Big bonuses for Cuban players a gamble for ballclubs

BY foxsports • January 15, 2010

In explaining the six-year, $31 million, record-setting contract that Cincinnati gave Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty talked about the need for small-market teams to make "bold moves’’ at times.

They also have to pray the bold moves work.

The fact the Reds were able to sign him was a positive from a publicity standpoint in that they beat out two big spenders, the Angels and the Red Sox. Now, the Reds have to cross their fingers and hope Chapman produces.

Consider that a major difference between the small-market and big-market teams is a big-market team that makes a mistake can cover it up with another major cash outlay, but a small-market team that makes a mistake suffers with the financial consequences.

The Angels, as an example, went overboard to sign Gary Matthews Jr., realized he was not the answer in center field, so even though he had four years and $42 million remaining on his contract, they made another free-agent investment and gave Torii Hunter a five-year, $90 million deal, leaving Matthews in a backup role.

The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, gave Eric Byrnes a three-year, $30 million contract to stay in Arizona, and when he couldn’t handle the everyday responsibilities, instead of being able to pour more money into the payroll to cover up the glaring hole, Arizona was left to mix-and-match and get by as best it could until the contract expires.

All of this leads back to the unique situation in which the Cuban defectors find themselves. They are able to create artificial financial levels that no other players can enjoy. Players who are from the United States, its territories or Canada — or foreign players who attend school in the United States — have their leverage limited by the draft. Even foreign players, such as the Dominicans, face some restrictions because of the sheer number of players who are eligible to sign each year.

The Cuban, however, creates a one-man market. The defections are limited, and so when a player emerges, he finds himself as the sole target in a bidding war, where prices are inflated well above the level a player of similar abilities would receive otherwise.

It’s a reminder why Marvin Miller, the man behind the emergence of the Major League Baseball Players Association as a major power, said when free agency first was broached, his major concern was owners would allow every player to become a free agent every year and flood the market with talent.

That’s why Miller was so quick to accept arbitration as a consolation prize for passing on the fight for free agency, and it’s why Miller was not reluctant to create free-agent requirements that included big-league service time — currently a minimum of six years — before a player could become a free agent. He wanted to limit the market.

Nowhere is the market more limited than with the Cubans. The result is inflated signing bonuses.

Chapman is a perfect example. Not only did he receive the largest signing bonus ever given a Cuban — $16.25 million, but the total deal, which is a big-league contract, guarantees him another $14.75 million over the next six years.

Out of control?

Stephen Strasburg was the No. 1 pick in last June’s draft, earning praise as being among the most polished amateurs to come out of college baseball, if not the most polished ever. He signed a four-year, $15.1 million deal with the Washington Nationals, the most money ever guaranteed a player signed out of the draft – roughly half the amount guaranteed Chapman, 22 (Strasburg is 21).

Unlike Chapman, however, whose history, both medically and personally, is limited because of the secrecy under which the Cubans operate their baseball program, Strasburg has a well-documented background that the Nationals were able to investigate before they made their financial commitment.

And to think, agent Scott Boras was actually ridiculed for suggesting at times Strasburg was worth at least $50 million.

What’s the difference? The negotiating leverage. Strasburg’s leverage was the threat to return to San Diego State or play in an independent league, because the only team he could negotiate with was Washington. Chapman, meanwhile, was able to play all interested teams against each other, an obvious advantage for him over American amateurs.

And the Cubans are no different from Americans or other Latinos or Asians. They don’t come with guarantees, even if the bidding for the Cuban player has taken off this offseason.

Chapman is the third Cuban defector signed this offseason, joining shortstop Jose Antonio Iglesias Aleman, whom Boston gave a $6.25 million signing bonus, and left-hander Noel Arguelles, whom Kansas City gave a $3.4 million bonus. In the past decade, there have been only four other Cubans to receive bonuses of as much as $3 million.

And there has been a reward to varying degrees for the risk.

Last season, the Angels began to see a return on their $3 million signing bonus investment in Kendry Morales back in December 2004. In his first full big-league season, Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs.

Jose Contreras was the previous record-holder of bonus money for Cubans, with $6 million from the Yankees in February 2003. He has added another $61 million in salary in his seven years in the big leagues, during which time he is 71-63 with a 4.61 ERA, but only 23-36 the past three years, with his age -- he admits to being 38 – catching up quickly.

Danys Baez, who received a $4.5 million signing bonus from Cleveland at age 22, made it to the big leagues in 2001, but is only 35-49 with a 4.04 ERA, and in the past four years he has only 12 saves, a 5.30 ERA and a 9-18 record.

The White Sox gave third baseman Dayan Viciedo a $4 million bonus a year ago, and he debuted in pro ball by reaching Double-A last year.

Of the 17 other Cuban defectors signed in the past decade, nine have made it to the big leagues, but that includes the likes of right-handed pitcher Alay Soler, who repaid the Mets' $1.6 million signing bonus in November 2004 with a brief and ineffective big-league appearance. He made eight starts for the Mets in 2006 (2-3 with a 6.00 ERA) and was out of organized baseball by June 2007.

The only two of the 17 who have established themselves in the big leagues are shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, whom Seattle signed for $1.31 million in December 2004, and infielder/outfielder Alexei Ramirez, given a $500,000 signing bonus by the White Sox two years ago.

Seven of the 17, in fact, have already been released — Soler, right-handed starter Yoslan Herrera, who received $750,000 at 25 from Pittsburgh for the 2007 season; third baseman Andy Morales, who received $500,000 at 26 from the Yankees for the 2001 season; first baseman Juan Diaz, who received $400,000 from the Red Sox at 26 for the 2003 season; right-handed pitcher Gary Galvez, who received $400,000 from the Red Sox at 18 for the 2003 season; right-handed pitcher Julio Villalon, who received $300,000 from Tampa Bay at 21 for the 2000 season; and right-handed pitcher Roberto Sotolongo, who received $200,000 from the Cubs at 21 for the 2004 season.

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