Reds camp report: Even after 97 wins, Reds consider two bold moves

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- When you lose, you take chances. When you lose, you're willing to try anything.

You take a guy who hasn't played center field in years and you turn him into a center fielder. You take a guy who is absolutely dominating as a closer and you try him as a starter instead.

Why not? When you -- uh, the Reds didn't lose last year.

They won 97 games, only one behind the Nationals for the most in baseball. They were going to be favorites to win the National League Central again, without doing anything drastic.

So they came to Arizona this spring with the idea of doing two things that seem drastic.

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Shin-Soo Choo, center fielder.

Aroldis Chapman, starting pitcher.

"You're setting yourself for scrutiny," pitching coach Bryan Price admitted, talking about the possible move of Chapman to the rotation. "But however it plays out, we're going to have a dynamite team."

With almost a month to go before opening day, here's how it's playing out so far: The Reds are already so convinced Choo can handle center field that they almost treat it as a non-issue. Meanwhile, they still seem so torn over the Chapman-to-the-rotation question that you can see this becoming the topic that dominates the final weeks of their camp.

"We've got to let things play themselves out," manager Dusty Baker said.

It's a fascinating decision, much more than it was when the Reds were facing the same question last spring. At that point, Chapman was a pitcher with a big arm, but one who was still almost equally unproven as a starter or a closer.

Now, he's the guy who was third in the National League with 38 saves, despite not taking over as closer until late May.

"With Chapman [as closer], half our wins were his saves," Baker said, and he's basically right (it was 38 of 77).

Baker won't come out and say it, but it's not too hard to figure out he's in the leave-him-where-he-is camp. It's not hard to figure out that Price is in the we've-got-to-try-it camp, and general manager Walt Jocketty is thought to be there, too.

Reds starter Bronson Arroyo has been outspokenly skeptical that Chapman will do as well as a starter as he has as a closer. Reds outfielder Jay Bruce is equally convinced that Chapman as starter is the way to go.

"We're a better team that way -- 100 percent," Bruce said.

Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't an angry dispute that threatens organizational or clubhouse unity, not yet and probably not at all. The Reds believe they're going to be very good, whichever way they go.

"Best ballclub we've had since I've been here," said Arroyo, who has been here since 2006.

Arroyo loves the addition of Choo, and not merely because Choo is 8 for 14 against him, with four home runs. He loves the idea of Choo atop a batting order that includes Bruce and Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, even though he knows he can't expect Choo to run down every fly ball that Drew Stubbs would have caught in center field last year.

"Usually that wouldn't sit well with the pitching staff," he said. "But he's really going to help. The great thing is he never looks overmatched no matter who is pitching. He's going to grind, and he's going to set the example against the Roy Halladays of the world.

"That is what wins you a World Series."

And that's why you take a chance on a guy who hasn't played an official game in center field since 2009, and hasn't really been a center fielder since he was a minor leaguer with the Mariners.

Choo admitted he was "very surprised" when he found out that the Reds had traded for him with the idea of playing him in center field rather than right (where he played with the Indians). Bruce had enough concern that he told Baker that he could play center field, if needed.

But spring games have barely begun, and already Bruce is convinced he'll be staying in right. Already, Bruce is convinced that Choo-in-center will be a non-issue, no matter how much it seemed going into spring training that it would be one of the issues for the Reds.

"He's been great out there," Bruce said. "I don't think there's been one situation where I've said, 'I don't know.' "

Other Reds people, while agreeing that Choo has looked very good in his limited Cactus League playing time, say it makes them more comfortable to know that Bruce has experience in center field and could play there, if necessary.

Similarly, the Reds say believe they're covered in the rotation and the bullpen, no matter how the Chapman situation plays out. They have Mike Leake available to start if Chapman goes back to the bullpen, and they signed Jonathan Broxton and he is available to close games if Chapman ends up starting them.

Still, the Chapman decision could help define this Reds season and perhaps seasons to come. Price says that no matter what, Chapman will benefit from spending spring training as a starter (he can use all three of his pitches, which he wouldn't do in one-inning stints). But the longer Chapman goes as a closer (and the more success he has in the role), the less likely it would be that he becomes a starter sometime down the road.

The way Price sees it, it's worth finding out if he can do it, because dominating starters are harder to find than dominating closers. There's a reason that starters like Felix Hernandez are getting paid $25 million a year, while the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera) has never made more than $15 million per season.

But is Chapman going to be a dominating starter? Everyone agrees it's possible, but no one can be sure that he will be.

"You're not going to know at the end of spring training," Arroyo said. "You're not going to know even at the end of April. The game's a marathon, and starting pitching is even more of a marathon."

If the Reds weren't such a good team, they could easily take that chance. Losing teams take chances.

The Reds aren't a losing team. They're a 97-game winner with expectations of doing that and more again.

Will they take the chance?

"The risk is in starting him," Price admitted. "There's no risk in returning him to the bullpen."

And yet, if you had to guess today, you would guess that Chapman will be starting. You would guess the Reds will be taking that risk.

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