."He has a live arm, that's why they got him, and you can see he's going to have a future in this league," DeJesus said. "It's a matter of if he finds the plate, but he was close to the plate today, even when he was missing," Baker said. "And when he missed, most times it was down. It's a very good sign that he's getting more and more into the rhythm of things." Kansas City's half of the fourth inning went much smoother as Chapman retired the side in order on 11 pitches. After Getz's called strike three, Billy Butler hit a first-pitch offering for a groundout to third base and Rick Ankiel struck out swinging on a nasty 86-mph slider. "Very impressive, especially somebody that tall and lanky being able to change his release times as effectively as he did and still get his arm to its proper slot and spin the ball," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "Their [scoreboard radar] gun wasn't working, but it looked like about a 90-mile-an-hour slider today. That's tough to square up." Arroyo normally heads back to the clubhouse right after finishing spring starts but stuck around in the dugout to watch Chapman work from the top step. "As uncomfortable as a guy like myself can be at this time of year, for him to be coming from where he's coming from and just getting used to crowds being around and knowing everybody is watching him, for him to throw strikes and not walk too many guys is pretty good," Arroyo said. Until Monday, Chapman's only mound action had been side bullpen sessions, two batting practices and one intrasquad game. Facing another club's hitters proved to be a better experience. "I definitely felt like I could be more aggressive in the zone and don't have to be so worried about throwing the ball inside," Chapman said. "I felt a lot more comfortable, a lot better today." Fossas, himself a Cuba native who has essentially served as Chapman's guardian and mentor since the young defector signed with Cincinnati, was in the bullpen with the pitcher as he warmed up and liked what he was seeing. "Sometimes when you're in the bullpen, you think about less things," Fossas said. "He had really good stuff. It doesn't surprise me that he went out there and did a real good job. I thought the most important thing was that I saw him really relax. He was nice and tall finishing up his pitches. His slider was pretty good again." With a buzz comparable to that of the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Chapman has been both a sensation and enigma since signing a six-year, $30.25 million contract with the Reds. Until Spring Training, few outside Cuba had seen Chapman pitch, but reports that he had triple-digit velocity and command issues had scouts debating his Major League ability in the weeks before camp opened. Through the first few weeks of spring, Chapman has demonstrated remarkable control, especially with his secondary pitches -- the slider and changeup. Despite his inexperience, he is competing for the fifth spot in the Reds' rotation and seems poised to make breaking camp a Major Leaguer more of a reality. Fossas believed Chapman will only get better as camp continues and he gets more comfortable. The pitcher being this advanced to this point didn't surprise the coach. "First of all, he's very bright and very smart," Fossas said. "He already brought pretty solid mechanics. He's a workaholic. With the technology we have here, he's only going to get better. With the video room that we have here that he's never seen before or seen himself before, he's going use that to his advantage. "I don't think the issue is control anymore. I think growing up in Cuba under a tough situation, going thorough and planning a defection, that takes a lot of guts and a lot of heart -- leaving his family behind, not knowing what the future is going to bring. I think for him, this is a piece of cake, to be honest with you."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.