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Perrotto: Aroldis Chapman Still Firing Cuban Missiles

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Aroldis Chapman, Pittsburgh Pirates

The name on the screen during the Zoom call was quite ubiquitous.

The title at the bottom of Aroldis Chapman’s screen read “THE MISSILE” while he had his introductory teleconference with the media on Tuesday. That was quite unusual, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ newest reliever laughed when asked about it after finalizing the one-year, $10.5-million contract as a free agent.

It is short for “The Cuban Missile,” the hard-throwing left-hander’s nickname since he defected from Cuba and joined the Cincinnati Reds in 2010.

“I enjoy that nickname,” Chapman said through a translator. “When I logged on to Zoom, that name was already typed out. I don’t know if it configured straight from my phone. I decided to go with it and just leave it there.”

The Pirates are confident that the 35-year-old still has plenty of missiles left to fire with his left arm. They envision him teaming with closer David Bednar and set-up men Colin Holderman and Carmen Mlodzinski to form a potential lockdown bullpen and take some pressure off a so-so starting rotation.

Chapman showed he can still be overpowering when he split last season with the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. He had 103 strikeouts in 58.1 innings and a 3.09 ERA in 61 games during the regular season and then helped the Rangers win the first World Series title in franchise history.

Impressive for a pitcher advancing in age, Chapman averaged 101.1 mph with his sinker and 99.0 mph with his four-seam fastball.

The high-end velocity erased doubts that the seven-time All-Star had reached the twilight of his career. In 2022, Chapman had a career-worst 4.46 ERA for the New York Yankees and 43 strikeouts in 36.1 innings.

“Just work and dedication,” Chapman said when asked about having his highest fastball velocity since 2017. “I was working with a trainer. I had a tough season in New York. After that, I kind of wanted to turn that ship around, so I really worked hard with this trainer in the offseason to improve and see better results.”

Chapman had just six saves last season, two with the Royals and four with the Rangers, after notching nine for the Yankees a year earlier. That is a far cry from the eight 30-save seasons Chapman had in 10 years from 2012-21 with the Reds and New York.

Chapman has 321 saves in his 14-year career, standing third among active pitchers and 21st in major-league history. He is proud to have stood the test of time when many closers flame out after a year or two.

“I think dedication to my craft, to the sport,” Chapman said about his key to longevity. “I just stay busy working. I try and take care of my arm as best as I can, and I just try and stay busy.”

How busy Chapman will be in the upcoming season is to be determined. Chapman said he has not discussed his potential role with Pirates general manager Ben Cherington and manager Derek Shelton.

David Bednar figures to remain the closer and with good reason. He tied for the National League lead with 39 saves last season when he was selected to the All-Star Game for the second straight year.

Chapman fully understands the situation and says he has no ego about getting saves.

“When I started off my career, I wasn’t a closer,” Chapman said. “I was a sixth-, seventh-, eighth-inning guy. A couple years with the Reds and I really got that opportunity to be a closer. Now, I just consider myself someone who can really adapt to what I need to do. I’m a pitcher who can adjust to whatever is needed from me.”

With his ability to still launch Cuban missiles in his mid-30s, Chapman should help the Pirates in whatever role he is given.

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