Well, time to start looking ahead to the 2011 season. The 2010 season met or exceeded all reasonable expectations and served as a good first step on the road to the promise land. The Reds have enough young talent to take another sizable step on their journey, but most teams that take a significant step forward in one year frequently slide back the next.
To me, it seems that the two World Series contestants, Texas and San Francisco, are ripe for a regression. The Giants did little to nothing this offseason and had a few too many overperformers last year to bank on a repeat performance. And, they simply don't have many young players that they can count on improving in 2011. They are going to need a bounce back from Pablo Sandoval or a Posey-like debut for Brandon Belt. Outside of that, they seem a candidate to slide backwards. As for the Rangers, they landed Adrian Beltre, but lost Cliff Lee. As a result, I'm not convinced that they have the pitching to get back to October. As for Beltre, he might be an upgrade, but they also completely undercut the standing of their team leader, Michael Young, to do so. Who knows how that will impact the chemistry and clubhouse. There are significant questions surrounding both teams.
As for the Reds, what do we make of them after seeing them stand pat? Well, their emerging young talent makes standing pat less detrimental, as several young players are in line for a step forward. Even so, there are a handful of questions that will likely determine the level of success that the Reds are able to achieve this season. And, first on the list is:
1. Whether the Reds can help Aroldis Chapman make the transition from "unbelievable spectacle" to "massively productive" baseball player.
In short, spectacles sell tickets, but production wins ballgames. Aroldis is currently long on the former and short on the latter.
Chapman exploded on the scene with a blazing fastball and a Bugs Bunny slider, which put the Reds on the national radar in a way not seen since the days of Josh Hamilton. The Reds haven't had the kind of sustained success necessary to be consistently relevant to the national discussion, but when a story that transcends the game lands in the Queen city the Reds once again resurface in the national consciousness. Hamilton was just such a story and upon his departure I lamented the loss of both the player and the story, which were inseparable and equally valuable to the organization.
Now, the Reds have another chance, but to fully reap the rewards from the marriage of story and production, they'll have to determine how to properly utilize Chapman. How do they get more from him than the spectacle? How do they get production that effectively advances the team towards the postseason? Aye, there's the rub.
To start, the Reds have decided to use Chapman out of the bullpen in 2011, rather than letting him develop as a starter. Just like everyone else, I find that decision to be a questionable one. I understand that the Reds are closer now to a championship than they have been in decades. So, the desire to have all hands on deck is understandable. At the same time, I think if you have any confidence in Chapman's ability to start, then you have to send him down. Once he becomes entrenched as a reliever, it will become increasingly difficult to shift him back to the starting rotation. A similar situation is happening in Texas with Neftali Feliz, who thus far has been deemed too valuable as a reliever to be switched back to the rotation.
Personally, I am beginning to question whether Chapman can smoothly make the transition to the rotation, so I'm not as opposed to the notion of him as a reliever as I was previously. Still, given the disparity in workload between starting (200 IP) and relieving (60 IP), there is no doubt that starters have a greater ability to make an impact. As a result, Chapman should be given every opportunity to start. Regardless, the Reds have decided that the best way to extract production from Chapman is to use him as a reliever.
To be a productive reliever, Chapman will need to work high leverage innings. He already has the stuff to thrive in such a role, as evidenced by his stellar 12.8 K/9 and his paltry 66.7% contact rate. However, he'll have to continue refining his command, as evidenced by his 3.4 BB/9, First Pitch Strike % of only 57%, and 16.6 pitches per inning. As a pitcher who avoids contact, he'll always be less efficient with his pitches, but a first pitch strike would make him that much tougher, simply by tipping the probability of success in his favor. And, as the Phillies demonstrated in the playoffs, his pitches aren't completely untouchable, so a bit of refinement would serve him well.
Overall, Chapman has the type of stuff to be as effective as Neftali Feliz was last year for the Rangers. And, once he establishes himself, the Reds will have just as much difficulty in switching him back to the rotation. Regardless, the Reds ability to extract production from Chapman will go a long way to determining their success in 2011.