Yankees get Chapman, but questions remain about closer's future
In an ideal world, the Yankees' Monday acquisition of closer Aroldis Chapman from the Reds in exchange for four minor leaguers could be evaluated purely on baseball terms. Alas, neither the team’s incentives for making the deal, nor Cincinnati's comparatively light return, can be fully understood outside the context of Major League Baseball's open investigation into domestic violence allegations against the 27-year-old fireballer, who could receive a substantial suspension under the league's new but untested policy. Instead of heightening the excitement surrounding the swap of a four-time All-Star to a reigning playoff team, the trade intensifies the scrutiny that MLB and the two teams involved will face in handling a particularly sensitive matter.
With the Reds having shifted into rebuilding mode this past summer via the trades of starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, Chapman and All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier represented the team's top remaining assets coming into the off-season. Frazier was traded to the White Sox on Dec. 16 as part of a three-team deal that also included the Dodgers. That trade came nine days after Los Angeles and Cincinnati agreed to a different deal that would have sent Chapman to the Dodgers in exchange for two unspecified prospects. The trade was was never completed, however, and roughly 12 hours after the initial report of the swap, Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown and Jeff Passan reported Chapman's involvement in an Oct. 30 altercation at his Miami-area home.
According to the police report, around 11 p.m. that night more than a dozen officers were dispatched to Chapman’s home in response to an emergency call from his girlfriend, who told police that he had "choked" her and pushed her against a wall following an argument over "something in his phone that she did not like." In addition to the physical altercation, Chapman fired eight shots with a handgun while alone in his garage, seven of which hit a concrete wall, with one going through a window into an open field. No arrests were made and no charges were filed. According to the police report, "[D]ue to conflicting stories, no cooperating witnesses, and no physical injuries, there is insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Chapman with simple battery… since Mr. Chapman fired a gun inside of a closed and unoccupied garage there is also insufficient evidence to charge him with a gun violation." Chapman's attorney, Jay Reisinger, told Yahoo! Sports, "On behalf of Mr. Chapman, we vehemently deny the allegations as stated. Beyond that, we have no further comment at this time."
The lack of charges isn't an impediment to Chapman being disciplined by MLB under its new joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, which was announced in August. The policy, agreed upon by the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association, establishes a new protocol for how the league will handle alleged offenses in those areas, giving the commissioner far-reaching powers to discipline players whether or not they are convicted of a crime. No minimum or maximum punishments are proscribed, though players can challenge any ruling in front of an arbitration panel.
Chapman’s case is the third investigation that the league is known to have opened since the policy’s introduction; in November, Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was arrested on domestic abuse charges, and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig was involved in a nightclub brawl in the presence of his sister; TMZ initially reported that Puig pushed his sister, though the Miami Police Department soon refuted that specific allegation. Commissioner Rob Manfred has yet to issue a ruling in any of these cases, but with the start of the 2016 season still more than three months away, MLB can investigate each matter thoroughly.
The report of the altercation scuttled Chapman's trade to the Dodgers, and a day later, the Boston Globe's Alex Speier reported that in November, the Red Sox had learned of the incident through a background check when they were exploring the possibility of acquiring Chapman, raising questions about what the Reds knew about the matter while marketing him. Boston understandably decided to go in a different direction, sending four prospects to the Padres in exchange for closer Craig Kimbrel on Nov. 13. In the wake of the Yahoo! Sports report, Chapman was viewed as "a toxic asset," to use the words of a USA Today headline, with other team executives expressing concern about the public backlash that would come with acquiring him.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who has coveted Chapman for years, took advantage of the situation. “Given the circumstances that exist, the price point on the acquisition has been modified,” he told reporters during a conference call on Monday evening. He said that while New York has done its due diligence on Chapman's case, the team lacks the investigative powers of law enforcement or MLB officials, and he acknowledged both the severity of the allegations and the risk of suspension. From the New York Times' Billy Witz:
"Certainly, there is some serious issues here that are in play,” Cashman said. “That’s why it’s going to play out. And I acknowledge that it’s an area of concern. There’s risk, and I understand that.”
He added, “The results will be whatever they will be.”
Perversely, the possibility of a substantial suspension actually enhances Chapman's value, because it could prevent him from accruing enough service time to reach free agency at the end of the season. Currently, he has five years and 34 days of service time, meaning that he needs another 138 days on the active roster or disabled list to reach the threshold of six full years. A suspension would place him on the restricted list, where he would not accrue service time; if he is suspended for 45 days or longer — a loss of 40 games, according to the Yankees' 2016 schedule—he would fall short of the threshold. Instead of reaching free agency, he would have another year under New York's control.
Of course, without a precedent under the new policy to go by, it's not clear that Manfred will opt for a suspension of such length. There's no "magic number" to go by, though it's inevitable that any discipline will be measured in relationship to those handed down in connection to performance-enhancing drug-related violations, since those bans have been the sport's longest. Domestic violence and the other areas that the policy covers—not to mention gun violence—pose far greater threats to the safety of other people than PED use, though. Given that the policy was created as a contrast to the NFL's repeated stumbling in this area, we can expect, or at least hope, that the commissioner makes a strong statement with his verdict if the facts merit it.
As for the Yankees, in contrast to the team's recent emphasis on high-character players—they haven't been "The Bronx Zoo" for a long time—Chapman isn't the first player they've acquired this off-season who has had brushes with the law. Starlin Castro, who was acquired from the Cubs in a Dec. 9 trade, was accused of sexual assault in 2012, though prosecutors declined to charge him. He was also questioned by police in connection with a 2014 shooting at a Dominican Republic nightclub but was cleared of any involvement. Still, the combination of questions about his character and his declining performance—including a late-2015 shift from shortstop to second base to offset his defensive shortcomings—lowered the cost of acquiring him. While names like promising pitchers Tyson Ross of the Padres and Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler of the Mets were once mentioned as the potential cost of acquiring Castro, the Yankees only had to give up swingman Adam Warren to get the three-time All-Star.
Likewise, the trade for Chapman did not cost the Yankees any of their elite prospects, such as first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder Aaron Judge, shortstop Jorge Mateo or catcher Gary Sanchez. Via Baseball America, the highest-rated prospect in the deal is 22-year-old righty Rookie Davis, who ranked sixth on the team's Top 10 Prospects list released earlier this month, while according to Baseball Prospectus, it's 23-year-old third baseman Eric Jagielo, who placed eighth on New York's Top 10 list. Neither publication ranked the other prospect among the team's top 10, which points to the lack of consensus around those two players. Also in the trade are 28-year-old righty reliever Caleb Cotham, who made 12 appearances for the Yankees in 2015, and going-on-25-year-old second baseman Tony Renda, who's regarded as an organizational player.
That's a much lighter return than those that the Padres (for Kimbrel) and the Phillies (for Ken Giles, who went to the Astros) got when trading their closers this off-season, though both have more years under club control and no off-field issues undercutting their value. Purely from a talent standpoint, however, Chapman stands among the game's elite relievers, not to mention the owner of the most fearsome recorded fastball in MLB history. Within a month of his major league debut in 2010, a pitch of his was clocked at 105 mph, and in each of the past two seasons, his average fastball velocity has reached triple digits, including 100.4 mph in 2015 according to Brooks Baseball. Via Daren Willman of MLB Advanced Media, since 2011, Chapman has thrown more pitches of at least 100 mph (1,241) than the rest of MLB combined (1,187).
Chapman's high velocity has translated into the highest strikeout rate ever: 15.4 per nine innings, or in 42.9% of all plate appearances. By comparison, the second-ranked Kimbrel has whiffed 14.5 per nine and 41.2% of all hitters. In 2015, Chapman struck out 15.7 per nine while posting a 1.63 ERA in 66 1/3 innings for the Reds, converting 33 of 36 save opportunities along the way. For his career, he owns a 2.17 ERA, a 1.97 FIP and 15.4 K/9 .
In New York, Chapman joins the pitchers who ranked second and third in the majors in strikeouts per nine last season: 30-year-old lefty Andrew Miller (14.6 per nine, with a 2.04 ERA and 36 saves) and 27-year-old righty Dellin Betances (14.0 per nine, with a 1.50 ERA and nine saves). While Miller, whom the Yankees signed to a four-year, $36 million deal as a free agent last winter, has been the target of numerous trade inquiries, Cashman currently intends to keep both him and Betances. "How it shakes out in the closer role, going forward, that's all for another day," he told reporters on Monday.
If kept together, that trio could offset the uncertainty of New York's rotation, where none of the projected starters—Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Nathan Eovaldi, with Ivan Nova in reserve—pitched more than 167 1/3 major league innings in 2015 or rates as a strong bet to reach 200 innings in 2016. With managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner apparently more concerned with trying to trim payroll below the astronomical $241 million his team spent in 2015, Cashman had to sit on his hands while a bumper crop of free agent pitchers changed addresses, and he could only watch while longtime AL East nemesis David Price took up residence with the Red Sox thanks to a record-setting seven-year $217 million deal.
None of the players the Yankees gave up figure to make that kind of money in their careers. Davis, a 14th-round 2011 pick out of Dixon High School in Holly Ridge, N.C., split the 2015 season between High A Tampa and Double A Trenton, pitching to a 3.86 ERA with 8.9 strikeouts per nine in 130 2/3 innings. Listed at 6'5" and 245 pounds, Davis "has developed an arsenal that corresponds with his sizable frame," according to Baseball America's Josh Norris, featuring "a hard, lively fastball in the 93-95 mph range that peaks a couple of ticks higher," as well as a sharp curve and a changeup. Via Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford, those offspeed pitches grade out as average at best, and Davis projects as a future number four starter.
Jagielo, the 26th pick of the 2013 draft out of Notre Dame, spent 2015 in Double A, where he hit .284/.347/.495 with nine homers in 248 plate appearances. He didn't play after June 16 due to surgery to remove bone chips in his left knee, the result of an awkward slide into home plate. It was the third straight season Jagielo has lost significant playing time due to injury—he hurt his ankle in 2013 and suffered a fracture near his right eye when he was hit by a pitch in '14—all of which has limited him to just 204 minor league games. The lefty swinger has plus-power potential, but he struggles to pick up the ball against same-side pitching.
The real questions, however, are about Jagielo's defensive ability; while he has a strong arm, his range and mobility are limited. Whether it's a move to the outfield, a platoon role, or a bench role as a corner infielder, his ceiling appears to be limited, but either in 2016 or '17, he could begin filling the void left by the trade of Frazier.
Cotham, a fifth-round 2009 pick out of Vanderbilt, has also been slowed by numerous injuries over the course of his time in the minors. He spent parts of the past three seasons with the Yankees' Double A and Triple A affiliates, pitching his way from the rotation to the bullpen. In 2015, he posted a 2.37 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 57 minor league innings and a 6.52 ERA in 9 2/3 innings for the parent club. His arsenal features a 91-95 mph fastball that he combines with a slider, and though he has solid command he lacks a quality pitch to counter tough lefty hitters. That appears to mark him as a middle reliever, albeit one who could have a significant major league role in 2016.
Renda, a second-round 2012 pick out of the University of California by the Nationals, hit .269/.330/.358 in a 2015 season split between the Double A teams of Washington and New York, having arrived in the latter's organization thanks to June trade that sent reliever David Carpenter to the D.C. The 5'8", 175 pound righthanded-hitting Renda offers speed (23 steals in 29 attempts in '15) and contact skills (a 7.3% strikeout rate) that translate to little more than a future on the fringes of the majors.
In all, it's an underwhelming return for the Reds, albeit one that illustrates their desperation to unload Chapman sooner rather than later. Under normal circumstances, it would be touted as an eye-opening addition for the playoff-hungry Yankees, but Chapman's actions—and those of New York in profiting from the ugly incident—dim the excitement with which a trade like this would normally be met. More importantly, it also has increased the intensity of the spotlight concerning whether MLB can truly handle matters of domestic violence in appropriate fashion.