- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Shortly after Cincinnati signed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million contract in January, general manager Walt Jocketty began reading and hearing industry critiques of the transaction. And the baseball man in him wondered why others were so quick to detect flaws that the Reds never saw.
Even as scouts and anonymous executives gushed in unison over Chapman's live left arm and triple-digit fastball, many questioned his secondary pitches, maturity level and willingness to embrace instruction. Some said the Reds drastically overspent on a pitcher who's a long way from the majors and who might be better-suited to the bullpen than the rotation because of his inability to throw strikes consistently.
Six weeks later, with the benefit of hindsight, Jocketty is still puzzled by the disconnect.
"We keep reading about his maturity," Jocketty said. "But from everything we've seen, he's a very mature kid, and very intelligent and baseball-savvy. I wonder what people are basing [their comments] on, because it's not like the Cuban coaches are going to tell you that. Maybe it's coming from guys who couldn't get him signed."
At the moment, the Reds don't know for sure if Chapman will push for a spot on the Opening Day roster or begin this season with Triple-A Louisville, Double-A Carolina or even their high-A Lynchburg club.
According to Baseball-reference.com, more than 70 native Cubans have pitched in the majors. Will Chapman leave an enduring mark, a la Luis Tiant, Mike Cuellar, Camilo Pascual and the Hernandez brothers, or fall more on the Osvaldo Fernandez-Rene Arocha-Ariel Prieto end of the spectrum?
At 22, Chapman is a lanky, loose-limbed mystery that only time, patience and lots of innings can decipher. In the meantime, he's generating a buzz in the Cactus League as a sort of Stephen Strasburg West.
Chapman threw his third bullpen session of the spring Monday at the Reds' new Cactus League home, and a crowd of team officials, media members and assorted onlookers assembled to watch him pop catcher Ramon Hernandez's mitt with fastballs.
Shortly thereafter, Chapman sat down for a let's-get-this-out-of-the-way media scrum. Judging from the sentiments expressed by Jocketty, manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price, they're as interested as everybody else to determine precisely what they have.
The only certainty is that Chapman's timetable will be dictated solely by what he has to offer on the mound. The Reds will throw him into the mix with Matt Maloney, Justin Lehr, Travis Wood, Micah Owings, Mike Leake, Mike Lincoln and Kip Wells for the fifth spot in the rotation, and refrain from making a decision based on potential gate receipts or dollars invested.
"We've got to put the money behind us and realize he's one of us and make him feel as comfortable as possible," Baker said. "If you're better than him, you're gonna pitch. And if you're not better than him, he's gonna pitch. That's as simple as it gets."
It's hard to distill the emotion that Chapman must be feeling into convenient sound bites right now. Chapman defected during an international tournament in the Netherlands last July, reportedly leaving his hotel room in Rotterdam, jumping into a car and motoring toward a brand new life.
The Reds outbid the Oakland A's and several other clubs and signed Chapman to a complex deal that could increase in value depending on how quickly he arrives in the majors. The money, astounding as it is, can't obscure the inevitable withdrawal pangs: Chapman's family, wife and 8-month old daughter, Ashanti Brianna, are still in Cuba, and he must be content with phone updates and the prospect of a reunion down the road.
"It was a very hard decision," Chapman said through his interpreter. "But as they say in Cuba, you have to be brave and you have to make the move."
Chapman's facial features are reminiscent of a young Dwight Gooden, and he has a smile that can light up a room. He speaks almost no English and does interviews with the help of Tony Fossas, a former big leaguer and pitching coach for Cincinnati's Class A Dayton farm club.
We've got to put the money behind us and realize he's one of us and make him feel as comfortable as possible. If you're better than him, you're gonna pitch. And if you're not better than him, he's gonna pitch. That's as simple as it gets.
”-- Reds manager Dusty Baker
Chapman's natural athletic gifts transcend cultural and language barriers. Although he's not as flexible as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who could lift a leg over his head and contort his body into a multitude of unrecognizable positions, he's not lacking for agility.
"I've seen him in the infield and handling a bat," Price said. "I've seen him just as a baseball player, and I'm not going to say it's abnormal. But he is some kind of loose and athletic. And he should be. He's 21 years old, for Pete's sake."
Jocketty noticed another feature that helps contribute to Chapman's nasty slider.
"Did you see the size of his hands and the length of his fingers?" Jocketty said. "My God -- they're huge."
Chapman's early interactions with teammates and the Reds' staff dispel the notion that he's strictly a thrower. In January, he worked out with Price in Arizona for a week. Each night, Price would e-mail Jocketty with another update or insight about Chapman's feel for the game and coachability.
After watching Chapman pitch in the World Baseball Classic, Price detected a couple of mechanical flaws. But Chapman has already tightened up his slow, sweeping breaking ball, and he now stands taller on his back leg to prevent his back side from collapsing. His 6-foot-4 inch frame is more imposing when he's pitching downhill rather than laterally.
"The second day or so here, we were working on his pickoff move to first base," Price said. "I went to give him a little pointer and he said, 'No, that's not my good move,' and the next thing you know, he has three or four different moves. I was like, 'Who's teaching who right now?'"
The Reds have a large and gregarious Latin contingent, with closer Francisco Cordero and young starters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto leading the way. Chapman sat with the group at a table in the team's spacious clubhouse Monday and appeared comfortable on the fringes watching the others joking and carrying the conversation.
In quieter, one-on-one moments, Chapman is like a sponge. Yonder Alonso, a Reds prospect and native Cuban who played college ball at Miami, is among the teammates trying to ease Chapman's transition.
"He's always asking questions and trying to learn from everybody," Alonso said. "Things like, 'What time do I have to be here?' Or, 'What do I have to wear?' My first spring training I didn't know anything, either, but at least I could understand what people were saying. He doesn't understand anything and he's by himself here, so it's rough."
Chapman played first base as a youngster and didn't begin pitching until age 15, so the Reds place him in a different category from some of the older pitchers who fled Cuba for a shot at the majors. Unorthodox as it seemed for small-market Cincinnati to dabble in such a high-profile international free agent, the Reds view this as a long-term union that requires perspective and care.
"We have a heck of a place to start," Price said. "He's a tremendous worker and a really focused kid. Let's let him go out and pitch and see what he does, and not set the expectations on where he's going to start and what type of statistics he's going to have and 'Will he be Randy Johnson?' Just let him pitch and see where he falls."
Fair enough. The Reds have made their investment. If Aroldis Chapman is everything they expect him to be, they'll give him all the time he needs.