Aroldis Chapman is the center of this debate. Should he be a starter or a reliever? That's the nagging question that will have a significant effect on the 2013 outlook for the defending National League Central champs.
In theory, this ought to be an easy decision. Starters are simply more valuable than relievers. We can illustrate this monetarily by pointing out that Mariano Rivera, the game's greatest closer, was under contract for the game's most affluent team, the New York Yankees, in 2012 and made $15 million.
You know who else made $15 million in 2012? Derek Lowe.
If we want to delve into more sophisticated (and, admittedly, somewhat subjective) statistical calculations to determine value, consider that Chapman had one of the greatest relief seasons in club history in 2012 and contributed a 3.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs.com. Staff ace Johnny Cueto had a solid though hardly historic season and posted a WAR of 4.8.
So if you have a guy like Chapman, with potential ace-type stuff, it's understandable if your natural inclination is to trend him toward an ace-type workload. Why put him in a role with a max of, say, 80 innings when you can work him toward a 200 tally?
Generally speaking, that line of thinking makes sense. And with Chapman, specifically, I adhered to that line of thinking going into 2012.
So, too, did Reds general manager Walt Jocketty and Chapman himself. The goal last spring was to convert Chapman to rotation work, but eventually injuries in the bullpen intervened and the ninth inning came calling. Throughout 2012, it has generally been assumed that the starting project would be revisited in 2013.
But much has changed over the course of the past year. And so, too, has my personal stance on the matter. I'm swinging to the thinking that Chapman should be staying right where he is.
A few reasons why relief remains the best route:
The question of durability.
Can Chapman tolerate a major increase in innings? It's a pertinent question, considering Chapman was shut down for nearly two weeks in September with shoulder fatigue. This might not be the ideal time to be thinking about stretching him out.
The "if it ain't broke..." argument.
This isn't always the most reliable argument when you're talking about relievers, because, given their general inconsistency associated with the role, they can "break" in a hurry.
But Chapman transcended the ordinary output for a ninth-inning option, posting a 1.51 ERA, a 0.809 WHIP and 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He severely limited his walks, dropping from a 7.4 walks-per-nine-innings rate in 2011 to a 2.9 mark in 2012. He owned the ninth, and that gave his club's games an air of inevitability when the Reds led late. "That gives us a mental edge," starter Bronson Arroyo said in-season. That goes a long way.
The fear of the unknown.
Chapman succeeds with a two-pitch arsenal -- a fastball that averaged out at 97.7 mph in 2012 (he used it 87.9 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs) and a slider that averaged out at 87.6 mph (used 12.1 percent of the time). As a starter, stretched out over six or seven innings, the fastball velocity would decrease, and the likelihood of him succeeding on two pitches is murky, at best. Chapman would obviously need to get a feel for a changeup, and right now nobody knows how that would go.
If you convert Chapman, you might be trading dominance for duration, and that's not necessarily a satisfying swap.
The rotation makeup.
As it stands, the Reds have Cueto, Mat Latos, Arroyo and Homer Bailey under contract for 2013. Mike Leake would be the likely fifth starter. Cueto and Latos provide a prominent one-two punch at the top, and Bailey's impressive strides this past season lead one to believe he could be a high-upside No. 3.
It's not that this rotation couldn't stand to benefit from Chapman's presence, if the conversion is successful. But it's not exactly ailing. And Chapman's 2013 innings would naturally be limited, along with his impact on a club that rightly counts itself as a World Series contender.
The bullpen makeup.
If the Reds re-sign Ryan Madson and/or Jonathan Broxton or seek out another closer on the open market, that could dictate what they do with Chapman. Fernando Rodney's transcendent 2012 stands as an example that a successful closer can be plucked out of the clear blue sky. But it's not always that easy, and it's not always worth the risk and the runaround. Building a bullpen through free agency can be awfully inefficient, and the Reds have more needs at third base and in the outfield that might be more deserving of their attention and their financial resources this winter.
The case studies.
The Reds need only look around to see some recent cautionary tales. A year ago, the Rangers made the decision to move closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation. They successfully replaced him in free agency with Joe Nathan, but they had to juggle the rotation around Feliz's limited workload, and Feliz still blew out his elbow in May, leading to Tommy John surgery. And the Red Sox thought they had a worthwhile rotation project on their hands in former stellar setup man Daniel Bard, only to see him post a 5.24 ERA in a starting role. Ultimately, the club and the player came to the conclusion that the role just wasn't right.
None of us is smart enough to know if a starting role is what's right for Chapman. But with all this evidence at hand, I'm swinging toward the conclusion that the Reds ought to leave Chapman in the ninth.
It will be interesting to see if the Reds swing that way, too.