Reds could get boost from Chapmania
Cuban lefty with big fastball makes highly anticipated arrival
Once again, Aroldis Chapman will don a red cap with a bright white "C". The red stockings and matching undershirt hanging inside his locker will be much like those he wore when he was a star in Cuba.
It's been a year since Chapman defected from his native island, left his family and changed his life.
Another big change is coming.
After months of anticipation, the next great Cuban player has arrived. The left-hander was called up before the Reds' game against the Brewers in Cincinnati on Tuesday and is expected to make his big league debut this week.
Tall and lanky, the 22-year-old Chapman is a vision in red for the franchise, but in some ways he is still green. But for this year's Reds, who are on top in the National League Central, having Chapman pitch out of the bullpen could be as good as gold.
By making the move before Tuesday night's deadline, Chapman will be eligible for the postseason, and his talents could go a long way toward helping the Reds make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
In September 2002, the Angels called up a hard-throwing young reliever named Francisco Rodriguez, and he helped carry the team to a World Series championship. Two seasons ago, Tampa Bay ace David Price was a September callup, and he was instrumental in the Rays' run to the World Series.
Could Chapman be the player to take an already-loaded Cincinnati team over the top?
"He gives us a quality left-hander for the stretch run," manager Dusty Baker said. "If he's throwing strikes, it doesn't matter if he's right or left. I don't necessarily buy right vs. right or left vs. left. That guy can pitch. He can get anybody out."
Chapman's extraordinary talent is rivaled only by his extraordinary journey to Cincinnati. He defected from Cuba last summer before an international tournament in The Netherlands, and five months later he signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal with the Reds.
Off the field he's transitioned from a life of poverty to the life of a millionaire. He's adjusted to American culture like a rock star -- he already drives a Lamborghini.
On the field he remains a work in progress.
"When God drew up what a pitcher's body is supposed to look like, it was just like Chapman's," said Terry Reynolds, Cincinnati's senior director of player development and global scouting. "His stuff is outstanding. The main thing is him being indoctrinated with being a pro on and off the field. Ability-wise, he will be in the top five to 10 guys in the game when he steps on the field. It's just the other stuff that goes with it."
That "other stuff," in Chapman's case, is covering first base, pickoffs, bunting, running the bases and showing up on time. Chapman might have the arm of a Hall of Famer, but at times he still acts his age -- or younger.
"Just living in the States is an adjustment," Reynolds said. "The things we take for granted, like being on a schedule and being on your own, is a change for him. Everybody has had ups and downs, and he's gotten better. It's all been encouraging."
Chapman reported to the Reds' Spring Training camp in February amid much fanfare, and he lived up to the expectations. He sported a 1.29 ERA after 10 2/3 innings in Arizona before back spasms cost him a week on the mound and a chance to win a spot on the big league roster for Opening Day.
The move to the Minors was a blow but a blessing. Far from the pressures of the big leagues, Chapman was allowed to develop as both a pitcher and a person out of the spotlight.
His efforts showed on the mound.
Chapman, who made his first 13 appearances for Triple-A Louisville as a starter, went 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA in four starts in April and 4-1 with a 5.47 ERA in May. He struck out 55 but walked 25 during those first two months, and his command problems carried into the next month. He went 0-4 with a 5.84 ERA in June and was moved out of the rotation.
The move to the bullpen provided what Chapman needed. After going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and one save in 10 innings of relief in July, he went 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA and seven saves in 13 1/3 innings as the team's closer in August.
"He comes to the ballpark every day anticipating he has a chance to pitch," pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We gave him a challenge to learn how to pitch out of the bullpen, and he's done a phenomenal job with it, especially as a closer of late."
Chapman did not allow a hit in his last eight outings and posted a 0.83 ERA in his last 20 appearances in the Minors. He limited opposing hitters to a .083 batting average in his last 13 outings and also converted eight of nine save opportunities.
Overall, he finished 9-6 with a 3.57 ERA with 125 strikeouts in 95 2/3 innings for the Bats.
"The role, in its own way, may have given him an opportunity to address some of his shortcomings," Price said. "He can't be vulnerable pitching the ninth inning in a game you have a chance to lose. You have to be a lot more polished. When you're closing out games, you have to be efficient holding baserunners, understanding who the basestealers are."
Eventually, Chapman will return to starting, but for now his work in the bullpen has allowed him to concentrate on his fastball and slider. His repertoire also features a changeup, but the pitch is primarily used when he starts a game, appears in long relief or faces a predominantly right-handed-hitting lineup.
The trademark fastball that made him famous continues to light up the radar gun. On Friday, Chapman struck out the side in the top of the ninth in a 2-1 win over Columbus. One of his fastballs was clocked at 105 mph.
"That's why we hated facing J.R. Richard," Baker said. "He was so long that he was throwing that hard from what seemed like 50 feet. Nolan [Ryan] had better control than J.R. You couldn't stand in there against J.R. It's kind of the same with Chapman."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at JesseSanchezMLB. Jeff Wallner contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.