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How does the Aroldis Chapman signing make sense for the Pirates?

Analyzing the one-year $10.5 million deal and its implications.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

To the shock of absolutely everybody, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first eight figure deal this offseason went to a bullpen piece, and of all the pen arms available it went to LHP Aroldis Chapman.

That is not a typo, nor is it a troll or some elaborate practical joke. Chapman and the Pirates agreed to a one-year deal worth $10.5 million yesterday, pending a physical. I wish I could hop in a time machine and tell me from ten years ago that this would happen.

Naturally there’s a lot to talk about and unpack, including that Chapman comes with some baggage.

Chapman was suspended 30 games in 2021 under MLB’s then newly minted joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy for an incident that occurred in October of 2015. Where he allegedly choked his then girlfriend and then brandished a gun and fired 8 shots into a wall and a window.

Chapman denied having choked his girlfriend, but admitting to having fired the gun. No formal charges were ever brought by prosecutors, but Chapman did not appeal his suspension. Chapman released a statement following his suspension.

“Today, I accepted a 30-game suspension from Major League Baseball resulting from my actions on Oct. 30, 2015. I want to be clear, I did not in any way harm my girlfriend that evening. However, I should have exercised better judgment with respect to my actions, and for that I am sorry. The decision to accept a suspension, as opposed to appealing one, was made after careful consideration. I made this decision in an effort to minimize the distractions that an appeal would cause the Yankees, my new teammates and most importantly, my family. I have learned from this matter, and I look forward to being part of the Yankees’ quest for a 28th World Series title. Out of respect for my teammates and my family, I will have no further comment.”

Then at the end of 2022, his final year under contract with the New York Yankees, Chapman skipped a mandatory postseason workout and was fined and left off of the Yankees ALDS roster. Both manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman expressed disappointment and questioned Chapman’s effort that year.

Cashman told the New York post.

“It was surprising at first, a little shocking, but after the shock wore off, when you add everything up, it’s not surprising - there’s some questions about whether he’s been in all-in or not for a little while. He’s maintained verbally that he’s in, but at times, actions don’t match those words.”

Chapman who will be 36 by opening day, has had to rehab his image and reputation multiple times. It was a large part of why Chapman only received $3.75 million in free agency last year and had to turn to the Kansas City Royals, fresh off a 97-loss season and heading into what would be a 106-loss campaign, to get that money.

I am not naive enough to believe that anyone who already has an opinion on such a matter can have their minds changed. Feel however you would like to feel, I won’t be arguing with you. When it comes to Chapman, I’m no fan.

None of this really matters to teams. They will do their risk assessments and decide if the money is worth it, which includes the chance of another off-field incident and suspension or a no show to a workout. If they decide that the player is talented enough and the risk low enough, they will pursue signing that player. Thats how the sausage gets made and it applies to absolutely everyone who carries any kind of baggage, and boy is Chapman talented.

He’s tied with Jose Mesa for 21st all-time with 321 saves and he carries a career 2.53 ERA. It’s not just historical success either, in 58.1 innings this past year he carried 3.09 ERA and a 2.52 FIP.

While he’s 35, his fastball averaged 99 miles per hour last year. His sinker was even higher, topping out at 103. Heading into his 15th season, there’s still plenty of gas in the tank.

By stuff+ (a pitch modeling metric that takes into account movement, release point, velocity etc. that can you read more about here ) his splitfinger fastball is a staggering 181.

His strikeout percentage soared past 41 percent this season, which was more in line with his career norms than the 26 percent K rate he put up in 2022. With an absurd whiff rate of 42.2 percent overall and a downright monstrous 48.6 percent against his splitter enroute to his highest strikeout total (103) since 2015.

Unsurprisingly, Chapman frequently attacks hitters, challenging the heart of the plate with his plus plus stuff, not backing down even with breaking pitches. The approach has delivered with opposing hitters hitting just .193 off his slider and .097 off his sinker.

Chapman was never great at preventing walks (career 4.56 BB/9), in recent years, he has seen that number balloon to 6.07/9 in 2021 and 6.94/9 in 2022. It did, however, trickle back down to 5.55/9 in 2023, which is not great, but not as bad as it was.

The Pirates are very stingy about letting pitchers go through the order a third time and Chapman helps them shorten games while extending and strengthening the bridge to All-Star closer David Bednar.

That is, if they choose not to trade Bednar for starting pitching help.

It also allows for additional flexibility of any other LHPs in the bullpen, like Ryan Borucki and Jose Hernandez.

Making the move make sense in a broader context is harder to do and requires some speculation. Does the $10.5 million paid to Chapman represent a reallocation of financial assets into another area of the staff as the Pirates explore the trade market for starters after missing out on free agent targets like Sean Manaea, Yariel Rodriguez, and Shota Imanaga?

There are still limited options available to them in FA, but they aren’t particularly appealing. Even if they signed one of the options remaining like Michael Lorenzen or Hyun-Jin Ryu, it likely wouldn’t be enough. What seems to be the Pirates' best remaining option is a trade for a starting pitcher with several years between him and free agency.

You have to give to get, and the trade market can quickly get pricey. Can they get somebody like Edward Cabrera of the Miami Marlins or Bryan Woo of the Seattle Mariners at a price point they’re willing to do for a package that meets both team's needs? One would certainly hope so.

Naturally it brings up speculation about David Bednar’s future without an extension, could the Pirates see him as a trade chip for starting pitching? Perhaps, but it seems somewhat far-fetched that the Pirates would go from wanting or even planning to sit down and discuss an extension with their fan favorite closer this spring training to looking to trade him. That said, in the unlikely scenario that including David Bednar in a trade package is what lands you a true frontline starter like a Logan Gilbert or Jesus Luzardo, it could make a bunch of sense from a baseball perspective. Until there’s a contract extension worked out there, such speculation is certain, but I would look elsewhere when discussing trade pieces.

The bottom line is the Chapman signing is hard to make sense of unless they still plan to add significantly to the rotation one way or the other. It certainly makes the team better, but does spending $10.5 million on a backend reliever when you have added just $10 million in payroll from outside the organization to a starting rotation in desperate need of help make any sense? Not sure that it does. They would be depending an awful lot on multiple younger pitchers and outcasts to step up in a big way and fill the gaps as needed.

With less than a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Bradenton, only time will tell.