Chapman has appeared in 14 games and tallied 12 2/3 innings out of Matt Quatraro’s bullpen. He’s allowed only five runs (four earned) and posted a 20:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 plate appearances. His 38.5% strikeout rate checks in eighth among the 219 relievers with 10+ innings. Chapman has gotten a swinging strike on 18.1% of his offerings — the 15th-best mark in MLB — and is holding opposing hitters to a .174/.269/.196 line overall.
The longtime star closer looks far better thus far in Kansas City than he did at the end of his Yankees’ tenure. The southpaw hit free agency last winter with his value at perhaps the lowest ebb of his career. Chapman had allowed a 4.46 ERA during his final season in the Bronx. His strikeout rate dropped below 30% for the first time in his 14-season MLB career, while last year’s 12.7% swinging strike rate was quite a bit below Chapman’s previous norms. Perhaps most worrisome was New York’s decision to leave him off its playoff rosters after Chapman spent time on the injured list with an infected tattoo and subsequently missed a team workout.
Chapman hasn’t quite returned to peak form, when his fastball was sitting in the triple digits and he was punching out just under half his opponents. He’s off to his best start in three years, though, again looking the part of a high-leverage arm. Chapman is averaging 99.3 MPH on his heater and 87.9 MPH on his slider, each figure checking in around two ticks harder than last season’s averages.
It’s still a small sample, but the early results are exactly what the Royals had envisioned when they took a buy-low flier in late January. Kansas City inked Chapman to a one-year, $3.75MM guarantee. The deal contained up to $5MM in additional performance bonuses — up to $2.5MM based on appearances, $2.5MM on games finished — but those incentives look perfectly reasonable so long as Chapman is pitching this well. The 35-year-old will receive $312,500 for every fifth appearance between 20 and 55 outings, and he’d land a matching sum for every fourth game finished between 12 and 40.
Chapman is at 14 appearances in 38 games. He’s on pace to max out the $2.5MM in appearance incentives. Kansas City has used him mostly in the middle innings while keeping Scott Barlow in the closer role. Chapman has four games finished, putting him on pace for 17. Of course, if Kansas City (or an acquiring team) installs him as their closer at any point, he’d be in better position to unlock more of those incentives. That’d be a good problem to have if Chapman is closing games effectively.
Despite the veteran reliever’s contributions, the Royals are off to a nightmarish start overall. They have an 11-27 record that has them ahead of only the A’s in the American League. A 35-year-old reliever on a one-year contract for a noncompetitive team is a straightforward trade candidate, so it’s little surprise bullpen-needy clubs are getting in touch with the K.C. front office.
While the Royals are receiving early trade interest, it’s unlikely any deal will come together in the immediate future. For one, Chapman can’t be traded without his consent until next month. Major league free agents who sign MLB contracts receive an automatic no-trade right until June 15 of the following season under the collective bargaining agreement. Even if Chapman were amenable to waiving that to join a contender within the next five weeks, it’s rare to see trades of significance hammered out this early in the season.
Traditionally, the Royals have been more willing than most clubs to explore early-season trades if they’re well out of contention. They dealt Carlos Santana to the Mariners in late June last season and reportedly began shopping Andrew Benintendi around the same time. Those moves came under former president of baseball operations Dayton Moore, though, and earnestly shopping veteran players in the second week of May is a different level altogether. Even with the Royals highly likely to miss the playoffs, it’s easier for them to hold Chapman for now as rival teams take more time to determine how aggressively to pursue trades for relief help.
So long as he’s healthy and still performing in four to six weeks, Chapman figures to be a very popular target. The Royals could also market Barlow, who has a season and a half of remaining arbitration control, and impending free agent southpaw Amir Garrett.