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MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Where should Chapman pitch? Ask Smoltz

Legendary starter-turned-closer-turned-starter weighs in on Reds' quandary

Where should Chapman pitch? Ask Smoltz play video for Where should Chapman pitch? Ask Smoltz

To start or not to start? That isn't the only question the Cincinnati Reds have regarding flamethrowing southpaw Aroldis Chapman.

Here's the other one: To close or not to close?

Actually, there is another question in the mix: Should Chapman start and close? He's 25 with a durable physique, which means the Reds could shuffle the guy between both roles throughout his career -- you know, depending on their needs at the time.

It's a dilemma, all right.

The case for Chapman, the closer: To the dismay of drained hitters at the end of games, Chapman has spent his three seasons in the Major Leagues delivering 100-mph blurs in the ninth inning.

The case for Chapman, the starter: Randy Johnson also was fast. The same goes for Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax. They were all starters, which means Chapman should try to follow in their Cooperstown spike marks.

Just so you know, we have somebody with the definitive answers to all of these questions ...

John Smoltz.

"I'll be honest. When I first heard they might make him a starter, I said, 'Oh, my God. They're going to take the most dominant left-handed closer in the game and put him in a role that has a lot of ifs, ands or buts,'" said Smoltz, the future Hall of Fame starter -- or is that closer? -- over the phone from San Francisco, where he is covering the World Baseball Classic for MLB Network.

Added Smoltz: "[The Reds] still have a real good bullpen, but if he starts, they're going to have to bring him along in a way where they're going to discover quickly that this won't be the guy who throws 97, 98, 99 mph for seven innings, I don't think. He's got to learn his cruising speed, and he has to learn a lot of other things.

"You move him out of that closer's role, you run a risk. People say that if it doesn't work, they can just put him right back in the bullpen. I don't think that's a fair assessment."

Translated: The odds of Chapman -- or anybody else -- becoming another Smoltz aren't the best.

During the first 12 of Smoltz's 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, he was one of baseball's most prolific starters. He worked with a Chapman-like fastball. Through the 1999 season, he went to four All-Star Games, collected a National League Cy Young Award and finished at or near the top of both leagues in innings pitched and strikeouts.

Then came Tommy John surgery.

Smoltz missed the entire 2000 season, but he returned healthy and potent in '01 -- as a closer. He was so dominant during his four years in his new role that he reached the All-Star Game two more times. He even joined Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in 2002 as the only pitchers to have a 20-victory season and a 50-save season.

Nobody matches Smoltz with at least 200 career victories overall (mostly as a starter) and more than 150 saves.

There's more. After the 2004 season, Smoltz returned to the Braves as a starter, and he made two more All-Star Games. He also spent his second season in his old role, winning an NL-high 16 games while leading the Major Leagues in starts, with 35.

"You know what's always been interesting about this subject [of pitchers switching between starting and closing], I guess I've kind of been a big part of ruining it for people and confusing the issue of what should and shouldn't be done," Smoltz said, referring to his unique combination of a legendary strong will and a wealth of experience.

"With an Adam Wainwright, a Joba Chamberlain and a Chapman, what they've had to do is a greater challenge than anything I had to do, because it's new, and it's no history. My situation, Dennis Eckersley's situation and maybe even Derek Lowe's, we had a background of having a bunch of innings to which we knew who we were.

"I mean, I knew who I was as a starter. I don't know if people know how hard it is to do that for a long period of time.

"Then to go on as a closer, I prospered as a closer by having the edge I learned as a starter. I had this philosophy as a starter that during each inning, I was going to get two strikes on a hitter.

"Plus, being able to go back as a starter [after spending four years as a closer], I had something like 2,000 innings already under my belt. So that wasn't a tough transition."

Chapman has pitched 135 innings -- total. Even so, they've been increasingly powerful innings.

Along Chapman's way to finishing last season with 71 2/3 innings, he made his first All-Star Game. He had 38 saves, a 1.51 ERA and 122 strikeouts. He also managed just 23 walks, and that's in contrast to his 41 walks in 2011, when he threw 22 fewer innings.

Sounds like Chapman should remain as the Reds' closer, which he said over the weekend is his preference.

It's also Smoltz's preference for Chapman.

Or is it?

"One of the things that makes this so complex is that we haven't had a guy from the left side who has the potential to do something intriguing on both ends [as a closer and a starter]," Smoltz said. "He has had such tremendous success at a young age in the role.

"As a starter, the unknown is that you are putting him into a situation where he's had no success. There also are [no starting innings] for Chapman, and that is such a huge topic now.

"So when you think about how the game is evolving, you're going to have to treat him the way you treated [Stephen] Strasburg and all of those other young pitchers.

"As a starter, you're not going to get the full fruits of a Chapman for some time, based on the theories that exist today."

Nope. So keep him in the bullpen.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }