This is one free-agent signing that no one saw coming but Ben Cherington and his tight circle of confidants.
The Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to terms with left-handed reliever Aroldis Chapman on a one-year, $10.5-million contract as a free agent on Monday night. There had not been so much as a hint that the Pirates were close to adding the seven-time All-Star.
However, the signing raises many questions that won’t be answered until after Chapman passes his physical examination and Cherington, the general manager, addresses the media.
The biggest question is who will be the closer this upcoming season?
Will it be David Bednar, who tied for the National League lead with 39 saves last season and has been selected to each of the last two All-Star Games? Or will it be Chapman, who has 321 saves in his 14-year career?
All logic points to Bednar retaining his job because he has done nothing to lose it. The Mars Area High School graduate has emerged as one of the best closers in the game. Furthermore, he is extremely popular with his teammates and fans.
However, Chapman gives the Pirates a strong alternative if Bednar needs a day off or the situation calls for a lefty to close out the game. Though the 35-year-old recorded just six saves combined last season with the Kansas City Royals and World Series champion Texas Rangers, Chapman had a 3.09 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 58.1 innings for an average of 15.9 per nine innings.
By signing Chapman, the Pirates could potentially have a dominant bullpen. Right-handers Colin Holderman, Carmen Mlodzinski and Dauri Moreta and lefty Ryan Borucki will back Bednar and Chapman.
That leads to the question of whether Cherington has decided to load up on relievers to compensate for what currently looks like a weak rotation.
Mitch Keller and left-handers Marco Gonzales and Martin Perez will begin the season in the rotation, but the other two spots are open. It seemed certain until Monday night that if the Pirates were going to sign a free agent to an eight-figure contract, the money would go to a starter.
Perhaps the strategy in 2024 will be to use the starters – except for Keller – two times through the batting order then turn the game over to the relievers. Or maybe Cherington has a trade lined up for a young, cost-effective starter and decided to spend most of his available money on Chapman.
Or are the Pirates thinking about possibly trading Bednar? While it seems unlikely, it might not be totally out of the question.
Bednar will have a $4.51-million salary this year. That means the Pirates will be committing a little bit over $15 million to just two relievers, a large sum for a franchise that traditionally has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
And one other underlying question is how Pirates fans will react to Chapman?
He became a villain when he was pitching for the Cincinnati Reds in 2012 and threw a 100-mph fastball at Pirates star Andrew McCutchen’s head. The fans’ affinity for McCutchen was never clearer than last season when he returned to the Pirates as a free agent five years after being traded.
Chapman was also suspended for the first 30 games of the 2016 season while with the New York Yankees by Major League Baseball for violating its domestic violence policy. Chapman was arrested in Miami in October 2015 after his then-girlfriend claimed that he choked her and pushed her against a wall before firing eight gunshots into his garage.
That kind of stuff doesn’t play well with any fanbase.
All the questions will eventually be answered. Until they are, it is certainly intriguing to ponder the Pirates’ next move.