It is ironic one of the most coveted pitchers on the free agent market has not pitched in the major leagues. Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman is a 22 year-old left-hander with a 100 mph fastball. He first attracted attention at the World Baseball Classic, and then made headlines after defecting during a tournament in the Netherlands later in the summer.
Coming into this season, Chapman was considered one of three elite pitchers not under MLB contract (along with Stephen Strasburg and Japan’s Yu Darvish). Nevertheless, while I am perhaps wrong, investing huge money in Chapman seems like a mistake.
The first concern is the track record of Cuban pitchers upon reaching the major leagues. Even Cuba’s best pitchers—El Duque, Livan Hernandez, and Jose Contreras—were never as dominating as people predicted when they defected. More importantly, many Cuban pitchers such as Osvaldo Fernandez, Rolando Arrojo and Ariel Prieto defected with huge fanfare (and multi-million dollar contracts) only to have forgettable major league careers. In fact, Arrojo’s (pictured below) defection was listed as one of the ten “Loudest Statements in Olympic History” by the New York Post along with Jesse Owens’ performance in the 1936 Olympics and the Munich Terrorist attacks.
In addition to the track record of Cuban league pitchers, Chapman’s Cuban League numbers are a concern. In 2008, Chapman posted a 4.03 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 118 innings. Those numbers are decent (especially considering he is young), but they are nothing like El Duque (126-47 record) and Contreras (1.76 ERA), who both dominated the Cuban League before defecting. Therefore, it will take time before Chapman is ready.
Ironically, many Cuban hitters, who often defect with little fanfare/money, have successful major league careers. For example, Rey Ordonez had a productive 15-year career despite receiving no serious contract offers after defecting from the Cuban National Team in 1993. Also, Yunel Escobar and Alexei Ramirez both quickly developed into productive players after only receiving bonuses around $500k. Cuba’s most heralded hitting defector, Kendry Morales, is proving to be worth his $3 million bonus. The only bust I remember is Jorge Toca, whose claim to fame (after receiving $1.2 million) was often swinging so hard his bat would fly into the stands.
It will be interesting to see whether Chapman succeeds, but judging from previous performance, I think teams would be wiser to save their money and invest big money on players like Alfredo Despagne and Yulieski Gourriel if they defect.