Update (3/21): The Cincinnati Enquirer is reporting that Chapman is headed back to the bullpen, with an announcement coming as soon as today. Along with Craig Kimbrel, Chapman is now one of the two best closers available in drafts. RotoBaller advises against drafting a closer too early, so avoid reaching and hope Chapman falls to you in at least the sixth round.
Raw talent, historic production and a move from Cincinnati’s bullpen to the starting rotation are three huge reasons why Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman is one of the most intriguing players in 2013 fantasy drafts.
Let’s start with that left arm of his: Chapman can consistently throw a baseball with such incredible velocity that he hit 100 mph on the radar gun an astounding 242 times last season, and his average of 97.7 mph on his fastball was actually a career-low; when combined with an 88-mph cement-mixer slider, the result is one of the most devastating punchout combinations in the game.
Now the production: Chapman spent four out of six months last season essentially untouchable. In April/May and July/August, he combined to surrender one (just one!) earned run in 53.2 IP while striking out 93 batters. For the season– and despite a rough patch in June and some injury-related issues in September– Chapman saved 38 of 43 ballgames, allowing a microscopic .141 opponents’ BA while striking out a ridiculous 39.7% of opposing hitters and posting a 1.51 ERA.
Finally, “The Move.” Despite an already deep and highly-effective starting rotation, the Reds are taking another stab at converting Chapman to starter. They had talked about this prior to 2012, but closer Ryan Madson’s elbow injury forced Cincinnati to abandon the idea; in 2010, Chapman actually made his first 13 professional appearances pitching as a starter in AAA, albeit with mixed results. In 65.2 innings that season, he registered a 4.11 ERA, 5.5 BB/9 and 10.4 K/9 before an August move to the bullpen, which has been his role ever since.
Chapman unquestionably possesses the tools to be a premier starter at the Major League level, but there are some significant factors that fantasy owners must consider going into the 2013 season:
1) Innings limit: Chapman tossed 71.2 frames in 2012, and his career-high is just 108 IP back in 2010. The Reds want to avoid the type of media circus that surrounded the Nationals and their approach to Stephen Strasburg last season, so they won’t publicly reveal– or even admit to– a hard innings cap. Regardless, we simply cannot expect Chapman– who notably suffered from shoulder fatigue last September– to take a drastic IP leap this season, regardless of what Dusty Baker might prefer about his usage. If healthy and starting, expect his ceiling to be around 160 IP.
2) Pitch selection: As a reliever, Chapman has thrown his fastball nearly 86% of the time in his career, while utilizing the slider the remainder of the time; he has thrown a third pitch, a changeup, just five times in three years. It goes without saying that he’ll need to develop a competent third pitch to be successful as a starter, while also having to both dial down and rely less on his fastball for the sake of stamina and performance. How much this impacts his control is another issue, as Chapman– owner of a career 4.6 BB/9– will need to prove he can reliably target the corners with his fastball while mixing in his other pitches, all while avoiding walks and high pitch counts.
3) Temptation: The Reds have signed Jonathan Broxton to be their closer this season, with Sean Marshall (who initially served as closer last season prior to Chapman taking over in late May) backing him up. If the Reds experience injury- or performance-related problems closing out games, their rotation is deep enough that Chapman is the no-brainer fix. Especially for a team with designs on contending, they won’t want to mess around.
On average, Chapman is being selected in the seventh or eighth round in fantasy drafts. Although we are one year away from a true assessment, that’s actually pretty good value: in the worst-case scenario, he flops as a starter and you still presumably own one of the best closers in the game. Just remember that he’s perched on somewhat of a slippery slope owing to the reasons outlined above, and it’s likely he’ll be out of your rotation (and even possibly back in the Reds bullpen) as the fantasy stretch run commences. The hype is real, but Chapman is ideally selected as a number three starter; you’ll be gambling if he occupies one of the top two slots in your rotation.
Rotoballer 2013 Projection: 160 IP, 12 W, 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 175 K
Target Round: 8