When any new phenomenon arrives, it takes a while for people to adjust their lifestyle and accommodate these changes. Cell phones are the most recent example. The Internet was another.
In the baseball world, free agent-prospects are the newest slang, which, understandably, are forcing major league teams to adjust – with varied results.
Baseball’s newest free agent-prospect phenom, Aroldis Chapman is expected to visit Boston today, on the heels of a visit to New York on Monday.
A world-class talent, he is turning baseball economics on its head. On the one hand, he is a prospect – a lean, projectable lefty at a young age, 21. On the other, he will command the salary of a major league free agent – not what you’d expect of a “prospect”.
The newest “It Kid” from overseas, Chapman comes fully loaded with everything that makes scouts salivate more than Pavlov’s dogs: a ferocious fastball clocked as high as 102 mph and a long 6-4 frame. As a result, the young Cuban is considered the best prospect to reach the MLB this side of Stephen Strasburg – and he’s a lefty to boot.
But there’s a problem with taking this position; mainly, the fact that he’s even labeled a “prospect”. Sure, he has all the traditional markings of one. He’s got exceptional tools, he’s projectable, he’s raw, and, most importantly, he’s young. However, under the modern economics of baseball, with escalating salaries and widely varying budgets, there are two nonnegotiable criteria that give value to and create the allure of the “prospect”.
One is their limitless potential. Chapman has this in every sense of the word. There are no limits to his ability.
The other, which in today’s game may be more important, is their low price tag. This is where Chapman ceases to be a prospect. While many would like to see Chapman used to bolster the upper minor leagues, this is a fool’s errand when considering the salary that Chapman will command. When he is signed for $10 million per year (with sources estimating between $40-60 million total), he will need to contribute now, which many believe he is not able to do. Therefore, signing such a big contract is akin to throwing away money and tightening the noose around an already tight budget. As a result, “prospects” cease to be prospects when their salaries reach the stratosphere of free agents. Chapman, 21, is no longer a prospect.
And, the situation gets all the more precarious when taking into that Chapman is a foreign player.
In the North American minor leagues, it is much easier to assess a prospect’s talent, since they are competing at levels that talent evaluators have many comparables. In these foreign leagues (especially Cuba, but this includes all non-North American locales), comparatively few scouts have watched these players, with fewer cross checkers and opinions than their American counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that there are varying opinions as to the overall talent level of these leagues, due to few players having crossed the boundary to the MLB to stand as a baseline.
With all the uncertainty surrounding the international prospects, it is easy to see why this negotiation is expected to come down to the Yankees and Red Sox; though, the Cardinals, Tigers, Cubs, White Sox, Mets, Athletics, Giants, and many other teams have been connected to Chapman’s name.
Still, despite all these concerns, Chapman is his own player with a unique set of skills, which are the basis of these price estimations – and for good reason. By most accounts, he is a left-handed, slightly lesser prospect than Stephen Strasburg. So, what of Strasburg?
The MLB Draft, which has more constricting negotiating parameters than international free agency, determined that Strasburg was worth 4 years (or, more appropriately, three full seasons between 2010-2012) for $15.1 million – or less than half of what Chapman may ultimately receive on a per annum basis.
The market decided that Daisuke Matsuzaka’s services were worth $52 million over 6 years, not including a $50 million posting fee. A much more polished player with a far better scouting record before his signing, Matsuzaka still managed to underperform his lofty expectations. At least teams don’t have to contend with a Cuban posting system.
Jose Contreras, another oft-cited comparable, was signed for 4 years and $32 million in December, 2002. With the rate of inflation for player salaries at around 9 percent per year since 2003, Contreras’ contract would be worth about $53 million if signed today. Strange enough, that’s right around where Chapman is rated today. However, Contreras was the much more polished and accomplished pitcher at the time. Having just turned 31 years, Contreras was a relatively safe bet: he was a well-established starter, the staff ace of the Cuban National Team, and he possessed a mid-90s fastball.
His talent was revered by most all in the MLB. Said Gordon Blakeley in an ESPN interview, the Yankees’ Vice President of International and Professional Scouting at the time:
‘ “Jose Contreras is most certainly the premier amateur pitcher in the world and may be the best pitcher ever in amateur play. He has an exceptional fastball and breaking ball, plus a championship makeup, and we expect him to have great success at the major league level.” ’
Our own Theo Epstein provided a bit of insightful commentary – and restraint – in 2002:
‘ “Obviously, we are disappointed. We made very reasonable effort and then some to sign Jose Contreras. Jose is a special pitcher, but there is a certain amount of risk involved in signing pitchers who have never thrown an inning of professional baseball. Recognizing that risk, we went to the limit of fiscal sanity with our offer and would not go beyond.” ’
Unfortunately for Jose (but good for Sox fans), he could not repeat his success in the MLB, posting a career 4.61 ERA in 1083.2 innings. Contreras has been a quality pitcher, but not to the extent expected by major league execs.
Theo would be wise to remember his own words when assessing the value of Chapman for the Red Sox. If he was able to exercise restraint on Contreras, he should be able to do the same when it comes to the far riskier Chapman. Though Aroldis is a great talent, he is not at the level of reverence that Contreras was – and for a number of reasons.
First, Chapman is younger and less polished. His command has been questioned at times, which was evident in his start against Japan in the World Baseball Classic, where he went just 2.1 IP with 3 walks against just 1 K. Sure, one start does not a career make. However, the start does lend credence to his skeptics’ assertions of his current abilities.
Second, he relies too heavily on his fastball. Many scouts have remarked that he needs to develop a third pitch as well as refine the command of his breaking ball in order to reach his potential. Sure, he could be a very good reliever at the major league level with an excellent fastball and average second offering. However, teams don’t hand out $50 million contracts to middle relievers with command issues.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is that many believe that he will not be ready to contribute to an MLB team for at least one season.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that he signs a deal on the higher end of his expected $40-$60 million range – at 5 years and $55 million. After losing out on his first year due to development, the useful life of his deal is reduced to four years, meaning that he’ll have to contribute nearly $14 million of value per year to equal the value given to him. This is about equivalent to 3.5 wins above replacement level per year, which is a difficult proposition for any player – let alone one still in development. In addition, it is especially important to remember that his price tag will be inflated due to the “prospect” moniker, which will drive lesser GMs mad, due to his implied potential.
But, let’s change gears for a moment. What of the floor of this so-called “prospect”?
Perhaps Chapman’s best failed comparable is Colt Griffin, the ninth overall pick of the Kansas City Royals in the 2001 June Draft. An 18 year-old high schooler out of Marshall, Texas, Griffin was another once-in-a-generation talent who featured a 100 mile per hour fastball and projectable body. In fact, he was so highly regarded that he even received his own feature story in ESPN the Magazine before the draft. Scouts drooled, as did general managers.
Griffin was very raw, but was nonetheless signed for a $1.85 million bonus. Things didn’t turn out so well for Colt and the Royals, as he went on to post a career line of 342.1 innings, with 262 walks against just 245 strikeouts without making it past AA – proof that no pitcher can survive on velocity alone.
Now, let’s get one thing straight. Chapman is not Colt Griffin. Griffin converted from first base late in his high school career and was uncommonly raw with extraordinarily poor command for such a highly regarded prospect. Chapman is much better. In all likelihood, he will be a very good pitcher in the MLB.
Still, he comes with far more risk and a shorter track record than any other international free agent that has debuted in recent years. After all, Daisuke Matsuzaka was on the MLB radar for years and even he has failed to live up to expectations as a major leaguer.
There is no doubting Aroldis Chapman’s talent and ultimate ceiling. However, when taking into account the price it will take to attain his services, he looks more like a $20 scratch ticket than a blank check. In the end, there are far better ways for an MLB team to use $40+ million.
If the Sox are so enamored with high-ceiling Latin American pitchers, they would be much wiser to reinvest that money. Hey, with the going rate of non-Cuban pitchers, they could sign ten Michel Inoa’s, whom the Athletics signed for $4.25 million earlier this year. Now that’s a far better investment – a prospect every bit as good as Chapman at one-tenth the cost. Sometimes it’s easier to follow precedent than to make the best decision. Don’t fret if the Yankees or some other non-Sox team signs this “prospect” for $50 million. When all is said and done, he may be more trouble than he’s worth.