Thursday, July 2, 2009 Updated: July 3, 12:41 PM ET
Top Cuban prospect defects
By Jorge Arangure Jr. ESPN The Magazine
Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban considered by many scouts to be the best left-handed pitching prospect in the world, has defected from the national team, several sources have confirmed to ESPN The Magazine.
Aroldis Chapman has a tantalizing 100 mph fastball, but also question marks about his other pitches -- and his maturity.
Chapman, 21, walked out of his hotel in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where Cuba was participating in a tournament, and never returned, according to the Spanish-language Web site cubaencuentro.com, which first reported Chapman's defection.
Chapman told the site he was still in Europe, but would not reveal his location for safety reasons.
"I walked out easily, right through the hotel door, and I hopped into a car and left," Chapman told cubaencuentro.com. "It was easy. Now the plan is to sign with a major league team."
A source said Chapman was scheduled to fly to Miami on Thursday.
Chapman would be the most heralded defector since Jose Contreras, who left the national team in 2002 during a tournament in Mexico.
By several estimates, Chapman could garner a contract worth anywhere from $30 million to $60 million. Contreras, now with the Chicago White Sox, received a four-year, $32 million contract from the New York Yankees in 2003, which at the time was the biggest ever given to a Cuban defector.
"Without a doubt [he is the best player to defect since Contreras]," agent Jaime Torres said Thursday.
Torres, who represented Contreras and is considered the top agent for Cuban defectors, said he has had no contact with Chapman yet.
Olney: A left-handed Strasburg
The most intense bidding of the winter will not be over Matt Holliday, nor Jason Bay. It will not be John Lackey who is going to have the most bidders frothing after him.
No, it will be Aroldis Chapman, the 21-year-old pitcher who reportedly defected from Cuba while traveling with the national team in the Netherlands.
To put his talent in perspective: Some evaluators view Chapman as a left-handed Stephen Strasburg, who was the No. 1 pick in the MLB draft last month. "He's pretty special," said one official.
He has a fastball clocked at 101 mph or 102 mph, and a "plus" curveball and "plus" slider, to use the scouts' vernacular.
But unlike Strasburg, his market will not be restricted to the one team that drafted him. It may be about six months before his situation is settled to the point where teams will be able to make bids, but when that can happen, you can expect a Daisuke Matsuzaka-like feeding frenzy to ensue.
Jose Contreras signed a $32 million deal with the Yankees earlier this decade, but he was much older than Chapman. Matsuzaka was 25 years old when the Boston Red Sox committed $103 million in a posting fee and contract to sign him. Chapman's situation is incredibly unique, because he's so young, so talented -- all of his best years presumably in front of him -- and so well known among evaluators.
-- Buster Olney
Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman, when contacted by ESPN The Magazine, said it's "safe to assume" the Yankees would have interest in Chapman.
Chapman is not a complete unknown; he pitched for Cuba at the World Baseball Classic this past spring.
"This is shocking," one international scouting director said about the magnitude of the defection.
Yet Chapman is still considered a fairly raw prospect. Though many considered him to be the most talented pitcher on the Cuban squad, Chapman posted only a 5.68 ERA in 6 1/3 innings during the WBC. Last year in the National Series in Cuba, Chapman had a 4.03 ERA in 118 1/3 innings.
And though his pitches have been clocked at 100 mph, some consider Chapman's secondary pitches to be only average. For that reason, many believe Chapman likely would have to start his professional career in the minors.
There also might be a question of Chapman's maturity level. Several times at the WBC, Chapman was demonstrative in his displeasure at the umpire's strike zone. At times, several of his teammates had to go to the mound to calm him.
And when he was finally removed in the third inning of a 6-0 loss against Japan in pool play, Chapman did not look at manager Higinio Velez, running straight into the clubhouse without slapping hands with any of his teammates.
Yet in that start, Chapman showed exactly why he will be highly coveted: In the first inning, Chapman threw a 100 mph pitch. Later in that game, Chapman hit 102 mph.
"I think the fastball he showed at the Classic was good enough," Torres said, jokingly.
Chapman also appears to have the charisma to make him a star in the majors. During the WBC, he regularly mugged for cameras and always offered smiles at reporters, though because of Cuba team rules, he was not allowed to speak to any of them.
"I'm very happy," Chapman said on cubaencuentro.com. "Until now everything has come out fine. This is the plan that I had and this was a decision I took. I wanted to test myself in the highest levels of baseball."
Because it's likely Chapman surrendered his passport to Cuban officials after arriving in Europe -- all Cuban players routinely do so, prior to any appearance outside of Cuba -- he will have some complications in establishing residency.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.