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 Chapmansigned 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.
When you can signVladimir Guerrero for one year and just $6.5 million in guaranteed money, as the Rangers did this week, I suppose you have to do so, for the same reason you would buy a Rolls-Royce with no engine and no wheels at the right price. Who doesn't have some absurd and wonderful memory of Guerrero hitting a home run on a pitch that bounced off his shoe? Even on his worst days, when he can barely limp from the batter's box to the dugout, he still has the authority of a really great hitter, and if you squint at his numbers you can still mistake him for one. He was a notably better hitter after sitting out much of July, and if he can play 120 games, hit .300 and knock 25 home runs the Rangers will doubtless be pleased with their new prize.
Still, however much presence he carries, the Guerrero of today is nothing at all like the Expo who hit every pitch on the screws and could handle center field in a pinch. He's a designated hitter with a slowing bat who turns 35 in February and has the body of an older player. Just compare him to some similar hitters of recent vintage. These are all right-handed hitters with basically similar styles to Guerrero -- good average and power, moderate walks and strikeouts -- who hit about as well as he has recently going into their age-35 season. (OPS+ just indexes park- and league-adjusted on base plus slugging on a scale where 100 is average.)
It's interesting to note that the player Guerrero is for any number of reasons most reminiscent of, Andre Dawson, was the best of all these players at 35. As you can see, though, going by precedent, the odds are decent that Guerrero is done as anything but a decent hitter. That's what the Rangers are paying him to be, but not quite what they need in a tough division.
The Mets are fantastically embarrassing. On Thursday the team convened a conference call with assistant general manager John Ricco to proclaim that their ace center fielder, Carlos Beltran, had undergone knee surgery without their permission, and that they were going to... not do anything about it. Within hours, the player was flatly stating that he had talked to general manager Omar Minaya about the procedure and had been wished well. Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, went one better and suggested not only that he received consent from both Minaya and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon before the operation, but that Beltran's surgeon had been in touch with the Mets' physician and head trainer. According to Boras, he only heard objections from Mets brass the next day, while the surgery was ongoing.
Fans who think Boras is the devil would, believe me, think differently after spending an hour talking baseball with him. (The next best thing would be to read this terrific profile of the man.) So far as I've ever been able to figure, the whole secret to his success is his integrity; the man just doesn't outright lie, which oddly makes it easier to play on greed and desire. He'll arrange facts in ways that lead people to the conclusions he wants to draw, and let people infer what they want from things he isn't actually saying, but this is what lawyers do. On issues of fact there might not be anyone more trustworthy in the sport. If he says he got consent, he did.
Either the Mets didn't realize that they'd given it, or they did realize that they'd done so and then basically changed their minds. It's hard to tell which of the two possibilities would reflect more badly on them, but I'd go with the second. Either way, they've provoked a war with their best player, essentially challenging his honor, on the basis of what was at best a mistake. They've also made themselves look utterly impotent, exposed that the team functionally doesn't have a general manager, and drawn attention to an incredibly sketchy history of treating injuries. The best of it is that given the Willie Randolph firing, a shirtless V.P. challenging minor leaguers to a battle royal, the Adam RubinIncident, the Ryan Church Incident, Oliver Perez generally, etc., this may not be one of the top five Mets fiascoes of the past 18 months.
On the field, what matters is that Beltran is going to miss at least a month and maybe a lot more, and that there's no assurance that he's going to return from surgery the same player he was, especially defensively. Of course, knowing that their best player is a center fielder who's about to turn 33 and has a long history of leg and knee injuries, the Mets signed a statuesque left fielder to an expensive contract, meaning not only that Beltran is locked into center but that he'll have extra responsibilities there. The season may not be dead, but they're smiling in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami.
I recommend the White Sox to grieving Mets fans. They have the same sort of inferiority complex that the Mets do, but are run by much more competent and entertaining people. The Nationals are also a good alternative, since New Yorkers can get down to Washington to catch games without much trouble.
Since statistics are so important in baseball, it's always good to be reminded that they shouldn't be taken too seriously.
A correlation coefficient measures how closely related two numbers are, with +1 meaning a perfect linear relationship and -1 meaning the inverse. The following just shows how closely several factors correlated with team wins in 2009. This isn't especially meaningful... it's just interesting (particularly the difference between fielding percentage and UZR).
On-base average: 0.48Opening Day payroll: 0.47Fielding percentage: 0.39Market size: 0.35Unemployment rate as of November 2009: 0.33Batting average with runners in scoring position: 0.24UZR: 0.23Random number: -0.17
• You used to hear talk from time to time about the Jody Reed Award, named for the so-so shortstop who was once inexplicably offered a three-year, $8 million deal by the Dodgers, even more inexplicably turned it down, and ended up signing with the Brewers for the league minimum. I'm not sure it should be renamed for Adam LaRoche, but it's a question worth pondering. After reportedly turning down a $17 million offer from the Giants, he signed with the Diamondbacks this week for $6 million guaranteed.
• The beneficiary of LaRoche's negotiating savvy was Aubrey Huff, who will cost the Giants just $3 million. This might not be the best fit, as Huff's proper use would be as a first-rate bench player on a championship-level team, but he won't hurt the team in a regular role at first.
• The Marlins signedJosh Johnson to a four-year, $39 million deal, which honestly seems a bit pricey for a pitcher who has qualified for the ERA title once. Of course Florida is so cheap that central baseball and the union united to slap them this week, the baseball equivalent to the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants putting aside their differences to fight Sentinels, so it works from that angle.
• Sometimes you think there's no progress in the world, and then you see that Jose Valverde, a closer who led the National League in saves in 2007 and 2008 and then ran up a 2.33 ERA last year, signed with Detroit for two years, $14 million. Not that I like the deal, mind you, as Valverde will cost the Tigers a draft pick. Still, it wasn't so long ago that a guy who ran up a lot of saves would have been viewed as a great prize worth much larger sums of money.
• Another reason for Mets fans to embrace the White Sox: Their longtime backup Ramon Castro, who hit the ball like it owed him money during his years in Flushing, will be playing in Bridgeport again this year.
• If you're keeping track, I have no problem at all with Mark McGwire and will have none so long as he does nothing to screw up Albert Pujols' swing.