The visit by Cuba’s “second string” national team to this year’s Rotterdam World Port Tournament in The Netherlands grapped attention this week for the news that southpaw phenom Aroldis Chapman had abandon the Cuban contingent on the eve of last Thursday’s opening contest with the host Netherlands. While Chapman has drawn the attention of MLB scouts for his blazing fastball (once clocked at 102-mph earlier this season in National Series play), his record in Cuba has been spotty and he pitched himself off of last summer Beijing Olympic squad with consistent subpar performances during the June José Huelga Tournament in Havana. While Chapman may have a bright pro future, he was pencilled in as the number four starter (behind Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, lefty Maikel Folch, and 20-year-old Freddy Asiel Alvarez) on the current Cuba B squad. His departure therefore may well have little impact on Cuba’s national team plans for the upcoming September IBAF World Cup tournament in Europe.
The below three paragraphs touching on Chapman’s “defection” are lifted from my recent www.baseballdecuba.com WPT report filed yesterday on the tournament’s opening two days (in which Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and Maikel Folch both pitched brilliantly in consecutive shutouts of The Netherlands and Japan). For the full story and continued Rotterdam coverage see our tournament webpage at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/rotterdam2009.asp.
This year’s visit to Rotterdam would seemingly not contain the same exacting demands of last year’s Haarlem Olympic tune-up. It is true enough that there will be enormous pressures on the Cuban World Cup squad in September to atone for a series of recent disappointments (the second-place finishes at the 2007 Taiwan World Cup and 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the failure to reach the final round at this spring’s second edition of MLB’s World Baseball Classic). But this is not at all the same ball club that the Cuban Federation will field come September, and the island’s World Cup hopes are in no way hanging on the performances of this month’s Rotterdam contingent. Nonetheless things did not start out well this week in The Netherlands, with one major setback coming before Machado’s club even had a chance to take the field. On the eve of the opening game there was already a major disruption in the form of the unexpected “defection” of star pitcher Aroldis Chapman from the Cuban camp. Long coveted by major league scouts for his limber portside arm and touted 100-mph fastball, Chapman decided to make a break for the seeming Promised Land of untold big league riches. The blow was probably more psychological than strategic, since it is not at all apparent at this point in time just how seriously Chapman figured in Cuba’s September World Cup plans.
Chapman remains a considerable mystery and his future in North American professional baseball is not easy to predict. The 21-year-old Holguín lefty has opted to trade potential gold medals for designer golden neck bracelets and a huge bank account–that much is certain. But will he become the next José Contreras or the next Maels Rodríguez? Contreras, of course, had accomplished far more in both international and domestic play by the time he abandoned the island back in 2003 while touring in Mexico. Rodríguez broke every imaginable strikeout record on the island before suffering an unfortunate arm injury that ruined his pro prospects even before his own departure later that same year. Chapman definitely has his negatives, foremost among them a demonstrated lack of strike-zone control, a one-pitch arsenal, and an inconsistent Cuban League performance over four National Series campaigns. Hurling for a Holguín club that made this year’s post-season and has been largely a middle-of-the-pack outfit during Chapman’s tenure, the southpaw flame thrower has won only slightly more than half his decisions (24-21), though he did enjoy his best season (11-4 and a league-best 130 Ks in 118 innings) this past winter. He has twice topped the 100 K mark but never approached Maels’s record-setting standards. Chapman is definitely more a raw “thrower” than a savvy “pitcher” and numerous questions surround his abilities to master the finer details of his craft. But Aroldis Chapman has definitely already displayed one easily definable characteristic of a true major leaguer: by abandoning his teammates on the eve of an important international tournament (and thus leaving the squad short of starting pitchers) he has dramatically signaled that personal career advancement for him far outweighs any ball club loyalties. He is only the most recent poster child for rampant baseball free agency.
Chapman’s record–more so than that of Maels Rodríguez a few years back–was largely one of brief moments of brilliant potential rather than one of any truly noteworthy record-book feats. Chapman enjoyed one great game in international play as a 19-year-old (during the 2007 World Cup semifinals versus Japan) but never quite returned to that stellar form. His Cuban League record had some noteworthy features (379 Ks in 341 innings) but was on the whole disappointing (210 walks over the same span, only one career shutout, a lofty 3.72 ERA, an 0-2 post-season record, only one winning season in four tries). Chapman pitched badly enough in last summer’s José Huelga Tournament in Havana to play himself off the Cuban Olympic roster, and while his fastball drew attention in two outings at the recent WBC, he was hardly dominant against either the Australians or the Japanese. The bottom line is that Chapman has great potential and could well end up in a major league uniform. Certainly he will hold up some big league franchise for millions in signing bonuses and thus enrich both himself and some opportunistic player agent. But the jury is still out (and likely will be until at least September) regarding how badly this departure might actually damage Cuban national team prospects. The full impact of Chapman’s loss is especially open to question given what has transpired on the playing field at Neptunus Family Stadium in slightly more than 48 hours since his departure.