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02/17/11 5:45 PM EST
Chapman finding his comfort zone with Reds
Lefty phenom accepting his role as a setup man in the bullpen
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Some people wear their hearts on their sleeve, but Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman isn't one of those types. Instead, he proudly wears the velocity of his fastest pitch and what a velocity it is. There's a new tattoo on the wrist of the Cuban's powerful left arm -- a baseball with an orange flame trailing. Below the base of his hand under the ball reads "105.1 MPH," which signifies the record radar-gun reading of a pitch he threw in a game for Cincinnati last season. Perhaps a little less guarded, a little more relaxed and definitely more comfortable with his surroundings, Chapman version 2.0 is ready to tackle the new season ahead. "I think this year is going to be a lot better for me," Chapman said on Thursday through translator Tomas Vera. That could be an ominous proclamation for opposing hitters who mostly were unable to keep up with Chapman's nastiness from the mound last season. In 15 relief appearances following his Aug. 31 promotion from Triple-A Louisville, Chapman posted a 2.03 ERA with 19 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings while allowing nine hits and five walks. He routinely crossed the 100-mph plateau and hit 105.1 mph during a September game at San Diego. The major intrigue of last year's Reds camp was whether the Cuban defector -- signed for $30.25 million with a reputation of 100-mph velocity and raw talent -- might break the rotation. That was until a back injury slowed him down. This year, Chapman has a defined role, and it will be working out of the Reds bullpen as a late-innings setup man. "I plan on using him like I used him last year, and we'll see how he progresses," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "We need him now more as a reliever than as a starter. The fact he's left-handed, the fact he seems to throw more strikes, and it might be easier on his arm relieving right now." Before the question could be asked, Baker squashed any notions that the fireballing Chapman could supplant Francisco Cordero as the closer. "There is no closer-situation controversy," Baker said. "I know everybody wants to be in a hurry to rush him in there, but we've got to get him acclimated to what he's doing first." There was also no timetable to turn Chapman back into a starting pitcher, a role he had when he started last season at Louisville. The Reds' big league staff is deep with young and talented starters, and they needed a replacement for the departure of free-agent lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes. By keeping Chapman in the bullpen, the Reds can limit his innings and can also rely on other left-handers like Bill Bray or possibly Dontrelle Willis if they need to dial Chapman back. The club also hopes it won't have to use Chapman for more than one inning during an outing. "We're not going to have to overtax him in that role," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "So I think there's a lot of different reasons not to earmark a date on when he should start. We have a lot of young pitching, and [we'll] see what direction they go in and see what the need is going into 2012. Certainly, I think there's a strong feeling here that we'd like to see him as a starter at some point. We have no idea what we have as a starting pitcher yet. I think that day will come." Chapman was in no apparent hurry for that day to come soon. "Yeah, I want to be a starter, but no, I don't think about it," Chapman said. "The job I have now is being a reliever and that's the job I'm going to do. The day they want me to be a starter is when I'll start thinking about it." Price will have Chapman work on his changeup on the side since he won't need that pitch as much as a reliever. The focus will be for him to improve his slider so he can throw it for more strikes and work on his overall command so he can get ahead of hitters. "Where he would be vulnerable is if he set a precedent of working behind in the count and hitters are comfortable enough to be able to lay off some pitches," Price said. "When he's ahead, you don't want to get to two strikes with this guy, because he has a lot of ways to put you away." Chapman was a novelty at each ballpark he visited in 2010 because of his ability to hit triple digits on the radar display. There would be a lot of attention and flashing cameras when he warmed in the bullpen and oohs and ahhs when he blew hitters away. At each new city, he went through the paces of speaking to the curious media and answering a lot of the same questions. The Reds were impressed with how Chapman handled himself amid all of the attention. "He appeared not to be affected by it," Baker said. "I could see why, too, with what he's been through. Here's a guy without his family, without his support system. That's a lot. Imagine your kid being in a different country and doesn't speak the language without any family support." This year, the Reds would prefer less attention be paid to the velocity and more on the outcome. That goes for Chapman, as well as the fans and media. "We just want him to be successful," Price said. "You don't want it to be a disappointment if he goes in and gives you a 1-2-3 inning and he's at 93-97 [mph]. Those days are going to come, and you don't want it to be a disappointment. All of a sudden, maybe his motivation to pitch changes, and we don't want that. It's not all about him being some kind of a sideshow act throwing the fastest fastball in history." During the winter, Baker took a weeklong trip to Cuba for what he called a diplomatic jazz-music excursion. While he tried to pay close attention to the detail of the country to understand his pitcher better, Baker brought back pictures and music CDs and gave them to Chapman on Wednesday as camp opened. "I know he must be homesick, because it's a beautiful place to be homesick about," Baker said. "I felt really happy when I saw that, because he was in my country," Chapman said. "He brought things that when he showed it to me, made me really happy and really sentimental." There is still some acclimation to be made in the United States following a lifetime in isolated Cuba. Chapman laughed when asked if he was learning English. "Not really, no. I think I will start something really soon," he said. On the other hand, Chapman is diving headfirst into other aspects of culture -- like food and television. "I used to only eat Cuban food. Now I eat everything," Chapman said. "I like every kind of food. I watch a lot of [Spanish language] soap operas." Vera then interjected. "I'm talking like five to seven soap operas a day. He can keep up with each one and know everybody," Vera said as Chapman and the assembled media laughed.