Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chapman Worth a Hard Look From Yankees This Offseason

Most of the baseball world has become familiar with the name of the newest Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman. The 21-year-old left-hander has a fastball that surpasses 100 MPH on occasion, which has led some people to call him the left-handed Stephen Strasburg.

Baseball Prospectus thinks that Chapman likely doesn't have the goods to be a top-line starter in the Major Leagues, however, because of some control problems. In their evaluation of similar starters from the minor leagues, the one favorable comparison that emerges is Oliver Perez. There are several successful relievers on their list, including Scott Linebrink, Brian Fuentes and Mike Gonzalez. But in this one case, I don't buy their evaluation.

Simply put, not that many lefties have raw stuff like Chapman has. While this is certainly no guarantee of immediate Major League success, it stacks the deck in his favor if his control improves at all. Secondly, the Prospectus has ranked the talent level in Cuba as equivalent to that of Low-A ball, which may be true, but I'm not sold. Cuba has performed exceptionally well in the World Baseball Classic, against premier Major League talent. Granted, those players are the All-Stars, but it leaves me wondering whether the level there may not be slightly higher. And then there is the added factor of pressure in the Cuban league. During my visit to Cuba early this decade, it was abundantly clear that the island is completely baseball-crazy and pays extraordinarily close attention to its players. Chapman, therefore, has pitched in much higher profile games than your average A-baller, and has had success.

International scouts are also very confident that Chapman is in fact 21. This is a major issue with Latin American prospects. And if he is in fact 21, he has pitched successfully at A-ball before he would have even graduated college. Do I think that Chapman can translate his experience immediately into the Major Leagues? Probably not. But plugging him in at AA to start next season isn't a bad idea.

The Yankees are right in the middle of establishing a rotation of the future. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes both appear to be a part of their long-term solution. A.J. Burnett and C.C. Sabathia will both be around for a while yet. Chapman could spend two years developing in their system with no problems. If the Yankees keep Chien-Ming Wang, they can really explore whether he can regain that form while Chapman develops in the minors. And if he proves he cannot pitch like he used to, Chapman would give them a high-upside arm to eventually slot in in the five hole.

And for argument's sake, let's say that Prospectus is right, and Chapman ultimately is more effective as a reliever. A left-hander out of the 'pen throwing over 100 MPH is a really dangerous weapon. Even though Mariano Rivera could probably pitch relatively effectively in the Majors until his mid-fifties with the shape he is in and his pitching know-how, my gut tells me he will not linger. After he leaves, the Yankees are going to need a closer, and the fireballing lefty might provide an intriguing option.

So, let me pass along a word of advice to Brian Cashman: sign Aroldis Chapman. Talents like him simply don't come around that often, and when they do, they are usually subject to the draft. Top teams like the Yankees don't get the first bite at domestic players with skills like Chapman's, and infusing a talent like that into your organization is always a good idea, even if they end up trade bait down the line.

Then there is the final motivating factor. The Red Sox seem interested in the kid as well. And the Yankees lefty-heavy lineup is already going to have to cope with a maturing David Price in their division. If Chapman lives up to his ability, he could become a dangerous Yankee-killer lefty that beats them three or four times every year.

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