When the Cincinnati Reds signed reliever Carlos Marmol to a minor league deal on May 27, as reported on Yahoo Sports, my thoughts immediately turned to Aroldis Chapman. Ever since the Reds agreed to a six-year deal with Chapman in 2010, his status with the club has been in question in one way or another. Now, by bringing Marmol into the fold, general manager Walt Jocketty has set the table for significant changes in Chapman’s role with the team as the left-hander works his way back to form after a nasty facial injury suffered in spring training.
The debate around Chapman has always focused on whether he should be used as a shutdown closer or groomed to be the ace of the Reds’ starting rotation. While Cincinnati was busy winning the division title in 2010, Chapman spent most of the season honing his game, as a starter, in the minors before getting the call to Cincinnati in late August. His first big league assignment was as a setup man, ostensibly because the Reds were already clicking on all cylinders and to allow the young pitcher a chance to get acclimated to the Majors without the pressures of starting.
After battling shoulder problems early in 2011, it was back to the bullpen for Chapman, and the chatter about his future began in earnest. While many fans, me included, clamored to see what Chapman could do in the rotation, the Reds anointed him as their closer in 2012.
It’s hard to argue too much with that decision, as Chapman has been dominant out of the pen the last two seasons. Still, he pitched in less than 135 innings in 2012 and 2013 combined , which means the Reds have left a potential ace on the bench roughly 95% of the time. For all the fire and excitement that closers can generate, they are still much easier to come by than are top-notch starters, which is one reason that Marmol was available in the bargain bin this week.
At his peak four years ago with the Chicago Cubs, Marmol was a burner in his own right, although one with control problems that precluded him from any consideration as a starter. The past year has been tough for the right-hander, as he followed a July 2013 trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers with a string of poor performances and lukewarm interest on the free agent market. In February, he finally signed a one-year deal with the Miami Marlins, who released him on May 19 after he posted an 8.19 ERA and 1.950 WHIP in 15 appearances.
Given this trajectory, it might seem impossible that Marmol would have any effect whatsoever on Chapman’s future, but Reds manager Bryan Price has had success with pitching reclamation projects. If Price can get Marmol straightened out enough to close again, the Reds will have some decisions to make. They could use Marmol as a setup man, but he’s still only 31 and accustomed to being the go-to guy in the bullpen, so there could be friction there. They could also trade him to a team who needs a closer, which might yield a prospect or two.
The other, more interesting, option for the Reds would be to install Marmol as their closer and then finally make a call on Chapman’s future. At 26, Chapman is still young enough to transition back to a starting slot, but that clock is ticking faster all the time. If the Reds want to capitalize on more innings from their lefty, and if Chapman wants to maximize his earnings, this should be their goal. If, however, the Reds don’t see Chapman in their long-term plans or if he insists on continuing to close, they could explore the trade market for him now. With more than two years remaining until he is eligible for free agency, Chapman would bring a plum return from a contending club with bullpen needs.
Of course, it’s a long way from minor league contract to Major League closer, even for someone with Marmol’s pedigree. But just his presence in the Reds’ system is enough to make you think, and to stir speculation about Chapman yet again.