The Pittsburgh Pirates’ signing of Aroldis Chapman has turned an already-strong bullpen into one of the best in baseball. Chapman’s move to Pittsburgh marks the sixth team of his MLB career. He played with the Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers.
First, let’s flash back to August 3, 2012. At home in Great American Ball Park, the Cincinnati Reds led the Pirates, 3-0, heading into the bottom of the ninth with their closer, Chapman, on the mound. After retiring the first two batters quickly, Andrew McCutchen, then the Pirates’ best player, strode to the plate. Chapman’s first pitch, clocked at 101 mph, clocked McCutchen squarely on the shoulder.
McCutchen barely reacted beyond a glance at the mound as he took first base. Afterward, however, the television cameras caught a visibly furious “Cutch” in the Pirates’ dugout. Chapman has been one of the most reviled visiting players to PNC Park ever since.
That incident began a series of beanball wars between the two teams that lasted through the 2019 season, Clint Hurdle‘s last as Pirates manager, culminating in Reds manager David Bell returning to the field after having been ejected, charging the Pirates dugout and shoving Hurdle. Now Chapman and McCutchen will be teammates. Shades of former New York Giant Sal Maglie joining the Brooklyn Dodgers a few years after being Carl Furillo.
Aroldis Chapman Signing Breakdown
Seven-Time All-Star, Two-Time World Champion
The big, left-handed flame-throwing Chapman, whose fastball was as high as 105.8 mph in his prime, has been well-traveled recently. At age 35, he hasn’t lost any speed. With Yankees in 2022, he had a 4.46 ERA and 1.431 WHIP, each career worst. But he also held opposing batters to a .188/.333/.320 slash line. He was an improved pitcher in 2023. With the Royals, he had a 2.45 ERA and 16.3 strikeouts per nine innings, comparable to when he was a seven-time All-Star. It was good enough to get him traded to the Texas Rangers, where he earned his second World Series ring. Now, he’s made a $10.5 million contract with Pittsburgh.
Best Bullpen in Baseball, the Pirates?
The Chapman signing means he joins a bullpen that could become the best in baseball. The Pirates already have two-time All-Star closer David Bednar, 29, the fire-balling right-hander who led the league with 39 saves in 2023. There’s a strong set-up crew, too. Colin Holderman is established as a reliable eighth-inning specialist. Lefty Ryan Borucki had his best year in 2023 and was given increased responsibility as the season progressed. Young Carmen Mlodzinski showed poise and acquitted himself quite well in seventh-inning situations after his June call-up.
With this signing, general manager Ben Cherington has promised to increase the payroll and engineer a different kind of player acquisition than that to which Pirates fans are accustomed. That said, it’s a deal as attractive as unexpected on several fronts.
Ten-and-a-half million is closer-type money. Yet, as noted, the Pirates have an All-Star closer in Bednar. Chapman has not been a closer since 2021. He’s been used mainly as an eighth-inning guy since, with just 15 saves in the last two years. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he can’t be used as a closer in 2024. Bednar, fierce on the mound but amiable off it, may be amenable to an eighth-inning role with Chapman as a closer.
Second, there’s another shoe to drop, perhaps in the trade of a reliever for a starter. Bednar is the most marketable of any Pirates reliever. But he’s also a popular Pirate, a local native active in charities. A trade of Bednar could be a public relations disaster. Lastly, this may mean Cherington has given up hope of acquiring a front-line starter. He may have pivoted to shorten the game (using the starters, or at least the younger ones, for only four to five innings and turning it over to possibly the best bullpen in baseball).
This move increases the Pirates’ projected opening day payroll to around $78.5 million. Owner Bob Nutting recently stated that Cherington could grow the payroll without getting into specific figures. Whether the Chapman signing means Cherington’s work is done remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Pirates fan base has some news to be excited about for a change. They may even find it in their hearts to forgive Chapman if he helps get the Bucs to the postseason.
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