History Stacked Against Reds, Chapman
But their next fight is with history.
And history says that Major League Baseball clubs, especially small- and mid-market clubs, hoping to get healthy in a hurry by signing pitching out of Cuba have a tough go of it.
Chapman, who is just 22 and who has been clocked with a 100-mph fastball, could be the real deal. But in the last two decades, Cuban pitching has proven to be anything but.
True, Orlando "El Duque'' Hernandez went 29-13 his first two years with the Yankees and Livan Hernandez, Danys Baez and Jose Contreras all made All-Star teams, but since the early 1990s, pitchers who got their start in Cuba are under .500 as a whole (486-493) and the only small- to medium-market team to pluck a gem was Florida with Livan Hernandez, although he only spent 2 1/2 seasons as a Marlin.
The Oakland A's once thought they had a Chapman-like pitcher when they drafted right-hander Ariel Prieto with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft after he'd immigrated from Cuba to Puerto Rico. Prieto made his debut with the A's less than a month after being drafted, but he never hit his stride in the U.S. and was finished by 2001, compiling a 15-24 record and 4.85 ERA.
"The lesson learned going forward was that we only saw him a couple of times,'' Oakland general manager Billy Beane told FanHouse Wednesday. Beane was the assistant GM back when Prieto was drafted and said "I think with the benefit of hindsight, we overvalued Ariel.''
"It's not that he couldn't pitch,'' Beane said. "He had a fastball that was 93-94 with a phenomenally sharp slider. His stuff was legit. There is no getting around the fact that he had very good stuff, but there is more that goes into creating a long-term big league career.''
Prieto, who was 25 when he was dogged by injuries, was attractive to Oakland because the A's were an aging team with a decent offense that could have been greatly benefited by the introduction of a first-class arm in the rotation. They were sitting at .500 and very much in the American League West race at the time of the draft, but wound up finishing 10 games under .500 in the strike-shortened season.
"There was a certain amount of novelty for us with the pick,'' Beane said. "And there was a certain amount of mystery and intrigue to Cuban players back then. There still is, somewhat. Back then, you didn't have the information you would have had on other players, and even now you still struggle to get the background on the players you'd like to have [out of Cuba].
"Ariel was a bright guy, and he assimilated here, and he learned to communicate quickly, but the injuries never allowed him to go through the normal development process. Looking back, we just had so little information on him.''
The problem, then and now, rests in the endless boycott of all things Cuban by the United States and by the fact that to become eligible to play in the majors, most Cuban players have to flee their homeland in the dark of night, leaving -- as Chapman has -- friends, family and any support group behind.
Because of the boycott, which is almost five decades old, major league scouts have much less access to Cuban players, generally seeing them only in international amateur competitions or, in recent years, the World Baseball Classic.
To some degree, the Reds and the other teams bidding on Chapman in recent months have faced that same information deficit. Things are better, and it should be pointed out that the A's were right up there with the Reds and the Nationals in bidding for the pitcher who has the highest profile coming out of Cuba since Contreras defected in 2002.
The advent of the World Baseball Classic gave scouts a chance to compare Chapman and other Cuban players with players from the majors, minors and other international leagues.
Still, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is taking something of a risk. $30.25 million is a serious commitment to make to a player who has spent only minimal time on the Cuban national team. In the WBC, Chapman had a 5.68 ERA, and in last year's Cuban national tournament, his ERA was 4.03.
And there is the rumor -- and to this point it is nothing more than that -- of Chapman being five years older than his listed age. If it's true, the Reds have taken on a pitcher in his prime rather than at the beginning of his career.
Signing Chapman is a major gamble for a team that is young. But on a non-financial level, the Reds have nothing to lose. They can go with Chapman in the rotation to open the season or bring him in partway through 2010. It's not like the Reds are going to win it all this year. What they do have is a chance to get a flock of young players the experience they will need to compete in 2011 and beyond.
"In our workout, he threw between 94 and 97 [mph],'' Beane said. "That's pretty phenomenal in itself. When you look at what he brings, he looks very good compared to what else [was] out there. His physical talent makes him worth the gamble.''
History is watching.