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El Sitio Web del Deporte Nacional de Cuba

- Aroldis Chapman Watch: Louisville Beginning to Look A Lot Like Holguín




Aroldis Chapman Watch: Louisville Beginning to Look A Lot Like Holguín

by Peter C. Bjarkman

June 18, 2010

No two ex-Cuban Leaguers have likely been more overhyped or overvalued than this spring’s latest pair of island “defectors” widely hailed as future big league franchise saviors—Aroldis Chapman and Noel Argüelles. When the Cincinnati Reds inked the flame-throwing Chapman to a six-year $30 million deal last spring the press (especially the Cincinnati press) was saturated with stories about 100-plus fastballs and can’t-miss big league stardom. And when the Kansas City Royals tossed a surprising $7 million at Habana Province washout Noel Argüelles (another southpaw strong on speed and weak on control) there were further hints that we might be on the verge of witnessing another second coming of Sandy Koufax or perhaps even Lefty Grove. As might have been expected, all the advanced hype has not been matched by the subsequent minor league trials of either island prospect. And it is hardly surprising to this writer, at least, that it has not taken very long for much of the glow to wear off of both of these latest stolen Cuban treasurers.

Aroldis Chapman
Louisville’s Aroldis Chapman is beginning to look just like the inconsistent prospect we once knew in Holguín.
There were many, of course, who questioned the wisdom of both lavish signings late last winter and this writer was admittedly one of the most outspoken if hardly the only “Doubting Thomas” in the crowd of second guessers. I voiced my own doubts loud in clear (not about Chapman’s arm but about his pitching maturity) in a lengthy three-part interview series for the Cincinnati-based “Mr. Redlegs” blog site. I also wrote similarly about Chapman’s first minor league victory on this website, after personally witnessing that game in Indianapolis back in late April. My complaint was never that Aroldis Chapman totally lacked big league prospects, but only that he was not “the unparalleled Cuban superstar” that some scouts, agents and media gurus were making him out to be. Chapman’s quite average four-season Cuban League record and marginal national team status was there for any who cared to look at the factual record. Yes, he owned three-digit speed on his fastball. But this alone has never guaranteed a plaque in Cooperstown or even a solid post in a big league starting rotation. Anyone who had seen them both pitch on more than a handful of occasions certainly had to know that Chapman was certainly no Stephen Strasburg.

Chapman has hardly been a bust at Cincinnati’s AAA outpost in Louisville, but he has hardly blown away the International League competition either. After his first dozen starts he owns a winning ledger (barely, at 5-4), he has struck out twice as many as he has walked (although untimely wildness has lead to defeat in his two most recent outings), and the league is hitting only .252 against him. In brief, if Chapman is not quite Strasburg, he doesn’t quite seem to be the close cloning of Liván Hernández, Orlando Hernández or Danys Báez either. He boasts only the second most wins on his AAA ballclub and also trails ace Travis Wood for the staff lead in strikeouts. Chapman’s ERA ranks number 31 in the entire league and fifth out of the six Louisville teammates who have started 7 or more games. He has been admittedly impressive in several outings—especially his opening pair; but then he has been entirely mortal in several others, especially his two June appearances. It is one thing being clubbed in Cuba by hitters like Freddie Cepeda or Alexei Bell, or Alfredo Despaigne; it is quite another being raked by a promising but untested minor leaguer like Pawtucket’s Tug Hulett (whose long ball slammed the barn door on Chapman in his worst showing on June 7). Many were speculating in March that the Cuban’s direct ticket to the Cincinnati rotation would be stamped as early as April; many must now be questioning whether or not he will get to the big time at all this year, especially if the Reds remain in the thick of a National League Central Division pennant race.

The latest Chapman outings seem to shed the most light on some of the obvious (and hardly new) chinks in the hard-throwing southpaw’s pitching armor. Against a Pawtucket Red Sox lineup that is anything but a big league contingent, the hard-throwing but erratic lefty never got through the third frame of a disastrous home field outing (June 7) that brought his third defeat and shoved his year’s ERA near the 4.50 mark. The Cuban was apparently unleashing 103 mph tosses (accordingly to the Louisville Slugger Field scoreboard radar reports) in his final warm-ups, stoking expectations from a sellout home crowd. But when he took the hill for live action the ace southpaw immediately gave up a leadoff single to Niuman Romero that touch off a shaky first frame. Chapman allowed one runner to steal second through inattentiveness, then wild pitched twice (the second errant heave pushing home the second run of the inning). The second frame began with a leadoff walk followed b y a two-run blast off the bat of Tug Hulett (Team USA’s second sacker in last fall’s World Cup). In the third the Cuban wild man walked four more, yielded another three tallies, and never retired even a single enemy batter before departing. Chapman did bounce back in a rematch versus Pawtucket one week later. Yet despite looking in the earlier innings of that second match more like his April persona than his June manifestation, he did nonetheless eventually commit the cardinal sin of walking home the game’s fateful lone run in a rain-shortened 1-0 defeat. As was so often the case back home in Holguín, a wild Chapman clearly beat himself in both of his most recent trials.

Despite a 5-4 winning ledger and four victories in May, Chapman’s month-by-month progress has been moving in anything but a positive direction. There was a brilliant start in April that saw an even split on the won-lost ledger but an impressive 1.29 ERA and a 22/12 K/BB ratio. There were four wins in five May starts, even if the important ERA numbers ballooned that month to 5.47, mainly due to a meltdown in a May 14 outing at Rochester. After three starts and a pair of losses so far in June, this month’s ERA now stands at 6.43. Chapman has also walked nearly as many as he has struck out in June (11 versus 15) and opponents are hitting .269 against him in his three brief outings—not bad, but a definite upswing from April (.192) and about the same as May (.289). This is not exactly eye-opening progress, even if it is also not an earthshaking slide. In fact this is not actually improvement by any measure—especially with a touted prospect many were tabbing as a sure thing for the big league club’s starting rotation only a couple of months back. In fact, the up-and-down level of performance is beginning to look distressingly just like his ledger for four full previous seasons in Holguín.

A recent story on the Louisville Bats web site (by Jason Stella on June 3) tries to put the most positive spin possible on Chapman’s solid if not spectacular season to date. But Stella’s positive spin on Chapman requires a great deal of serious “reading between the lines” to be very meaningful or enlightening. At the time he was writing, Stella could emphasize that Chapman already owned a team-high ten starts, was leading the club in victories (with five), owned an ERA in the league’s top twenty, and has survived four of five starts without allowing an earned run. Of course things have gone a bit south for the Louisville rookie in two succeeding weeks. But even at the time Stella had to concede that “over the first two months of the season Chapman’s biggest Achilles heel has been his control.” That is not news to anyone who followed his roller coaster career in Holguín or with the Cuban national team. Major control issues alone bumped Chapman from the Cuban Olympic squad during the June 2008 Huelga Memorial tune-up tournament in Havana (not fears of “defection” as some claimed in the US media). Apparently unaware of the level of competition in the Cuban League, author Stella concludes that since “this is the youngster’s first year at the professional level, the Reds’ brass will probably live with some struggles to get the ball over the plate.” All this of course begs the question of why one should assume that Chapman will suddenly somehow be coaxed to tame a too-lively fastball at the AAA level after repeatedly failing to do so for four seasons in a similar level of Cuban League competition.

Noel Argüelles
Noel Argüelles may yet prove to be the biggest disappointment of all among over-hyped Cuban recruits.
The issue has never been whether or not Chapman is a genuine big league hopeful. I have little doubt that he will pitch eventually for Cincinnati (and like the Hernández brothers, probably for a half dozen other franchises before his journeyman career is done). He may even in a year or two enjoy substantial if not considerable big league success. The question is simply whether or not Chapman indeed is the $30 million “phenom” he has been repeatedly sold as since breaking ranks with his homeland.

One major storyline has been repeatedly overlooked in all the stateside media speculation and ballclub propaganda about Aroldis Chapman. Let’s return to the inevitable comparison with Strasburg. Both entered the current campaign with nearly equal international tournament experience on their resumes, though Chapman might have had a slight leg up there—he pitched in one IBAF World Cup (2007) and one WBC (2009), whereas Strasburg pitched in only one Olympic Tournament (2008). But there is a world of difference between the pair when it comes down to previous professional seasoning. Strasburg entered an entirely new realm this spring when he jumped from college competition to the low minors, and then promptly leaped to AAA and then the majors in two quick almost overnight bounds. And he has adjusted rapidly and unfailingly in the process. Chapman was hardly the same kind of novice when he first pulled on a Louisville Bats jersey earlier this spring, despite the similarity in age.

The question with Chapman is not at all how much seasoning he needs at the higher levels of competition. That version is pure company propaganda and defensive spin from a Cincinnati front office now pressed to defend a GM’s lavish spending habits. This is a pitcher who for all practical purposes as been laboring and fine tuning at the AAA level for four seasons already and doesn’t seem now to be a whole lot better (more polished) than he was as a raw 19-year-old. The question, in truth, has to be instead why it is that Chapman hasn’t already made more progress than he has. Some will disagree with my assessment of the Cuban League as AAA in stature, and for sake of argument I will lower the comparison to AA. And yes the Cuban seasons are shorter by a third. So let’s say three year’s experience by North American pro standards. But the argument doesn’t change even with such modifications. For three-years-plus Chapman has already faced hitters like Cepeda, Gourriel, Despaigne, Urrutia, Enríquez and dozens more back in his own homeland. If anyone thinks that there are many batsmen on a par with say Cepeda or Despaigne (both major leaguers by any standard) in the current International League this year, then he simply hasn’t seen anything of either the Cuban League or the top international tournaments. After three years at that level of competition why isn’t Chapman further along in the mastering of his pitches, in his professional confidence, or in his command of his pitching strategies? There have to be some serious doubts here.

Chapman will pay some dividends in Cincinnati before it is all over, but I continue to suspend my judgment about $30 million worth. But then there is also the issue of Noel Argüelles, who might just be the biggest bust yet in the overselling of rather mediocre Cuban League talents. No one is a bigger champion of the Cuban League than I am, as all my readers know. I am not at all denigrating the level of island talent when I pick apart either Chapman or Argüelles; neither one was anything close to an island superstar. The problem here is that the large majority of ballplayers who have left the Caribbean island and reached the majors were not from the upper echelons of league talent. I have made this argument many times before, and I will not belabor it again here. Kendry Morales, Liván Hernández and El Duque are clear exceptions, of course. Alexei Ramírez, Yunel Escobar, Yunieski Betancourt and Danys Báez all showed great initial promise but have now slid to the same middle-level talent displays they earlier flashed in Cuba. But at least they were legitimate big leaguers in potential if not in staying power. But when it comes to, say, Yasser Gómez, Leslie Anderson, José Julio Ruíz, Yadel Martí and a handful of other recent so-called “defectors”—there I don’t think the big league talent stamp is anywhere nearly as clear cut. Aroldis Chapman also might yet prove to be closer in mold to Osvaldo Fernández or Yadel Martí, despite the eye-blinking fastball, elastic arm, and lithe 6-foot frame.

All of this second guessing about Aroldis Chapman eventually brings us back to Argüelles. Here is a pitcher that showed surprisingly little talent in Cuba beyond the national youth team level. Part of the problem may have been that Argüelles came to the Cuban League on the roster of a ball club with so much pitching talent that he never got a very good shot at making the grade. But that in itself speaks volumes. If Argüelles was worth $7 million than what were four or five of his Habana Province teammates (Jonder Martínez, Yadir Pedroso, Yulieski González, Miguel Lahera and Miguel Alfredo González) actually worth? Two of those guys—Jonder and Yadir—have been Cuban League ERA champs, Yulieski just missed that honor on this past season’s final weekend, and Miguel Alfredo was a top starter on September’s World Cup team in Europe. Noel Argüelles was lost in the shuffle as a 2007 season rookie in Habana Province, but his few opportunities to perform on the league’s most talented staff (15 appearances, 3 starts, a 0-5 ledger with a 7.23 ERA and almost twice as many walks as strikeouts) hardly seemed to have seven million bucks written all over them.

The irony here may well be that another recent “defector” still sitting unsigned down in the Dominican Republic seems to indeed be a legitimate potential big league starter—everything that Cincinnati and Kansas City have been claiming about Chapman and Argüelles. Yunieski Maya may be a few years older, but he was a true ace on a national team staff (2008 Olympics and 2009 World Baseball Classic) that Chapman had considerable trouble even qualifying for. Maya was by most measures the best pitcher in Cuba the season immediately before his June 2009 departure. Now we find out that Argüelles has a damaged arm and may be on the shelf for the entire summer. Compare Chapman so far to Strasburg or to his own Louisville teammate Travis Wood—or compare Argüelles to just about any other healthy prospect in the entire Kansas City organization. Either of those comparisons has to lead to a similar conclusion. It may not be clear yet how much money either the Reds or Royals organizations threw down the drain in their deals for over-sold Cuban talents. But it does seem that both clubs paid a heck of a lot more for their over-sold island prospects than they likely had to if any sanity still reined in the world of big league international talent hunting.



Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.