My recent published doubts about Aroldis Chapman have once more prompted a bevy of heated responses and a renewed charge (arising mostly from fans in Miami and Cincinnati) that my views are colored by Cuban Diaspora politics. Some assume that I am actively rooting for Cincinnati’s $30-million-man to fail at baseball’s top levels simply because of my personal bitterness over Chapman’s abandonment of Cuban baseball and the Cuban national team. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth. I remind everyone here that the on-the-field record should be clear enough evidence that Chapman’s impact on Cuban League play and on the Cuban national team was hardly large enough for anyone to spill any tears over.
If there has been any individual player whose recent departure from the Cuban scene has had a regrettable impact on the island’s international baseball fortunes that player would have to be another recent multi-million-dollar signee who will debut this week for the cellar-dwelling Washington Nationals. With the recent meltdown of Stephen Strasburg, it is this second and far-less-heralded Cuban flamethrower who may well be the true “impact newcomer” in the Washington starting rotation for 2011. But even in the case of Yuniesky Maya this author has always been interested only in countering the frequent misconceptions and often excessive hype that so often of late surrounds the MLB debuts of Cuban League ex-patriots.
I have no problem with any of my www.BaseballdeCuba.com readers disagreeing with my assessments of Chapman (admittedly skeptical), Maya (largely optimistic), and Noel Arguelles (beyond skeptical). Or any other former island prospects. That is what makes baseball and baseball fandom so much fun. I have written a great deal about Chapman–as all my readers know–and my repeated claims have always been the following: 1) that Aroldis was not close to being the best pitching prospect ever to leave Cuba, as so many think he was; 2) that he had only moderate success in the Cuban League for four seasons and was never a top star on the national team, as sometimes assumed; and 3) that the fact he is still throwing 100 mph-plus does not of itself make him a can’t-miss superstar. Those are the hot-button issues I have been emphasizing, pure and simple.
I watched both Maels Rodriguez (clocked at 101 in Sancti Spíritus in 2001) and Aroldis Chapman (whose Cuban League-best 130 Ks in 2009 were exactly half of Maels’s record 263 total in 2002) in Cuban League action, and for me Maels was the better prospect if only because he was more emotionally in control on the mound, had better movement on his fastball, and more often than not showed excellent mastery of the strike zone. It is true enough that Maels was largely a “thrower” rather than a pitcher, and that of course is even more the case with Chapman. That is, in fact, precisely the point I have been belaboring.
I enjoy the controversy my columns sometimes create and I welcome any reader’s informed disagreements. But I am also compelled to point out that readers are way off base (as many have been over the past week) to assume that my evaluations of any Cuban ballplayers are somehow based more on political stance than baseball acumen. I certainly do not wish that Chapman might fail in Cincinnati, and I am not at all bitter about him because he left Cuba and is now laboring for mega dollars in Ohio rather than for personal pride in Holguín. That charge misses the point entirely.
I have written positively about many other players who have left Cuban baseball–especially about José Contreras (Cuba’s best big leaguer of the modern epoch), Kendry Morales (potentially the next Rafael Palmeiro), Maels (who I have repeatedly claimed had the best arm I ever saw until an unfortunate clubhouse brawl in Sancti Spíritus effectively ended his promising career), and most lately Yunieski Maya. Later this week, I will publish an entirely positive story about Maya, as follow-up his scheduled Wednesday MLB debut in Washington versus the New York Mets. When Maya left the island last year I shared my views with many of my friends who are MLB scouts that Yunieski was (in my opinion) the best all-around pitcher to leave Cuba during the recent decade (perhaps including even Contreras and El Duque). Maya was the legitimate number two starter on the national team (something Contreras could claim but El Duque never could), a fearless competitor in international competitions, and a truly intelligent pitcher. It was definitely Maya and not Chapman that the Cuban team desperately missed during the World Cup in Europe last September. Maya has all the tools for success in the big time. Note that Chapman recently spent five months at AAA while Maya is coming to the majors as a starter after pitching only five minor league games. I am obviously every bit as high on Maya as I am skeptical about Chapman, but only time will tell.
Yes, I am doubtful about Chapman’s long-range prospects. Of course I could be very wrong here. And of course all readers are more than free to dissent. That is part the purpose of my columns–to stimulate just such discussions and debates. Admittedly I also wish to see the top island stars remain on the island, simply because for me Cuban baseball and IBAF international tournament baseball hold an unsurpassed charm that the overly commercial MLB game can never quite match. But I have never rooted for ex-Cuban stars to fail in the corporate big league game. As a fan of Cuban baseball I of course want to see all the Cuban players demonstrate just how talented they actually are (and therefore just how good Cuban baseball back on the island actually is). But that does not mean I will hold back from giving my views on the weaknesses of some of the Cuban big league refugees who I thing might have been overrated our overhyped by the scouts and general managers that have signed them. I call them as I see them, and that is the only reason most of you read my columns in the first place.
I assess Chapman as being highly overhyped. I see Maya as highly underrated and thus as being potentially a true big league surprise. Time will tell if I am largely right or dead wrong. I am no more the “perfect prophet” than any of my readers are, although I have usually seen these players performing first hand on numerous occasions–both back in Cuba and also in international competitions–something that many of my critics can not claim. Therefore my opinions may be a bit more informed than those of some of my doubters. But politics have absolutely nothing to do with my views of any Cuban ballplayer, on or off the island. It’s time to put all those old personal wounds and flagrant misconceptions arising from the Cuban Diaspora to one side. Let’s stick to baseball folks.