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Insider

Chapman deal Cincy's gain, MLB's blunder

1/11/2010

Aroldis Chapman is an outstanding addition to an already-improving Cincinnati pipeline of young players and sets the Reds up to have one of the National League's best rotations in 2012 if more than a few of their young arms develop as hoped.

With Chapman, it's all about potential. He's as high-upside a pitcher as you're likely to find on the international market, with the spread of potential outcomes made wider by MLB scouts' limited number of looks at him while he pitched in Cuba. He's a left-hander with a plus-plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s and has touched 101 (legitimately); the fastball has good tailing life, and he flashes a plus slider with good tilt. His changeup remains a work in progress, although he probably hasn't had to use it much given the competition he's faced.

On the downside, his command isn't great. Although his arm is loose and his velocity comes easily, he's still raw as a pitcher and has a fair amount of development ahead of him in the short term. He used his time off after defecting to get his body into better shape and refine his mechanics (as Jorge Arangure reported last month), so it's not out of the question that he could show up in the majors in 2010, but the odds are still against him moving that quickly. The velocity, body and potentially plus breaking ball combine to give him the upside of a No. 1 starter with the potential of a dominant closer if for some reason he doesn't work out as a big-innings guy.

By 2012, the Reds could feature a rotation with Chapman, a fully recovered Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, 2009 first-round pick Mike Leake and Homer Bailey, none of whom is likely to make more than $5 million in arbitration (with Leake still earning close to the minimum salary). Such a dream scenario requires a few things. For one, the Reds need good luck with health. Then continued development from Leake, Cueto and Bailey. Finally, they'll need Chapman to reach his upside rather than fall short and move to the 'pen. It's not the most likely outcome, but a Reds fan can -- and should -- dream about it. And if they can acquire or draft some help behind the plate or in the middle infield, they'll have a chance to field a pretty complete yet young and affordable contender.

John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Reds heavily backloaded the deal, with Chapman earning just $1 million in 2010 and the full $30 million spread out over the next 10 years. It's not a great structure for the player, because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar next year, but this type of contract also has worked out poorly for major league teams that have employed it heavily, especially if the player doesn't meet expectations.

For instance, imagine being Cincinnati's GM in 2018 and finding out 5 percent of your annual player budget is allocated to a guy who's no longer in the organization. Arizona nearly sank itself earlier this decade when revenues dipped while payments to long-gone players continued, and Kansas City was still paying players from its great 1980s teams earlier this decade.

Returning to Chapman, this deal puts yet another lie to the claim pushed by MLB, among others, that making the draft a worldwide one (rather than one that includes only players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico) is about maintaining competitive balance. The Reds, playing in one of MLB's smallest metropolitan areas, signed Chapman. The A's, playing in perhaps the majors' worst active stadium, finished second, according to Buster Olney. Another big-ticket Cuban defector, Noel Arguelles, signed last month with Kansas City. Max Kepler-Rozycki, the best amateur player to come out of the emerging baseball markets of Europe, signed with Minnesota during the summer. The idea that small-market teams can't afford top amateur talent is and always has been wrong, because the dollar figures involved for these amateur players are low relative to the size of even a low-revenue team's annual baseball operations budget.

Bottom line: It makes sense for a low-revenue team to risk a relatively smaller amount on a high-upside amateur player instead of spending a substantially larger amount on a veteran free agent without that upside.

There's also some economic logic behind the greater interest from low-revenue teams in these top amateur players. An impact player, even if he's still merely a potential one such as Chapman, is worth more to a team like Cincinnati or Oakland than he is to a New York or a Boston because those latter teams are already looking at 90-plus-win seasons.

The value of a player is different to every team, and that value will change from year to year as each individual team's fortunes change because the value of an additional win to a club depends in part on how many wins it already has (or is expected to have). A player who's worth five wins a season easily could be worth more to a team that already has 81 wins' worth of talent on its roster than a team that already has 92 wins' worth, because the 92-win team is probably already headed to the playoffs and derives less marginal benefit from those extra wins, while the 81-win team suddenly becomes at least a fringe playoff contender and is a little luck from making the postseason and the big revenue boost it brings.

Chapman's deal also highlights how unfair the draft is to amateur players in general and how the current system screws American-born players.

Do you really think Stephen Strasburg is worth half as much as Chapman on the open market? Why would MLB, a U.S.-based sports league, continue to employ a system that actively punishes U.S.-born (or Canadian-born or Puerto Rican-born) players for their nation of origin? And, given the outcry from the economically ignorant about Strasburg's supposedly exorbitant demands, why aren't we hearing the same about the greedy Chapman? I'm not advocating a new American jingoism, but I would like to see a system that treats all players equally and fairly, allowing them to garner signing bonuses in line with their actual market values regardless of where they were born or what some arbitrary MLB slotting system says they're worth.