September 21, 2009

NEW YORK -- The streets of Andorra, the tiny European nation nestled between the French-Spanish border, are a shopper's dream. The duty-fee nation is home to retailers offering the finest fragrances, the most precious of gems, and now, one of the most coveted of pitching arms. Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban left-hander equipped with a 102 mph fastball, established residency last week in Andorra, has learned.

Chapman's Andorran residency clears the first and most difficult of the three major hurdles to becoming a major league free agent. Because Chapman had his passport -- an almost unheard of occurrence for a Cuban defector -- establishing residency took a fraction of the time needed for most defectors and may make him available for free agency before the playoffs begin, his agents say.

Edwin Leonel Mejia of Athletes Premier International, Chapman's agent, says his client's Andorran papers "creates a new channel for players to establish residency." Cuban defectors have historically chosen Latin American nations like the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, or Guatemala for establishing residency. By becoming a citizen of a country besides the United States, Cuban players circumvent the U.S. embargo with Cuba and slip through a major league loophole which allows players from the third-party countries to enter the lucrative free-agent market rather than be subjected to the draft, where slotting systems help to control prices.

Mejia calls Chapman's European residency "the most important baseball event" in the continent's history. Major League Baseball began an aggressive campaign to expand its reach in Europe. The Atlanta Braves, for example, opened an academy this spring in the Canary Islands.

Chapman's career record is 24-21 and he twice led the Serie Nacional, Cuba's professional league, in strikeouts. Despite the mediocre record, the money Chapman will command is expected to exceed the $32 million signing bonus the New York Yankees paid Cuban right-hander Jose Contreras, who was 31 when he joined the Yankees in 2002. Andorra's lack of income tax means Chapman will pocket all of that money, Mejia says.

Industry sources expect big-market behemoths like the Red Sox and Yankees to open their wallets for Chapman, while one scouting director tells that Chapman projects as a middle reliever rather than a high-dollar starter. But Chapman will be in what some baseball insiders describe as a shallow free-agent pitching pool, thereby driving up his price.

The 6-foot-3, 185-pound pitcher walked away from his hotel in Rotterdam, Holland on July 1, when the Cuban national team was preparing to play in an international tournament. While most Cubans don't defect until they are past their prime, Chapman, at age 21, is a rarity in that he has time to go along with his talent. Chapman has petitioned Major League Baseball to be declared a free agent.

Lastly, the pitcher will have to go through a process known as unblocking, where the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control must ensure that the pitcher's employment doesn't violate the United States embargo with Cuba. Andorra, then, will have one more luxury item to call its own.

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