Chapman's transition takes next step

Chapman's transition takes next step

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The circular sofas in the middle of the room remain the center of attention in the Reds' clubhouse.

It's the spot where players go to joke before morning workouts. It's the place where they go to laugh -- a lot.

Aroldis Chapman, who once sat alone in front of his locker and watched the laughter from a distance, is now an active member of Cincinnati's comedy central. The Cuban pitcher is starting to feel at home.

His sideways smile says it all.

"I'm feeling a lot more comfortable here," he said. "I'm getting to know my teammates and getting closer to them."

On Monday, the left-handed pitcher will get to show how comfortable he is on the field when he takes the mound against Kansas City in a game scheduled for 3:05 p.m. ET/1:05 p.m. MT at Goodyear Ballpark.

Chapman, who is competing for the fifth spot in Cincinnati's rotation, will work out of the bullpen behind starter Bronson Arroyo.

"[I try] to prepare myself the best that I can, to work extremely hard, and when it's time for me to pitch, get the job done," Chapman said. "If they feel I can make the club, fine. If not, I will continue to work hard until that happens."

By now, almost everyone in baseball knows about Chapman's potential, the family he left behind in Cuba and the six-year, $30.25 million deal he signed with Cincinnati. Many are familiar with his journey to the United States after defecting from Cuba before an international tournament in the Netherlands.

How he will fare against an opposing lineup full of Major League players remains a mystery. Chapman has thrown several bullpen sessions and has already faced live hitters in camp, but Monday's game represents his newest challenge.

The expectations for Chapman are high. The spotlight on him is bright.

"If you've pitched in front of the world and you've pitched for food, you know what I mean? I expect him to do well," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "I don't think any league he's going to play in will compare to that, when you've pitched for food."

But Chapman is not alone. He has a bilingual manager, a roster full of Spanish-speaking teammates and his newfound (sofa) circle of friends to support him.

The pitcher has been in camp for less than a month, but many can already relate to him.

"He reminds me of myself when I came up to the big leagues," Reds closer Francisco Cordero said. "He's quiet and he doesn't talk a lot, even to us in Spanish. I understand that. You don't know anybody at that age and it's important you show guys respect."

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Reds first baseman Yonder Alonso and Chapman bonded over their Cuban heritage. Like Chapman, Alonso, 22, is from Cuba. Unlike Chapman, the Alonsos received permission from the Cuban government to leave the island in 1995.

"We both come from the same country and we both have the same goals," Alonso said. "You play for the Reds, your family, but also for that Cuban flag where you come from."

The teammates also bonded over food. Several Reds players, including Alonso, take turns cooking Latin cuisine to keep Chapman -- and themselves -- happy.

"It's hard coming to this country and as Latinos, we have all been there, so we all help him out as much as we can," Alonso said. "Trust me, he's always eating Latin food, so there is no problem with that. We all know how to cook on this team."

Chapman and Alonso have become good friends in part because Chapman's story reminds Alonso of his own father's journey. Luis Alonso was a catcher and coach for the Havana Industriales in Cuba.

"My father traveled around Cuba playing baseball and he had the temptation of leaving the island, but he didn't do it because he didn't want to leave us," the first baseman said. "I don't think people really understand how hard it is to leave your family. I never saw my grandmother or grandfather after I left when I was 8."

Reds' Class A Dayton pitching coach Tony Fossas, who left Cuba in 1968 with his family, can also relate to Chapman's plight. Fossas, along with Reds pitching coach Bryan Price, have worked with Chapman all spring and eagerly await the next step in the young man's development.

So far, it's been good.

On Thursday, Chapman allowed one hit, hit one batter and struck out two in an intrasquad game. He threw 17 pitches, 12 for strikes, and reached 97 mph with his fastball twice in one scoreless inning.

"I saw a guy that was around the plate with three pitches, and his arm looks live," Price said. "He's athletic around the mound. I wasn't disappointed in any way."

Chapman's fastball has always been the focal point of his repertoire, but it's been an effective changeup that has been the camp surprise. The Royals should expect both pitches Monday.

The Reds hope both of them lead to outs.

"I thought it wouldn't go as well as it has," Chapman said. "But I've worked hard on my control and command, and it's working out very well."

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