Since I have written so much of late concerning the professional league prospects of former Holguín southpaw Aroldis Chapman, it is only appropriate to comment here on the $30 million “bonus baby’s” first minor league victory. I happened to be on hand in Indianapolis last evening to witness Chapman’s largely effective 5.1-inning outing, and also to do a brief stint of color commentary about the Cuban phenomenon for the Indianapolis Indians play-by-play broadcast, alongside veteran Indians’ radio voice Howard Kellman. Chapman evened his early season’s mark at 1-1 and lowered his three-game ERA to a stellar 0.60 during the 7-1 road win before 5,000-plus at picturesque Victory Field. The Cuban struggled with both strike-zone control and mental concentration in the first two frames, yet recovered nicely to finish strong in his finest spring performance to date. The only minimal damage off Chapman came in the way of a single unearned run, much of Chapman’s own making. Indianapolis catcher Luke Carlin lined a stinging double into the left-center gap to open the second frame, quickly stole third when Chapman seemed to forget his presence on the base paths, and then scampered home on the same play after catcher Wilkin Castillo’s peg to third bounced wildly down the left field line. To add some further insult if not any further injury, Indians shortstop Doug Bernier also stole third base off Chapman during the same somewhat shaky second frame.
Castillo immediately atoned for his throwing miscue with a solo shot to right field to knot the game in the third and Chapman himself cruised after the second frame, allowing only a pair of bases-empty singles in his final three-plus innings. The final stat line for the southpaw was five walks (three in the first two frames), eight Ks, three hits, and a pair of wild pitches. The Cuban prospect disappointed many in the announced crowd of 5,462 (many of whom had come to see his highly touted 100 mph “heater”) by only reaching 99 on the radar gun with a single pitch, a fourth inning called third strike to Pittsburgh Pirates third base prospect and former Team USA standout Pedro Alvarez. Chapman hit an unofficial scoreboard-registered 98 mph on only two other occasions and heaved a total of 95 pitches (54 strikes) on the evening. His most effective delivery seemed to be a tight-breaking 76 mph slider thrown in several key situations. But the Louisville starter received sufficient offensive support (Juan Francisco also homered to put the game on ice after Chapman’s fifth-inning departure) and even contributed himself with a sharp line-drive single to left field in only his second-ever minor league at-bat.
In a ten-minute post-game press conference alongside manager Rick Sweet, Chapman admitted that his surprise base knock was the biggest thrill of the evening. The soft-spoken and media-shy Cuban joked openly about having something to prove to his own teammates, who had been teasing him in the Louisville dugout about going to the plate for the first time in formal competition. Chapman of course never batted in the Cuban League or in his two brief stints with the Cuban national team (the DH is a staple of international baseball) and also had not come to the plate in his first two Louisville outings (both against American League affiliate ball clubs). When asked if he had ever batted before he simply cracked a smile and said “yes, as a very young kid back in Holguín.”
Pressed about his approach to his third AAA-level start and his failure to uncork any triple-digit heaters, Chapman explained that his goal tonight had been to work on location and not power pitches; he admitted that he lost concentration a couple of times in the early going but was nonetheless mostly pleased with his overall progress and with this evening’s outing, especially across the final three innings. Chapman unleashed an impressive pick-off move in the first frame to eliminate Indians hitter José Tabata (who had led of the contest with a walk) and suggested that move came from extensive work in this spring’s Arizona training camp sessions with Cincinnati coaches. In addition to his 8 Ks and one eye-opening pickoff of Tabata, all other batters save one were retired by Chapman on ground balls to the infield.
Manager Sweet also was questioned about both Chapman’s seeming lack of ability to hold runners on second and also his elevated five-inning pitch count. The veteran minor league skipper and former big league catcher admitted that concentrating with runners on base was still “a work in progress” for his highly touted rookie. But high pitch counts, according to Sweet, are simply part of the territory with power pitchers and thus never a matter for much concern. Certainly Chapman showed notable progress over his initial two starts against Toledo and Columbus, especially the latter game on April 17 in which he worked five complete frames and gave up only a single hit and single tally, yet walked four (against only one K) and was tagged with the 3-1 road loss at the hands of the host Cleveland Indians AAA affiliate.
If Chapman has not quite set the world on fire during his first month in professional baseball, he has certainly continued to show improvement and considerable promise on his apparent fast-track journey toward the big leagues. Will Chapman reach Cincinnati this season? Likely so, though I still don’t think his impact in the National League will be immediate or overwhelming, at least not without further seasoning and better control of his lethal heater. Is he worth $30 million? I still don’t think so, even by the inflated standards of today’s world of professional North American sports. But there is still a definite upside to Aroldis Chapman as a stellar big league prospect. Part of that promise is obviously a phenomenal “live” arm of the type rarely seen even among today’s breed of power pitchers. Another upside is the fact that the Holguín native is still only 22 years of age–which means there is still plenty of time for him to grow mentally as a pitcher (not a mere thrower) and to learn and polish his demanding trade.
But there is still also a downside to Chapman, one which no one seems to be talking about and off which I tried to remind radio listeners in Indianapolis during my on-air comments last night. This is hardly an untested 22-year-old prospect experiencing his first taste of top-flight competition. You can say that about Washington Nationals hopeful Stephen Strasburg, who has been facing overmatched collegiate batsman the last three years; but you can not claim it for Chapman who has been going up against the likes of WBC all-star Freddie Cepeda, Alexei Bell, Yulieski Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne (likely big leaguers all) for four winter seasons in Holguín. Chapman has already pitched four full years in the Cuban League (easily an equivalent of AAA North American professional baseball) and has shown little progress over his flashy Taiwan World Cup debut back in November 2007. This talented southpaw is no longer a raw novice, and if anything surprises me about Chapman it has to be the largely unacknowledged fact that he has not already progressed much further than he already has.