All the hype surrounding Jason Bay, Matt Holliday and John Lackey is only going to build higher as the 2009 baseball season wraps up. But when all's said and done, the biggest impact free agent might end up being none of the above.
If you don't yet know the name Aroldis Chapman, learn it now. And don't forget it for the next decade. Chapman, a 21-year-old Cuban defector currently attempting to break into pro baseball in the States, has been billed by many as one of the best pitchers on the planet. But no one's heard of him yet.
He has a fastball that was clocked as high as 102 mph during this spring's World Baseball Classic. He has the potential to be one of the all-time greats. Now all he needs is a team to give him a chance.
A bunch of clubs are fighting over Chapman, and the struggle isn't likely to end soon.
Chapman met last week with the Mets. The Tigers are trying to schedule a meeting. The Mariners are in hot pursuit. The A's are showing interest. Even the Orioles, one of the worst teams in baseball, are making their bid to sit down with Chapman and make a deal.
But if you're looking for the front-runners in the Chapman sweepstakes, you know where to look.
The Red Sox and Yankees are the usual suspects in any big-money free-agent negotiations, and this winter should be no different. They fought over Jose Contreras in 2002, they fought over Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006, and now they're poised to do battle for Chapman, who has the raw talent to turn out better than both of them.
Seven years ago, the Yankees were a dominant force on the international free-agent market. Their power went unchecked. They outspent the Red Sox and everyone else in the '02 offseason for Hideki Matsui. Days later, they did the same for Contreras. The Red Sox were missing out on some of the best talent money could buy, and they knew it.
"Obviously, we are disappointed," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein told ESPN.com back in 2002. "We made every reasonable effort and then some to sign Jose Contreras. Jose is a special pitcher, but there is a certain amount of risk involved in signing pitchers who have never thrown an inning of professional baseball. Recognizing that risk, we went to the limit of fiscal sanity with our offer and would not go beyond."
That was then. This is now.
A lot has changed since 2002. The Red Sox still have their fiscal sanity, to an extent — but the lines have blurred a bit. There's sanity, and then there's the drive to win a championship. When the two values clash, sanity doesn't always win.
In '06, the Red Sox won 86 games, finishing third in the American League East. It was their first time outside the division's top two in nearly a decade. So rather than take it sitting down, the Sox got out there and spent.
When Dice-K appeared on the open market, fiscal sanity went out the window. The Red Sox forked over $51,111,111.11 just for the right to talk to the Japanese right-hander. And after a month of negotiations with the pitcher and his agent, Scott Boras, the team agreed to pay him $52 million more over the following six years. When times were tough and they needed it most, the Red Sox found a way to outspend the hated Yankees.
Will it happen again? It depends. We don't know yet how desperate the Yankees are this time around — that, of course, depends on whether they come out firing this week and win their first World Series since 2000. If they win it all, then maybe they'll ease the foot off the gas pedal a little bit. But if not, the race for Chapman is on.
The Cuban lefty scheduled a bullpen session at Fenway Park for Wednesday. The Red Sox are getting a good, long look at him, and if they like what they see, an offer will surely be forthcoming.
But the Yanks are hot on the trail as well. In fact, when they won the American League pennant at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night, Chapman was in attendance as the team's guest. The pitcher now knows what it's like to experience a championship in Yankee Stadium — he's seen it firsthand.
Everyone will do what they can to woo Chapman this offseason. There will be stadium visits, throwing sessions and meetings of all shapes and sizes. But in the end, it's probably going to come down to money.
In the old days, the Red Sox would have been outclassed in that department. But now, the Sox may be willing to spend whatever it takes. Expect them to take a gamble on Aroldis Chapman this winter.
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