Reds ready to test drive prize lefty

Reds ready to test drive prize lefty

CINCINNATI -- It's not often that the biggest intrigue of a Spring Training comes via a 21-year-old kid with no professional experience who will either be a fifth starter in the big leagues or beginning the season in the Minors.

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When that kid is a 100-mph-throwing left-hander like Cuban Aroldis Chapman, it immediately becomes anything but a normal camp situation. The Reds boldly spent $30 million for one of the biggest free-agent prizes but have barely opened the box.

Everyone wants to know whether Chapman might begin his 2010 season in the Majors or Minors, but truth be told, the Reds don't really know. There is a lot for them to find out first.

"You don't know until we all see him and we see him under competition," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Throwing on the side is one thing, but competition is something else. The later in spring he's there, the better barometer you'll have on where he is ready to go.

"Once most of the lower Minor League guys go back already, you can get a better idea when he's facing mostly upper Minor guys and Major League players close to getting ready for the season. Hopefully we can keep him around long enough to get to that point."

With pitchers and catchers due to report on Feb. 18, the fifth-starter competition seems wide open with Chapman, Micah Owings, Justin Lehr, Mike Lincoln and lefty prospects Matt Maloney and Travis Wood among the candidates. Before signing, Chapman was given no guarantees that he would make the rotation out of camp, only that he would get the chance to contribute in the Majors in 2010.

In January, Cincinnati was the surprise winner for Chapman after he defected from Cuba in July and was declared a free agent in September. The price for his services proved to be $30 million over six years.

Being from an isolated country, Chapman knows little about the United States, let alone the Major Leagues. He's only been seen pitching in international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic. The scouting reports have knocked his command.

Chapman spent a week at the Goodyear, Ariz., complex last month with Reds pitching coach Bryan Price and demonstrated a baseball aptitude that was encouraging.

"He was more advanced than I anticipated," Price said. "I was with him for a week and he impressed me in that week. I hope he can show growth over those six weeks and make it a hard decision."

Reds special assistant to the general manager and former pitcher Mario Soto will be in camp to help Chapman refine his changeup and shorten the overall learning curve. His slider is considered a plus pitch, and his left-handed high-90's velocity has drawn comparisons to a young Randy Johnson.

In 2009, Reds starting pitchers were ranked ninth in the National League with a 4.50 ERA while they posted a 59-65 record. Owings won the fifth starter's job out of camp last year but was often unable to work deep in games. He was moved to the bullpen by season's end. Maloney had some rocky outings as a fifth starter but emerged with some promising outings before a blister ended his season prematurely. Lehr, a journeyman who had bounced through the Minors, had some good moments but gets by entirely with offspeed stuff and guile. Wood was the organization's best Minor League pitcher last season while pitching in Double-A and Triple-A but has no big league experience.

Combined -- none of the other fifth-starter candidates can rival Chapman in upside potential, or the buzz factor his presence in the rotation would have.

Baker speaks fluent Spanish and has had experience working with Cuban pitchers during his managerial career. He had Livan Hernandez and Osvaldo Fernandez with the Giants in the 1990s. However, Hernandez had already been with the Marlins before he got to San Francisco.

"Those were two of the guys I was going to call upon to possibly talk to Chapman about the different changes he'll experience like language, food, culturally and monetarily," Baker said. "Let's face it -- he has a lot of things he has to deal with. I think baseball is probably the simplest of things in this whole equation."

The manager is also breaking out books about Cuban baseball history so he can build his relationship with his pitcher. But because of his youth, Chapman breaks from the tradition of the fellow Cuban defectors that preceded him to the Majors.

"When we got Osvaldo Fernandez in San Francisco, he was already 30 years old," Baker said. "His timeframe was a lot shorter. He had thrown a lot more innings in international ball. Chapman is like a No. 1 Draft choice, but with more experience. In essence, that's what he is."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.