Loss of Chapman could affect NL Central

By Stephen Nations

Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman suffered a horrific injury in Wednesday night's Cactus League contest with the Kansas City Royals, being struck in the head by a line drive in the sixth innings. The gruesome scene, which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the game and Chapman being left with a fractured skull, happened in the sixth inning when Royals catcher Sandoval Perez's liner off a 100 mph fastball caught Chapman above the left eye.

As much as you hate to see this happen (it's a pitcher's worst nightmare), it does present quite a quandary for the Reds. Chapman has the best arm in baseball. Period. He can crank his fastball up to 105 mph (although he rarely does anymore) and his swing-and-miss slider makes it all the more devastating.

Chapman converted 76 of 86 save opportunities in the past two seasons and he was thoroughly dominant in doing so, posting a line of 234 strikeouts in 135 innings, good for nothing more than the second best K/9 rate in the history of baseball. He's pretty much the very last pitcher on planet earth that you would want to face with the game on the line.

So how will the Reds replace him? Well, to be frank, they don't replace him. They can plug someone in to his role and hope that the interim closer navigates the waters successfully for a number of weeks until Chapman is ready to start throwing again. There's no real timetable for these types of injuries.

J.A. Happ suffered a similar injury last season and returned after two months. Billy Wagner was a similar pitcher, a left-handed power closer, and he returned in just three weeks after being struck in the head and carted off the field in 1998. Brandon McCarthy missed the rest of the 2012 season after being struck in the head by an Erick Aybar line drive. McCarthy recovered okay enough to earn a two-year contract that offseason, however he still experiences symptoms from the incident like headaches and seizures that have impeded his ability to perform.

The most likely in-house candidate for Cincinnati is former Dodgers and Royals stopper Jonathan Broxton. Broxton is a solid reliever who has the most closing experience on the staff. Although the 300-pound right-hander has a heavy fastball and can light up radar guns, he's pretty predictable and has a career save percentage of just 72 percent, so he's not lights-out by any means.

There's also lefty-specialist Sean Marshall who has excellent stuff, but is coming off of an injury-plagued season and didn't produce when he was given a chance to be the Red's closer after Ryan Madson went down with an injury in May of 2012. If manager Bryan Price wants to get creative he could turn to right-handers Logan Ondrusek or J.J. Hoover, the latter of which accumulated 67 Ks in 66 innings while posting a 2.86 ERA at age 25 in his first full season.

My bet is that Broxton gets the opportunity first. It really doesn't matter who does though, because none of the options will be anything in the vicinity of what Chapman is. The injury will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the bullpen, thinning out the mid-relief corps in the process as well. While you never like to see anyone get injured, it could have quite an effect on the NL Central race.

The Reds lack a true ace, and while Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Mat Latos are fine starting pitchers, they aren't the kind of guys that have produced the kind of consistency and leadership that a pitching staff needs in this situation. There's no Clayton Kershaw, no Adam Wainwright, and no David Price types that will put the team on their shoulders and go out and rack up the kind of quality innings needed to offset the loss of their star-studded closer.

If the Reds were on the outside looking in at the division race before the injury, they're now on the other end of the country looking in via satellite with the Milwaukee Brewers. The one substantial advantage that the Reds had over every other team in the league (save for maybe the Cardinals and Atlanta Braves) is that they had the ability to shorten the game to an eight inning contest with Chapman at the back end. They now have a slightly above-average rotation to go with a shaky bullpen and a big question mark in the ninth inning. This is a huge blow to a team that had aspirations of riding its pitching staff in to October.

Stephen Nations is an aspiring sports and Cardinals columnist. He will be contributing his commentary to KSDK.com during the 2014 season. You can follow him on twitter at @Nayshface.


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