by Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 12 — One of Monday’s wire service stories reporting on the Cincinnati Reds signing of Cuban phenom pitcher Aroldis Chapman has questioned my own doubting of Chapman’s prospects, especially in the light of the $30 million windfall now being thrown at the 22-year-old former Holguín fast-baller. The exact final passage in that article reads as follows:
The 6-foot-4 Chapman, whose abilities have been questioned by Cuban baseball sports writer Peter Bjarkman, impressed major league officials with his front-of-the rotation “stuff” that includes a triple digit fastball, a dangerous slider, and an above-average changeup.
It would perhaps be helpful here to set the record straight with my actual assessments of Chapman’s big-league prospects.
I have never claimed in the past and will not claim now that the talent and hard-throwing southpaw may not eventually succeed in the top professional arena. What I have questioned, however, is Chapman’s known work ethic, his subpar pitching “intelligence” and versatility, and also his actual status within Cuban League baseball. Is Aroldis Chapman a potential big leaguer? He may well be. Is he worth the $90 million his original agent claimed that he merited, or even the eventual $30 million he has now corralled? Probably he is not.
I do not claim to have a crystal ball. I do not have the trained eye of the big league scouting director. But I do know something about the recent past history of Cuban League baseball and its many talented performers.
All the following points need to be reiterated here:
1. Chapman did not improved much during his final three Cuban League seasons—despite a sensational arm and occasional big strikeout numbers—and at the time of his departure he was neither the best pitcher on the island nor (as frequently hyped) the hottest-ever prospect to abandon his homeland for a crack at a big professional paycheck. As a complete pitcher (and not just a thrower) Chapman is not at all in the same class with current Cuban aces Pedro Lazo, Norge Vera, Maikel Folch, Yulieski González, Miguel Alfredo González, Freddy Asiel Alvarez, or a handful of others. Nor is he the second coming of either Orlando Hernández or José Ariel Contreras.
2. Chapman may well overcome his motivational problems and thus improve under MLB coaching in a way that he did not in Cuba. Kendry Morales was also a very large risk (plagued by a similar questionable work ethic) when he left the Cuban League back in 2003; but Morales has demonstrated across a half-dozen seasons in the Anaheim Angels organization that surprising transformations are indeed possible.
3. Chapman is certainly more of a genuine prospect than 20-year-old Noel Arguelles, whose slick agents recently milked a $7 million, five year contract from the risk-prone Kansas City Royals. But that speaks more to the folly in Kansas City than to any wisdom in Cincinnati. A one-time junior national team ace, Arguelles had no real success at all in the Cuban League, despite laboring with one of that circuit’s best clubs in Habana Province (last season’s league champions).
There he was buried behind the top starters on one of the National Series’ top mound corps (Yulieski González, Yadier Pedroso, Jonder Martínez, and Miguel Angel González) and thus never enjoyed the same chance to impress he might get with the pitching-thin Royals. In Cuba, nonetheless, Arguelles suffered from a debilitating walks/Ks ratio (49/40 over two seasons) and was never in the picture when it came to the senior national team. At least Chapman can boast a smattering of heavy-duty international tournament experience.
4. Chapman was never actually an “ace” on the Cuban national team as has often been reported. At the time of his “defection” last July in Rotterdam he was actually a member of a “Cuba B” squad competing in that city’s World Port Tournament and would most likely not have been included in the top-echelon Cuban mound corps for the upcoming European-based World Cup event last September.
He did indeed display all-too-brief brilliance at the 2007 World Cup matches in Taiwan, but one of his dominate outings there was against a watered-down and quite disappointing Japanese roster unequal to most Nippon teams. The following summer Chapman pitched himself off Cuba’s roster for the Beijing Olympics with an unimpressive series of outings at the June 2008 José Huelga Tournament in Havana (a trial run for the island’s Olympic selection). And he was also far short of overpowering during his pair of WBC II outings versus both Australia (Mexico City) and Japan (San Diego) last March.
5. In Chapman’s defense, on the other hand, it is we’ll worth remembering that over the past decade-plus the most successful refugee Cuban pitchers in the big leagues have never been the island’s true top performers. A large part of the reason is simply that Cuba’s true aces—like Lázaro Valle, Norge Vera, Pedro Lazo and company have rarely if ever left their homeland. But the cases of MLB head-turners Liván Hernández, Orlando Hernández and José Contreras are also instructive here. Liván (perhaps the most successful Cuban Leaguer once he reached the majors) departed the island as a youngster with only three National Series campaigns under his belt and only a brief national team trial.
Contreras was admittedly a brilliant national team ace (with an unblemished 13-0 international record), but he was not in turn the top workhorse for his own league team in Pinar del Río (that was Pedro Lazo). “El Duque” Hernández, for his part, was occasionally brilliant as a big leaguer and does admittedly own the best lifetime won-lost percentage in Cuban League annals (if largely because he left after but ten seasons; Norge Luis Vera has since maintained a nearly identical mark through 15 campaigns).
But most Cuban observers contend that Lázaro Valle was the true Cuban ace of the same era. El Duque was never one of the top three national team starters, rarely started big international games against the likes of Japan, Korea or Taipei, and never again took the hill against a major international rival after a disastrous outing versus Team USA during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
My only point here is precisely that some marquee pitchers with less than brilliant Cuban resumes after achieved considerable success on MLB clubs. That fact alone may give hope to Chapman’s ardent supporters. For the sake of truth in advertising, then, let me quote here exactly what I wrote about Chapman last July at the time of his “escape” from the Cuban contingent in Rotterdam. These two paragraphs were written during my coverage of the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam for www.BaseballdeCuba.com. Interested readers can go to that entire original article.
Chapman remains a considerable mystery and his future in North American professional baseball is not easy to predict. The 21-year-old Holguín lefty has opted to trade potential gold medals for designer golden neck bracelets and a huge bank account—that much is certain. But will he become the next José Contreras or the next Maels Rodríguez?
Contreras, of course, had accomplished far more in both international and domestic play by the time he abandoned the island back in 2003 while touring in Mexico. Rodríguez broke every imaginable strikeout record on the island before suffering an unfortunate arm injury that ruined his pro prospects even before his own departure later that same year. Chapman definitely has his negatives, foremost among them a demonstrated lack of strike-zone control, a one-pitch arsenal, and an inconsistent Cuban League performance over four National Series campaigns.
Hurling for a Holguín club that made this year’s post-season and has been largely a middle-of-the-pack outfit during Chapman’s tenure, the southpaw flame thrower has won only slightly more than half his decisions (24-21), though he did enjoy his best season (11-4 and a league-best 130 Ks in 118 innings) this past winter. He has twice topped the 100 K mark but never approached Maels’s record-setting standards.
Chapman is definitely more a raw “thrower” than a savvy “pitcher” and numerous questions surround his abilities to master the finer details of his craft. But Aroldis Chapman has definitely already displayed one easily definable characteristic of a true major leaguer: by abandoning his teammates on the eve of an important international tournament (and thus leaving the squad short of starting pitchers) he has dramatically signaled that personal career advancement for him far outweighs any ball club loyalties. He is only the most recent poster child for rampant baseball free agency.
Chapman’s record—more so than that of Maels Rodríguez a few years back—was largely one of brief moments of brilliant potential rather than one of any truly noteworthy record-book feats. Chapman enjoyed one great game in international play as a 19-year-old (during the 2007 World Cup semifinals versus Japan) but never quite returned to that stellar form. His Cuban League record had some noteworthy features (379 Ks in 341 innings) but was on the whole disappointing (210 walks over the same span, only one career shutout, a lofty 3.72 ERA, an 0-2 post-season record, only one winning season in four tries).
Chapman pitched badly enough in last summer’s José Huelga Tournament in Havana to play himself off the Cuban Olympic roster, and while his fastball drew attention in two outings at the recent WBC, he was hardly dominant against either the Australians or the Japanese.
The bottom line is that Chapman has great potential and could well end up in a major league uniform. Certainly he will hold up some big league franchise for millions in signing bonuses and thus enrich both himself and some opportunistic player agent. But the jury is still out (and likely will be until at least September) regarding how badly this departure might actually damage Cuban national team prospects. The full impact of Chapman’s loss is especially open to question given what has transpired on the playing field at Neptunus Family Stadium in slightly more than 48 hours since his departure.
Little more needs be said at this point. As they say so often in Cuba, “el terreno va a decidir el juego.” MLB spring training lies only around the corner. Then and only then will be begin to see who is right and who is wrong on this one.
*Peter C. Bjarkman’s latest articles on Cuban baseball can be read at: www.baseballdecuba.com/indexeng.asp