By TYLER KEPNER | New York Times
The winning bidder for Aroldis Chapman, a hard-throwing Cuban pitcher, is a midmarket team with nine losing seasons in a row. The Cincinnati Reds, of all teams, took a financial risk Monday for the potential reward of an ace starting pitcher.
“This is a very significant deal for this organization,” Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty said Monday at a news conference in Cincinnati. “If you look at the size of the market that we are here in Cincinnati, we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try to improve this franchise.”
Chapman, who turns 22 next month, is left-handed and young, and he has thrown 100 miles per hour. He has also been wild, and baseball history is littered with hard throwers who never consistently found the strike zone.
But the Reds, whose $72 million payroll ranked in the lower half of teams last season, cannot bid for established free-agent aces. They hope to have one in Chapman, who signed for six years and $30.25 million.
“You can certainly dream on his arm, and clearly they did,” said one general manager of an interested team, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about another team’s move. “He may be great, but you have to be willing to gamble.”
The Reds fit the profile of a team with little to lose. Their last winning season was 2000. They used six managers in the last decade and their attendance fell to 21,579 fans a game last season, their lowest since 1986. Still, the value of Chapman’s contract is not unprecedented for the Reds. They have five players (Bronson Arroyo, Francisco Cordero, Aaron Harang, Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen) who will make a greater average annual salary, and Cordero, an All-Star closer, is halfway through a four-year, $46 million deal.
Chapman’s contract could end up making sense for the Reds, given the rising price of starting pitching. The Milwaukee Brewers, a National League Central rival, spent $29.75 million last month to sign Randy Wolf for three years. Wolf is a proven commodity, but Chapman has a longer contract and enticing potential.
“This is a talent that doesn’t come along very often,” Jocketty said, adding later, “We see him as potentially a top-of-the-rotation starter at some point.”
Chapman was a guest of the Yankees for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series in October. But the Yankees, who want to keep their payroll around $200 million, did not want to enter a bidding war for a prospect they knew little about who could not be counted on this season. They never made an offer.
The Yankees and the Boston Red Sox bid against each other for another Cuban defector, the more experienced Jose Contreras, after the 2002 season. The Yankees won with a four-year, $32 million bid, and although Contreras helped the Chicago White Sox win the 2005 World Series, he was a disappointment as a Yankee.
The Red Sox were more interested than the Yankees in Chapman, reportedly offering $15.5 million last month. The Florida Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays were said to have made higher offers, but the Reds bid highest.
Chapman threw for several interested teams in December, but he is largely a mystery because of limited international experience. He pitched twice in the World Baseball Classic, allowing six hits, four walks and four earned runs in six and one-third innings, with eight strikeouts.
According to the Reds, in four seasons in Cuba, he was 24-19 with a 3.74 earned run average and 365 strikeouts — but also 203 walks — in 327 2/3 innings. He defected in July at a tournament in the Netherlands and established residency in Andorra to avoid being subject to the amateur draft.
“The best baseball players in the world are from the United States,” Chapman said through an interpreter, “and I think any baseball player in the world would like to play in the United States.”
His contract is another example of the value of elite young pitchers on the open market. The No. 1 pick in last June’s draft, the right-hander Stephen Strasburg, received the largest contract ever for a drafted player when the Washington Nationals gave him $15.1 million for four years. Chapman, because he was a free agent, commanded roughly twice that amount.