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Prospect Prologue: Cuba’s Chapman Coming to America

Aroldis Chapman
Aroldis Chapman

Being left-handed and throwing 100 mph-plus does not guarantee success in the big leagues.

What’s guaranteed is, someone will pay to find out.

MLB ruled last week that Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman is now a free agent, after he vacated a team hotel in July at a tournament in Holland, and teams are lining up to get an up-close glimpse of the prized left arm that is considered to be the best in the world not yet in the majors. Only right-handers Stephen Strasberg and Yu Davish are regarded as better pitching prospects.

Chapman, 21, is very raw and lanky at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, but he has reportedly hit 102 mph on the radar gun. That’s harder than Clayton Kershaw or David Price. That’s Randy Johnson-in-his-prime fast.

The teams at the front of the line are, predictably, big market clubs – the Yankees, Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Red Sox – and I’d rank them in that order for their likelihood of signing the lefty version of Neftali Feliz.

Judging by the rules the Yankees applied to Joba Chamberlain and with Chapman having only thrown 118 innings in 2009, Chapman would likely be employed similarly to the way the Rangers used Feliz if he ends up in pinstripes.

Of course, sending Chapman to an instructional league will be the first order of business. Even though, like many Cubans, he has a vast arsenal of pitches (his mythical fastball, a slider, splitter, curveball and changeup), Chapman has struggled with walks at every station of his young career.

Pitching for Holguin of the Cuban league for the last four years, Chapman has amassed a 24-19 record, 3.74 ERA, 365 strikeouts and just 271 hits in 327.1 innings. The rub: 203 free passes and a 1.45 WHIP.

In the World Baseball Classic, where many first took notice of the prodigy, Chapman was dominant against Australia in pool play, allowing just 1 run, 1 walk, and fanning 7 in four innings. But vs. Japan in the second round, Chapman lasted only 2.1 innings with 3 runs, 3 hits, 3 walks and just one strikeout.

If Chapman can harness his control, build up his stamina (he’s a cigarette smoker), and handle the added responsibility that comes with a newfound multi-million-dollar bank account, he should at least wind up as the best pitching export ever from Cuba, better than Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras.

Because of his age (which seems more verifiable than some Latin American ballplayers) and immense upside, Chapman could command dollars on par with Contreras’ four-year, $32 million contract or Daisuke Matsuzaka’s six-year, $52 million deal (which totaled $103 million including the cost of negotiating rights), the largest sum ever given to a foreign free agent.

Needless to say, dynasty leaguers who miss out on Strasberg should aggressively target Chapman in next year’s draft, regardless of where he signs.