Hot Stove Report: Reds made a good, not great, bet on Chapman
Locked out of the U.S. by a war that ended two decades ago, best seen abroad at tournaments watched by few Americans who aren't paid to take in games, Cuban ballplayers are men about whom we know nothing in an age when we know more than we'd like to about nearly everyone else. This makes them mysterious and attractive. So the surprise isn't that Aroldis Chapman signed a six-year contract worth at least $30 million this week, but that he didn't sign for more.
A long 22-year-old whose fastball has allegedly lit guns at 102 miles per hour has an obvious appeal. One whose life has already led him from Holguin to Rotterdam and beyond, and whose name alone conjures blue smoke, old pianos and whatever else it is that people think of when they think of Cuba, has even more. Mystique, though, has yet to win a major league ball game, and if the Cincinnati Reds ever regret signing Chapman, it will be because they paid for it.
"When you look at the size of the market where we are in Cincinnati," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said at the press conference announcing the signing, "we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try and improve this franchise." True to a point, but better sharp moves than bold ones.
The issue isn't actually the famed $30 million. Lots of bad players make lots more than $5 million per year, and even a relatively poor team like the Reds can afford the loss Chapman that will represent if two weeks from now he falls into stately love with steakhouses, bars and ponies. The issue is the peculiar structure of his contract, which guarantees the player a lot and the team a little. This is where the Reds overpaid, and in a way one doubts they would have for someone without Chapman's aura.
According to reports, Chapman will be paid a $16.25 million signing bonus and annual salaries of $1 million over the next two years, $2 million in the two after that and $3 million the year after that. He also has a $5 million player option for 2013. The trick -- credit his agents, the Hendricks brothers -- is that if he pitches enough to qualify for salary arbitration after 2012 or 2013, he earns bonus money and enters the arbitration process.
This is confusing, so think of it in terms of an unlikely scenario. Say Chapman is so blindingly good this spring that the Reds are forced to bring him up within the first six weeks of the season, and that from then through the end of the contract he pitches like a true ace, a $25 million a year pitcher. The Reds will owe him his $16.25 million bonus, $4 million in salary, another $5 million bonus, and whatever arbitrators award him in the final three years of his contract. Using the rule of thumb that players get 40% of their market value in the first year of eligibility, 60% in the second and 80% in the third, Chapman could earn another $45 million. The Reds would thus have paid him about $70 million.
No worries for Reds fans: This won't happen, and if it does they'll manage to deal with having a perennial Cy Young candidate. Still, the risk:reward ratio seems slightly off. The Reds will have to choke on tens of millions of dollars worth of lost potential if Chapman never does anything. If he's good, they'll pay out lots.
Take a somewhat more realistic scenario, in which Chapman comes up late this year or at the beginning of next year, and is a solid No. 3 starter, the sort of player you'd pay $10 million a year to secure as a free agent, through the rest of his contract. In that case the Reds would be paying something like $40 million for $60 million worth of performance. That would be a good deal but not a great one.
Past the contract details, any longtime fan should be able to name a half-dozen pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and supposedly crisp sliders who never did a thing, few of whom were being asked to make a cultural adjustment like the one Chapman will have to make. And there are other concerns. Peter Bjarkman, author of a well-received history of Cuban baseball and an observer of the island's baseball scene, has questioned the player's work ethic and pitching intelligence and pointed out his sketchy history in international competition and in the Cuban league, where he walked 5.5 per nine innings. Take Bjarkman's opinion for what it is, but the rest is hard fact. Chapman is not a tested ace like Orlando Hernandez or Jose Contreras, and he's nowhere close.
For all that, I love this deal. I love that the Reds are laying marks on real talent rather than squandering $5 million on Kyle Farnsworth or someone like him. I love that Reds fans are (rightly) so excited about this. I love that Chapman can finally start thinking about the best players in the world rather than worrying about money. Mostly I love that it was the Reds, rather than the Yankees or Angels, who signed him.
I think baseball should abolish the first-year player draft. It's absurd on its face -- imagine Google getting its pick of top graduates from MIT, Stanford and Chicago because it held a top draft slot over Microsoft and IBM -- and it doesn't help teams in small or poor markets as much as is commonly supposed. People object because they think teams like the Reds would never be able to compete with the Red Sox and Mets for top talent. That they have the man with the 102 mph fastball, and that they were competing with teams like the Blue Jays and A's to get him, shows that isn't necessarily true.