In Aroldis Chapman, Reds hope they've found a southpaw Strasburg

Like the Nats' Stephen Strasburg, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman must deal with enormous expectations.
Like the Nats' Stephen Strasburg, Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman must deal with enormous expectations. (Christian Petersen/getty Images)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

GOODYEAR, ARIZ. -- Other than the facts that one throws with his right hand and the other with his left, that one is Californian and the other is Cuban, that one just got married and the other just left behind his entire family, and that one honeymooned in Kauai while the other defected in the Netherlands, Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman could be the same man, or at the very least the mirror image of each other as pitchers.

It could be quite a conversation, were they ever to get together (and find a way to bridge the language barrier). Because Strasburg and Chapman, despite the obvious differences in cultures and handedness, have plenty of shared attributes and experiences: 100-mph fastballs, outrageous talent, exorbitant contracts, outsized expectations, suffocating hype.

If the atmosphere feels electric this spring in Viera, Fla., where Strasburg, the Washington Nationals' $15.1 million bonus baby, is taking his first professional steps, it is at least equally so in Goodyear -- where the Cincinnati Reds have invested twice as much in a pitcher they know perhaps half as well.

Chapman, a Cuban who turned 22 last month, is experiencing the same exhilarating, occasionally overwhelming transition to professional baseball as is Strasburg (who, at 21 years and seven months, is five months younger) -- with the added burden of absorbing a new culture and language at the same time.

"Strasburg is from the United States; the only thing he has to adjust to is another town," Reds Manager Dusty Baker said. Chapman "has to adjust to having money, going to the bank, getting a driving license, a new language, different food. He's got no family, no support. There's a different government. That's a lot to put on a kid."

The Reds, too, are learning about Chapman on the fly, out of necessity. They paid $30.25 million in January to sign him -- the higher price explained by the fact Strasburg, as a U.S. citizen, was subject to the baseball draft, thus limiting his leverage, while Chapman was declared a free agent after establishing residency in Andorra following his defection. In addition to costing twice as much, Chapman came with at least twice the risk.

By the time the Nationals drafted Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick last June, they had met his parents, established relationships with his college coaches and scouted every game he pitched for nearly two years.

With Chapman, by contrast, much was a mystery. He had pitched for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic in 2009, and following his defection, his agents set up workouts in December so scouts and executives could take a closer look. But to a far greater extent than for the Nationals with Strasburg, signing Chapman took a leap of faith.

"There's no data on this kid," Baker said. "There was no way to interview the parents."

Much of baseball was shocked when the Reds -- instead of a major-market behemoth such as the Yankees or Red Sox -- emerged as the winners of the Chapman sweepstakes in January. (Perhaps even more shocking was the news that the Nationals, with a bid of $25 million, were runners-up.) But the explanation was simple: While the big-money teams prefer to make their biggest investments in safer commodities, smaller-market teams have to gamble.

"If you look at the size of the market we are here in Cincinnati," Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty said, "we have to take some bold moves from time to time to try to improve this franchise."

Among the things the Reds are trying to figure out in regards to Chapman is how big a workload he should have. Teams typically place stringent safeguards on top pitching prospects -- limiting pitch counts and innings -- but with Chapman's background in the top Cuban league, the Reds know he is accustomed to heavy workloads.

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