Chapman ready to take next step in '11

Chapman ready to take next step in '11

Chapman ready to take next step in '11
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Remember, it was only 15 appearances.

Now left-hander Aroldis Chapman is poised to dispense his 100-mph stuff over his first full season for the Reds out of the bullpen.

If Chapman can improve, he will continue to enthrall the country, and in turn, extend his 15 minutes of fame for who knows how long.

"I think the little experience I had last year and what has happened so far here has got me more experience," Chapman said through his interpreter, Tomas Vera. "I definitely feel more confident. I've been able to work better on the field. Since Spring Training started, I've been feeling better and better every day. ... Yes, I feel ready. Like everybody else, we are ready to start the season now."

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Chapman, 23, has the now-familiar back story -- defected from Cuba and its national team during a 2009 European tournament, left his family behind (including a newborn daughter he had never had the chance to meet) and signed a $30.25 million contract with the top-bidding Reds in January 2010.

But it's that fastball that keeps people buzzing, especially since his velocity is so rare for a lefty. Chapman repeatedly achieved triple-digit radar-gun readings last season -- in both Triple-A and the Majors. His 105.1 mph pitch to then-Padres hitter Tony Gwynn Jr. in September was a ball, but it established a new fastest-pitch record.

In those 15 big league games out of the Cincinnati bullpen, Chapman was 2-2 with a 2.03 ERA, five walks and 19 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings. He started out in low-pressure situations, facing the bottom of the order and eventually graduated to setup roles in the seventh or eighth innings.

This spring, the left-handed setup role was already allocated to Chapman before camp opened.

"I think he works very hard and he gets very prepared," catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "This is a guy that knows what he's doing. He's always trying to work out and is on top of his stuff to get prepared for the game. I think he can be better. That's what you work for, to be the best you can be. Now he knows the league a little better, and the hitters [as well]."

Chapman has had mixed results despite his 1.64 ERA in eight games in Cactus League play. Over his 11 innings, he's walked 10 batters with two wild pitches, while striking out 14. He's issued at least one free pass in each of his last four outings.

There have also been multiple "Nuke LaLoosh" moments, where pitches were airmailed to the backstop; they aren't shown in the statistics.

"I've been around 38 years and have never seen anyone throw the ball as hard as he does consistently. I have reservations about his command," said Reds Hall of Fame radio broadcaster Marty Brennaman. "I haven't seen any indication from my perspective that his command is any better now than when he came up to the club last year.

"You're not going to be around for two innings if you're giving up walks late in the game and trying to protect a one- or two-run game. That's not going to happen. I think he has to show better command when the season begins, in order for him to successfully do the job that he's going to be asked to do."

Chapman has remained an in-demand personality, despite the fact that he speaks little-to-no English. Last month, he was featured on the cover of USA Today with an expanded story. In the issue released on Thursday, he was on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Inside the pages where he's photographed in a fashion spread, Chapman reveals a male model side of himself never previously allowed in communist Cuba.

"I think it was a really good time," said Chapman, who wore makeup for the shoot and made numerous outfit changes. "I believe this is something that helps me communicate with the fans. I don't speak English. I can get them to know more of who I am."

Without a doubt, hitters around the Major Leagues will be doing all they can this season to catch up to Chapman on the field. That sustained attention, along with his enhanced role and the Reds' position of defending National League Central champions, should ratchet up the pressure.

Former Yankees reliever Jeff Nelson has seen a couple of Cuban-defecting teammates rise above their mystique -- and an intense spotlight -- to develop lasting big league careers in pitchers Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Jose Contreras.

Based on his experiences with both pitchers, Nelson has few concerns about Chapman's ability to handle whatever comes his way.

"Most Latin players and Cubans are not intimidated by any situation when they come to play," said Nelson, who was teammates with Hernandez from 1998-2000, and both Contreras and Hernandez in 2003. "I've seen a lot of clutch pitchers, but when you needed him, El Duque was there. You never felt out of the game and he always wanted to pitch. Compared to what they faced growing up, this is nothing. This is a pressure-filled game, but they get to travel the United States, pitch before huge crowds and there's not as much adversity. There's no way they can't have success."

Whether Chapman has long-term success remains to be seen, of course. Still considered a rookie, he is expected to stay in the setup role for the season. It's most probable he will move to the rotation next season, but he also has No. 1 reliever stuff that would make him a formidable closer.

If anyone can judge how Chapman has evolved as a Major League phenom, it might be the person who is closest to him daily. Vera, a Reds trainer, was with Chapman in Triple-A Louisville last season and continued to interpret for him after his July 31 promotion. Vera was promoted to the Reds full-time this season.

"You see every day the smile on his face," Vera said. "He feels more confident and comfortable being around the team. Teammates are great with him. He's starting to expose his true personality. Compared with last year, he's way, way better. He's growing up. He's catching up really well. He will be more confident as he starts knowing the league and facing more players."

If increased confidence equates to even better results, this could be one interesting -- and captivating -- season for Chapman.

"It's going to be scary," Brennaman surmised. "There have been times when he has been in trouble [and] he has to get an out, and he's embarrassed people. He blows people away. As good as these guys are up here, I'm always mindful of what Joe Morgan used to say -- 'you can't throw it hard enough to consistently throw it by hitters in the Major Leagues.' Yes, you can. If you throw as hard as this kid throws, you can."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.