They weren't so much wondering about the Reds giving $30 million to a 21-year-old pitcher. They were wondering about the Reds giving that pitcher, that investment, to Dusty Baker.
Baker, a three-time Manager of the Year, is generally respected throughout the game for his work in the dugout, but over the past several years he's also become known as someone who takes prime-rib pitchers and turns them into hamburger patties.
Baker's reputation has been so ingrained into the baseball community that even the satirical Web site, The Onion, picked up on it with a recent headline: "Dusty Baker Destroys Aroldis Chapman's Arm Within Minutes of Arrival."
As Baker sat in his office at the Reds' spring training complex on Monday, he simply shook his head while defending himself.
"They are always looking for something that you didn't do," Baker told FanHouse. "It doesn't bother me, because I don't live in the past. I've taken care of my guys, from [Bill] Swift and [John] Burkett all the way through. I take care of my players. I believe in winning, but not at all costs. I never have and I never will."
The crux of the criticism of Baker is that he lets his starting pitchers, particularly young ones, throw too many pitches. This was never more evident than 2003, in Chicago, when Baker put a heavy workload on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
Prior and Wood, of course, became the posterboys for broken-down starting pitchers.
And Baker became a villain.
"It's mighty funny that I never heard any of that before I got to Chicago," Baker said. "You take a poll of players that played for me and ask them, did I take care of them?"
Wood, who is in camp with the Indians, just a few hundred yards up the road from the Reds' facility, said he did not hold Baker responsible for his injuries.
"I don't think he handled us the wrong way," said Wood, who added that he has always had a good relationship with Baker and still keeps in touch with him. "There were times where I asked to go back out and he let me, and there were times that I asked to go back out and he didn't let me. It's the same with any staff, every pitching coach and every manager."
Russ Ortiz, who was one of Baker's young workhorses with the Giants, had his career derailed by injuries years after he left San Francisco. Ortiz, now in camp with the Dodgers, also said that Baker is unfairly criticized.
"I would say that's untrue," Ortiz said of the claims against Baker. "You just can't fault a manager. He's always going to be the guy, because he's supposed to be in charge, but at the same time, sometimes things happen that are out of your control and make no sense."
There is no way to prove conclusively why any pitcher gets injured, so the claims of pitcher abuse by Baker will forever be just theories. It is indisputable, though, that Baker has had his starting pitchers consistently throw more pitches than the norm.
Pitchers on Baker's teams have thrown more pitches per start than the National League average for pitchers on other teams in 14 of his 16 seasons. The difference is just about five pitches per game over his career, but he has had two years in which his pitchers threw at least 10 more pitches, on average, than the rest of the league. One of those was 2003.
|Dusty Baker, Pitcher Abuser?|
|Pitches Per Start||PAP Per Team*|
|* PAP stands for Pitcher Abuse Points and is calculated by Baseball Prospectus. Read more about the metric here. Baker managed for the Giants from 1993-2002, the Cubs from 2003-06 and the Reds from 2008-present.|
Baker's teams were below the league average in PAP in his first three seasons, but since then they have been above in 12 of the past 13 years. In 2002 with the Giants and 2003 with the Cubs, Baker's teams racked up more than three times the number of PAP of the average among the other teams in the league.
Will Carroll, a writer at Baseball Prospectus who specializes in studying injuries, has no doubt that Baker is responsible for the destruction of his pitchers.
"When you just look at the results he's had, where guys over and over are getting injured, whether it's the pattern of pitches he's using or the number of pitches, it's readily apparent," Carroll said. "I was stunned how clear it was that his pitchers are throwing more pitches. Can I point directly to Dusty and say 'You have caused this'? No. But I don't think there's any way you can't say 'You are the most likely cause.'"
Although Prior and Wood are the main names attached to Baker, he is also a suspect in the injury-riddled careers of Jason Schmidt, Ortiz and Shawn Estes. (Schmidt was actually worked even harder by Baker's successor, Felipe Alou.)
Aaron Harang has seen his career take a nosedive the past two years under Baker, and a connection is sometimes made to a May 25, 2008 game when Harang threw 63 pitches in relief in a 16-inning game, on two days of rest. When Edinson Volquez had to have Tommy John surgery last year, there were immediately rumblings that Baker had struck again, although some research by FanHouse's Pat Lackey showed that Baker really hadn't had Volquez throw an inordinately high number of pitches.
While Baker insists that he takes care of his pitchers, he also doesn't run from the idea that he believes pitchers can't be coddled.
"When are you being too careful and when are you letting them pitch?" Baker said. "The only way to get better is to pitch. ... Look at some of the Japanese and Latin pitchers that come over here and are used to throwing every day. They come over here and don't throw and get hurt anyway. I don't think there is a real set formula."
Pitching, Baker said, is an unnatural motion, so injuries are unavoidable.
"There are certain things that are karma, that are bound to happen," Baker said. "You are throwing a projectile at that speed, and something is gonna happen to somebody. It's unnatural to throw it. I don't care what they say."
In Baker's defense, two of the pitchers he worked the hardest -- Livan Hernandez and Carlos Zambrano -- have not had arm problems at all. Hernandez was never hurt in the major leagues, and Zambrano didn't go on the disabled list until two years after Baker was gone, and that was with a hamstring injury. Zambrano has since missed time with another hamstring injury and a back problem.
Ortiz, who also didn't get hurt until years after he left Baker, said that his problem was actually a rib injury. That caused him to change his mechanics, which resulted in an elbow problem.
Ortiz threw 120 or more pitches 28 times with the Giants, all before he was 30 years old. He said that Baker constantly asked him how he felt, and he never pushed him to pitch when he said he was tired.
"We're all adults up here," Ortiz said. "Everyone has to take responsibility for taking care of himself."
Wood, who had an injury history before Baker arrived in Chicago, said he felt that Baker used him appropriately during that fateful 2003 season, when he threw at least 120 pitches 13 times in the regular season and once in the postseason. Only two pitchers -- Randy Johnson and Hernandez -- threw more 120-pitch games in a season over the past decade.
"I felt like when I started a game in '03, I was going to go at least eight or nine innings," Wood said. "That was the mentality I had. I felt like I should have been in shape and strong enough to go out and throw 120-125 pitches every fifth day, and I did it well. ...
"I don't know if there were any affects from that year at all. I can't really pinpoint one thing or one series of events that caused [the injuries]."
The criticism stings Baker, but not so much because of what it means to him. Baker said he feels empathy for the pitchers who have gotten hurt under his watch.
"I'm a responsible person," he said. "If anything, I might be overly responsible for things that aren't in my responsibility realm. That's how my dad was. That's how he taught me to be. ... I feel badly for whoever gets hurt in this game. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not that hard-hearted of a person. You put it past you and move forward. I haven't changed."