For Aroldis Chapman, though, defection was as easy as walking out the door. A former member of the Cuban national baseball team, Chapman was with the squad in the Netherlands on July 1 when he sauntered out of the team’s hotel, hopped in car with an acquaintance and drove away for good. Defection complete.
But there’s more to Chapman than just the quirky story of his expatriation. There’s a reason that he left his country: The kid can play baseball. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds, Chapman is one of the most intriguing baseball prospects in the world — and perhaps the most exciting international product since Daisuke Matsuzaka himself.
A mere 21 years old, Chapman throws a fastball that has been clocked as high as 102 miles per hour, as well as what scouts refer to as a “plus” curveball and a “plus” slider. And if that wasn’t enough to get your attention, he’s also a southpaw.
To put his heater in perspective, the left-handed starters in the majors with the highest average fastball velocity are CC Sabathia (94.2), Clayton Kershaw (93.9) and Jon Lester (93.6). Now, there’s obviously no way that Chapman could average a 102-mph fastball. But it’s surely not a stretch to imagine that he’d be among the cream of the crop in MLB.
So when will we see Chapman playing in the United States? As soon as next season.
A week ago, MLB officially declared Chapman a free agent. That means that any team can sign him — right now. Unlike the impending MLB free agents that will have to wait until November to consider deals from other teams, Chapman can ink a deal whenever he receives an offer that he likes.
And surprise, surprise: The Red Sox and Yankees are interested. As are the Angels, Mets and likely numerous other major league teams whose GMs have a pulse.
But let’s be honest, this one almost certainly is going to boil down to another classic showdown between the Red Sox and the Evil Empire. Everybody knows that the Yankees won the last contest for a talented Cuban import when they landed Jose Contreras in 2003 (though that one didn’t exactly work out the way they expected). And of course, the Red Sox took it to another level in their bid for Dice-K.
So who will sign Chapman? It likely will take a lengthy contract and a lot of money, and it is anybody’s guess who will dish out enough dough to satisfy Chapman’s demands.
One thing that’s for certain, though, is what Chapman will potentially bring to the table: superstar talent.
But still, he’ll have to go through a development phase like anyone else — and possibly a lengthy one. Despite his immense natural ability, Chapman hasn’t exactly dominated his competition. He posted a 4.03 ERA in the Cuban league last year and a 5.68 mark in the World Baseball Classic.
Most scouts agree that Chapman will have to spend some time in the minor leagues before he can help a big league club, as he has yet to truly harness his stuff. Nonetheless, he would be a valuable acquisition for any team, including the Red Sox.
The team could simply work him through the minor leagues the same way it did Junichi Tazawa, who made it from Double-A all the way to the majors this year. And while Chapman will probably get a much bigger contract than Tazawa — who signed for three years and $3.3 million — and quite possibly will need more time down on the farm, his potential impact as a big leaguer is greater.
The Red Sox seem to have their pitching pretty well covered for the next few years. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka all figure to be in the team’s rotation next season. Plus, they have guys like Tazawa and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings.
But as the old baseball adage goes — and as the organization learned this year — you can never have too much pitching. Sometimes players get injured, and sometimes they just aren’t effective. In those cases, it’s always nice to have a fireballer down in the minors just waiting for an opportunity to prove himself.
And in the worst case scenario, even if Chapman can’t crack the Red Sox’ starting rotation for a couple of years, he could certainly provide some support from the bullpen. After all, effective lefty relievers are already rare. One who could throw a 102-mph fastball would be wholly unique.