Baseball is enjoyed in Cuba with an almost religious fervor and the Cuban National team has long been considered an elite squad. Cuba has had a love affair with baseball for many years. Even Fidel Castro was a star pitcher at Belen College and the University of Havana in Cuba, and attracted the attention of several MLB scouts with his wicked curveball. Ultimately, Castro decided he looked better in army fatigues than a baseball uniform, and opted to become a tyrannical dictator, instead.
Among the most famous Cuban born major-leaguers thus far, was the ageless Luis Tiant. He had a penchant for chomping after-game cigars and a twisting delivery that baffled hitters during the sixties and seventies. Also, Tony Perez, of the Big Red Machine was another Hall Of Fame player. Other Cuban-born players of note were Bert Campaneris( of Charlie Finlay’s mustachioed Oakland A’s ), Jose and Ozzie Canseco, and Orlando“ El Duque “ Hernandez and his half brother, Livan. Current Cuban stars are Yonder Alonso, Yoenis Cespedes, Yunel Escobar, Alexei Ramirez, and the focus of this article, Aroldis Chapman.
On July 1, 2009, Aroldis Chapman, then twenty-one years old, walked through the front door of his hotel and into a waiting car, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The Cuban National team was playing in a tournament there, and Chapman successfully defected from his country, in what was his second attempt to do so. After petitioning major league baseball, and being granted free agent status, Chapman signed a long term contract with the Cincinnati Reds on January 10, 2010. The Reds reportedly signed Chapman to a six-year contract, worth $30.25 million, with the usual incentive clauses and bonuses added. He made his major league debut at the end of the 2010 season, quickly gaining attention with a fastball clocked at times in excess of 104 miles an hour. He struggled with his control early on, and coupled with some minor injuries, earned a demotion to the minor leagues last season to work on his command.
The Cincinnati Reds pitching staff looked pretty solid as spring training arrived for the 2012 season. The Reds had acquired RH Mat Latos from the Padres to join a rotation of Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. Chapman pitched very well in the spring and appeared ready to challenge Bailey or Leake for their starting job as the season approached. That’s when the bottom fell out for Dusty Baker’s Reds. Newly acquired closer Ryan Madson was lost for the season before he threw his first pitch. Add to that the injuries of Nick Masset, who has yet to pitch this season, and Bill Bray, and the Reds bullpen was turned upside down. Former Cub Sean Marshall was appointed closer and Aroldis Chapman became the Reds set-up man. As the season entered mid-May, it became apparent that Marshall is better suited as the set-up man, a position he held with Chicago. Marshall blew some saves early on, and Dusty yanked him a couple of times before he got the chance to. Finally, Baker was left with no choice but to move Chapman into the closer position. Marshall has a 4.80 ERA, and clearly, Baker has lost confidence in him. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, is the future of the Reds pitching staff. I’m pretty sure that if the Red’s bullpen had not been decimated by injuries, Aroldis would be starting by now ( About 75 % sure. With Dusty, you never know….). His ability to handle the workload at this point is the only question. He has never pitched longer than two innings in a stint, thus far.
Chapman’s stats this season are nothing short of amazing. He has posted numbers truly worthy of his nickname, “The Cuban Missile “. He has pitched 22.1 innings so far this season, logging 39 strikeouts, while posting only 7 walks. He has a 3-0 won/loss record, with 6 holds to his credit, and earned his first save of the year vs. the New York Yankees over the weekend. His WHIP is 0.63 and his ERA is 0.00. You can’t get much better than that, people. With numbers like those, he can only effect game outcomes so much, if restricted to only 8th inning duty. How important is the 8th inning, when your closer may well blow it in the 9th ? Manager Dusty Baker addressed the issue earlier this week, telling The Cincinnati Enquirer that Chapman will start “someday” and stressing his importance in the bullpen. “ Imagine where we’d be without him right now. He can’t be everything. There’s people who want him to start. There’s people who want him to close. There’s people who like him where he is. I’ve got to do what I think is best for him and us,” Baker said.
Ultimately, Aroldis Chapman should and will be an elite starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. But until they get some healthy bullpen help, the Reds may just have to make do with having the best closer in the game today.