MLB free agency is bananas. Every year, teams flush with cash shell out millions of dollars to help bolster their rosters. More often than not, those contracts are so long and expensive that they can hamper a team’s payroll a few years later. This has become more prevalent in recent years as free agent contracts have gotten more extravagant than ever.
Then there’s Aroldis Chapman. According to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago, Chapman is looking for a contract in excess of $100 million this offseason. A potential five-year deal, as Mooney details, would double the $50 million that the Philadelphia Phillies guaranteed to Jonathan Papelbon following the 2011 season. Chapman is one of three big-time closers on the free agent market this winter, with Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon also seeking long-term deals.
While signing a closer to an exorbitant deal seems like the last thing the Detroit Tigers would do this offseason, we’ve seen crazier things happen.
Who is he?
Chapman is a 28-year-old lefthander who was signed as an amateur free agent by the Cincinnati Reds in 2010. “The Cuban Missile” had a successful four-year run as a starter in the Cuban National Series, striking out over a batter per inning in each season from 2005 to 2008. He struggled with his command in Cuba, walking 203 batters in 327 innings. However, this was also against much older competition; Chapman’s run in Cuba coincided with his age 17-20 seasons.
After defecting to the United States, the Reds stuck him in the bullpen where he flourished into the dominant closer he is today. He has posted a strikeout rate of 34 percent or better in each of his seven major league seasons, and only once has posted an ERA above 2.54. His command has never been great — he has a career 11.6 percent walk rate, an unsustainable clip for mortal pitchers — but his stuff has been so overpowering that the walks haven’t mattered one bit. Chapman was traded to the New York Yankees prior to the 2016 season, and flipped to the eventual World Series champion Cubs prior to the trade deadline.
Why should we care?
Andrew Miller has wedged his way into the conversation over the past year, but Chapman is otherwise the most dominant reliever in all of baseball. He has limited opponents to a 1.72 ERA in his last three seasons, and has posted an ERA of 2.00 or better in four of the last five years. Opposing batters have hit just .155 against him throughout his career, and he has only allowed 19 home runs in 377 innings. Other than the elevated walk rate — which he lowered to an acceptable 8.1 percent in 2016 — opponents don’t have much of a chance when Chapman is on the mound.
Chapman’s Godzilla fastball is his bread and butter, but his slider and changeup are also top notch. He has used the slider anywhere from 15 to 24 percent of the time in full seasons throughout his career, and it generated a spectacular 21.5 percent whiff rate in 2016. However, raw whiff rate doesn’t tell the whole story, particularly with his off-speed pitches. Chapman’s slider and changeup both generated a whiff/swing rate above 50 percent last season.
In layman’s terms: opponents hit nothing but air on every other time they swung at a Chapman slider or changeup. Chapman hasn’t used the changeup all that often, however, and dialed back his usage to just three percent in 2016.
Why should we stay away?
Chapman is looking for $100 million, said one plugged-in agent posted up at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa during the general manager meetings. If Chapman’s camp can draw the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers into a bidding war, then maybe the 100-mph closer gets a five-year deal and doubles the $50 million guaranteed the Philadelphia Phillies would regret giving Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season.
The Tigers’ payroll is already hamstrung by several big-money contracts, and they have far too many holes to go spending upwards of $15-20 million on a closer. Point blank: signing Chapman would be the most reckless contract the Tigers have handed out this decade.
In particular, Chapman’s heavy workload during the World Series highlighted his limited upside as a reliever. His mechanics faltered in Game 7, resulting in a dip in fastball velocity that nearly cost the Cubs the series.
While no reliever would be asked to throw 97 pitches across 5 1⁄3 high-stress innings in four days time during the regular season, it showed that Chapman is human, after all. Paying a closer top-flight money is nice, but he has only topped the 70-inning mark one time during the regular season. Shelling out for Chapman and then seeing his production dipped as he is pushed to upwards of 70 or 80 innings in a season would be a major disappointment.
Will he end up in Detroit?
There is almost zero chance that this happens. Chapman made headlines this fall for his dominant performance and heavy workload in the postseason, a large reason why he is trying to command such a high price tag. While I don’t think he will get the $100 million he is asking for, his contract will dwarf those handed out to pitchers like David Robertson, Andrew Miller, and the aforementioned Jonathan Papelbon in recent years. Signing Chapman would be a major addition, one arguably worth the $15 million he will probably earn for the next few years, but this type of money is far too rich for the Tigers’ blood at this point.
Additionally, Chapman’s domestic dispute from last winter — in which he allegedly fired gunshots in his home after choking his girlfriend — has significantly clouded his reputation among many baseball fans. While this probably won’t stop most teams from handing him a multi-million dollar contract, some fans will be turned off by the move. The Tigers have supported players following off-field incidents in the past, but have not actively pursued a high-profile player with such baggage in recent memory. Between his dodgy history and his astronomical asking price, the Tigers will undoubtedly pass on him if his agent comes calling this offseason.