And the Cincinnati Reds did win the battle to land Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman.
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The 22-year-old left-hander’s suitors included baseball’s big spenders, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels, but his final decision came down to not only money but also opportunity. The Reds can open a spot for Chapman as soon as he shows he is ready for the big leagues. And what was even more important for the Reds is they were able to put together the deal without mortgaging their future or putting too much pressure on the present.
Chapman’s deal, which guarantees him at least $35.25 million over six years, is the biggest ever given an amateur player. The Reds, however, didn’t have to shortchange their big-league payroll or amateur scouting department to come up with the financial package.
“The structure of the contract is such that we have it spread out over a period of time and it does not impact negatively on any particular year,’’ said general manager Walt Jocketty. “One criticism we received was, `Why didn’t we spend $30 million to help the big league club this year.’ Truth is it doesn’t work that way. This is a long-term investment that we believe will have a long-term return.
“Obviously there is a risk involved, but we are not in a position to spend $80 million or $100 million on a free-agent pitcher.’’
If everything were to break right, Chapman will be the talk of spring training, pitch his way into the Reds’ season-opening rotation and make an instant impact. But even if it takes him a year or two before he establishes himself in the big leagues, the $30 million still averages out to a solid investment.
Consider that even in this offseason, which has been a buyer’s market, Ben Sheets was able to command a $10 million, one-year deal from Oakland, a team that battles its budget every year, much like the Reds. Sheets didn’t face a batter last year because of arm problems, and has made as many as 25 starts just once in the last five seasons.
The Dodgers just spent $47 million for three years on Jason Schmidt, during which he was 3-6 with a 6.02 ERA and appeared in 10 games.
Bottom line – any multiyear deal is a gamble.
And given Chapman’s age, the fact the lean and lanky lefty has a loose arm, and a fastball that is constantly in the upper 90s, the gamble is a bit less risky. That’s why the Yankees and Red Sox and Angels and Florida and Washington and Oakland and Toronto were all involved in the hunt only to be trumped by the Reds, who were considered more an afterthought than a prime option.
“It was like a marathon race,’’ said agent Randy Hendricks. “The Reds were always in the pack.’’
They broke away at the end.
“A left-handed pitcher with his talent doesn’t come along often,’’ said Jocketty. “We can’t compete with a large number of free agents with our market, but this is one investment we feel will pay dividends over a long period of times.’’
From a pitching standpoint, the Reds feel Chapman is on the verge of being ready. Before pitching coach Bryan Price even began to work with him, Price said Chapman had “tightened up’’ the sweeping breaking ball that scouts were concerned about, and also eliminated a back-leg collapse that had him pitching uphill.
Life away from the ballpark, however, is the challenge for Chapman.
“Baseball is the least of our concerns,’’ said Reds manager Dusty Baker. “He’s in a new country, without his family. He is dealing with a new culture, a new variety of food, a new language. We have to make him feel as comfortable as possible.’’
It has been a challenging time for Chapman, who defected from the Cuban national team during a tournament in Amsterdam last July, leaving behind not only his parents and siblings, but also his wife and a daughter, who turns eight months on Sunday, according to Reds minor-league pitching coach Tony Fossas.
Fossas is a Cuban native who was fortunate enough to have his entire family allowed to come to the United States when he was 8. He now is a guiding force for Chapman, helping him understand his new life, and translating questions and answers.
“It was very difficult (to defect), but in Cuba they say, `You have to be brave and have to make a move,’’’ Chapman said.
He has had no communication with his family since he defected and doesn’t know when he will be in touch with them again, much less see his wife or daughter.
“You never know,’’ he said. “I hope sometime, if God provides, maybe sometime in the next year.’’
By then, Chapman could well already be established in the big leagues.
“Obviously the sooner he gets to the big leagues the better for us, but we are not going to rush him,’’ said Jocketty. “We want him to be ready to stay once he gets to the big leagues.’’