The Jays are reported to be among the final four for the services of much-coveted free-agent Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman. Other teams mentioned are the Angels, the Marlins and the Red Sox. On the surface, it seems a major surprise that the Jays are even interested (they are), when the fact is that back in October rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos claimed he hadn't seen enough of Chapman to comment or be intrigued by the possibility.
But the difference between Anthopoulos' attitude then and now began when the 22-year-old lefthanded defector changed representation, going from novice dreamer Edwin Mejia to the more realistic veteran advice of Randy and Alan Hendricks, based in Houston. Instead of seeking immediate promotion to the majors, instead of major free agent money, instead of forcing MLB scouts to travel to Spain to see him work out, the Hendricks were willing to compromise on all of that. The Jays talked to the agents at the Winter Meetings, sent a scout to Houston for a group workout on December 15 and held a private session at the Bobby Mattick Training Centre in Dunedin on December 31.
You may ask, where is this $20 million coming from and why would president Paul Beeston and Rogers ownership agree to the pursuit of a 22-year-old with one solid major-league-ready pitch (a 100 m.p.h. fastball) and otherwise mediocre stats in the Cuban professional league?
First of all, Chapman fits easily into the new regime's criteria of being young, talented and controllable for the foreseeable future. Second of all, the money is available. The Jays have put aside major bonus money to pay the nine draft picks they have stockpiled for the upcoming June draft in the first three rounds. They can tap into that, but also when the Jays' payroll went from $98 million in '08 to $80 million in '09, it was not because they could not afford to stay where they were. The reason was that Beeston and Rogers believed that the money would not be well spent by then-GM J.P. Ricciardi in '09 so let's just keep it for a rainy day. That rainy day has arrived with the courtship of Aroldis Chapman.
The change by Chapman to the Hendricks brothers was the key for the Jays. Recall that Beeston dealt with the Hendricks on the shocking Roger Clemens signing in the winter of 1996-97 when the Jays stunned the baseball world by inking the Rocket to a deal when nobody believed it was possible.
Mejia hooked up with Chapman, who had defected from the Cuban team, passport in hand, at a hotel in Rotterdam on July 1, 2009, (Canada Day). He set him up first in Spain and then as a citizen of Andorra to avoid the June draft. When Mejia's initial demands were met with skepticism by ML clubs because of his inexperience in the field, Chapman made the change.
More than 20 Cubans have defected and made it to the majors since 1991 when Rene Arocha became the first since Barbaro Garbey in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. The Jays made a strong effort under Gord Ash in the winter of 1995 to sign pitchers Livan Hernandez and Osvaldo Fernandez. Ash flew them in to Toronto and showed them around town. The Cuban community was hard to find. Then the coveted Cuban duo flew to Florida where they were shown around town by Gloria Estefan and to San Francisco where they were greeted by one of the largest Latin American populations in the nation. Livan signed with the Marlins and Osvaldo went to the Giants. There was no attraction for a Cuban refugee in Toronto.
There is also a possibility that the Hendricks brothers invited the Jays into the chase to bump the price of doing business because of their relationship with Beeston. There is a chance the Jays are being used, but even so, the fact that the Jays are interested is a positive sign to a fanbase that has lost faith and needs to know the Jays have real plans to spend money moving forward.
Then again, there is a chance that for Chapman, the most money talks and he will accept the Jays' ultra-competitive money offer. Either way the Jays come out as winners. And if ownership is not worried about the money factor, then neither should we.
If he signs, look for Cuban Sandwiches to be added to the menu at the Rogers Centre.