GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Aroldis Chapman was getting ready to start for the Cincinnati Reds last spring when the bullpen got wiped out by injuries, forcing a different approach. The hard-throwing Cuban became one of baseball’s best closers in his first try at it.
He’s on the same course this spring, trying to win a spot in the rotation — and his manager is keeping an open mind about where he’ll end up eventually.
So is Chapman, who worked on his changeup over the winter to add another pitch in case he starts.
"I will prepare the same way I did last year," Chapman said, with trainer Tomas Vera translating. "I would like to start a season and throw as many innings as I can, but that’s up to the team. When I was in Cuba, I threw 150 innings. I will prepare myself to throw as many innings as they want me to throw."
Chapman, who turns 25 on Feb. 28, was expected to develop into a starter when the Reds signed him in 2010. He struggled with his control in the minors and the Reds used him as a reliever for the first time in his career to help them win the NL Central in 2010.
He was a setup man again in 2011, but had streaks of control problems. The Reds gave him a chance to do what’s most familiar to him — start games — during spring training last season, and Chapman showed improvement.
When closer Ryan Madson tore a ligament in his elbow and the two setup men got hurt during spring training, manager Dusty Baker switched Chapman back into the bullpen, using him initially in a setup role and then as the closer. This time, Chapman excelled.
The left-hander didn’t allow a run until his 16th appearance of the season. He didn’t become the closer until May 20, yet tied for third in the NL in saves. From June 26 through Aug. 17, Chapman turned in 23 consecutive scoreless appearances. He converted a team-record 27 straight save chances.
The Reds told Chapman at the end of last season that they were planning to make him a starter. Their other five starters are right-handers, and Chapman — whose fastball has been clocked at 105 mph — would give the rotation a much different look.
"Chapman has the chance to be a top-flight starter," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "I always wanted to have a left-hander in the rotation."
Chapman threw mostly fastballs as a closer, mixing in an occasional slider. He has worked on his changeup in the off-season, knowing he’ll need another pitch if he starts.
"He didn’t throw the changeup too much, but it is better than his slider," Jocketty said. "He is a great athlete. You ought to see him hit. He is one of the fastest runners on the team."
The Reds signed Jonathan Broxton to a $21 million, three-year deal in November, giving themselves a closer and freeing Chapman to move to the rotation. Although they have faith in Broxton, it’s a change that could have a big overall impact.
"It’s kind of tough the way we had a shut-down bullpen last year," Baker said. "We had the guys lined up."
Baker wouldn’t rule out moving Chapman back to the bullpen if injuries or other problems occur.
"That’s a maybe," Baker said. "It’s the same situation as last year. We started with Chapman as a starter, then Ryan Madson went down. We had no idea that Chapman would be as good as a closer. I don’t think anybody did."
There’s also the question of how many innings Chapman will be allowed to pitch as he moves into the new role. In his first season in the organization, he threw 109 innings. He totalled 71 2-3 innings last season.
Chapman has developed a tired shoulder on at least one occasion during his career with Cincinnati. The Reds will watch him closely to see how his shoulder handles the extra innings.
"It’s a risk when you throw that hard anyway, you know?" Baker said.
Chapman is willing to do whatever the Reds ask. Although he was initially concerned about the move to the bullpen because he’d never done it before, he’s now comfortable with closing games and wouldn’t mind doing it again.
"I have never started in the big leagues," Chapman said. "I’ve had success as a reliever. If I had to choose, I would chose to do what I’ve had success with. But I will do whatever they want me to do."