Aroldis Chapman is back, and if you’re any kind of fan of the Reds or any other team, how can you not root for the guy as he comes back from a frightening line drive that cracked his skull in spring training? Even if you set aside the basic baseball joy that comes from watching Chapman’s unique talent, that triple-digit velocity that overawes hitters and fans, you never wanted to see what happened to Chapman happen to anybody, ever. That he could come back this soon, and take the mound in the majors this quickly, is something to admire in anyone, so let's admire it in him.
But the other thing to remember is that the Reds can use him, immediately. While no team has relied on its bullpen less frequently than the Reds, they’ve collectively blown six of 12 save opportunities, and they could very much use the Aroldis Chapman they've gotten used to.
Whether he returns directly to the closer’s role remains to be seen. After blowing away a few kids with Dayton in Class A, Chapman didn’t pitch well in his rehab outings at Louisville -- giving up five runs against two outs Tuesday, and another three runs against a lone out Wednesday -- but Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that his velocity was reportedly sitting in the 97-101 mph range. Manager Bryan Price wanted to see Chapman throw, and that seems to have been resolved to the former pitching coach’s satisfaction.
The good news beyond getting Chapman back is that Jonathan Broxton has been fairly effective in the closer’s role since he came off the DL in early April. The beefy former Dodgers closer nailed down his first five save opportunities before blowing Friday’s chance (vulturing the win thanks to Joey Votto’s winning blast). But after you add in the great work the Reds have gotten from crafty junkballer Sam LeCure in a set-up role, you’ve covered the full extent of Cincinnati’s sources of joy in relief. Price has relied much more heavily on his rotation, using his relievers a league-low 77 times while benefiting from 24 quality starts in their first 34 games.
That hasn’t left much work for the relief crew, but they haven’t done much with their opportunities. The situational components of the pen -- veteran lefties Sean Marshall and Manny Parra, and righties J.J. Hoover and Logan Ondrusek -- have combined to allow 6.8 runs per nine innings in 34 ⅓ innings. Collectively, they should do better than that, but their opportunities to have any impact will get squeezed between that sturdy rotation and the Reds’ late-game trio with Chapman back, and LeCure and Broxton available to handle more of the seventh- and eighth-inning assignments.
How important will that ripple effect be for the Reds? We’ll see, but the Reds need their pitching firing on all cylinders to contend. That was the case at the outset of the season, but with their offense predictably worse this year with Shin-Soo Choo in Texas and Jay Bruce on the DL, the Reds are scoring just 3.8 runs per game, 11th in the league. They've scored two runs or fewer in nine of their first 34 games, tough territory for any staff to be able to win with. Yet the Reds are nevertheless three games below their projected Pythagorean record, working from their runs scored and allowed.
With Bruce still out, the offense isn't going to get massively better, but if a bullpen with Chapman back in the mix can become a more reliable asset for Price to turn to, getting back up over .500 -- and a few more places up within the NL’s pack of playoff hopefuls -- will be that much more likely.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.