Two weeks and counting until the first pitch of the IBAF World Cup and Pan American Games Qualifying Tournament and a schedule has now been released for first round games. The event will be staged in Puerto Rico from October 1 through October 12 and full coverage (largely from the perspective of Team Cuba) will be provided daily through www.BaseballdeCuba.com. I will be down in San Juan, Carolina and Ponce for first hand reports and those interested are invited to follow the action on our special tournament webpage at: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/panamericano2010/index.html.
After several earlier changes in group assignments and resulting schedules, the 13-team field has now been finally divided into two divisions as follows:
Group A: Puerto Rico, USA, Dominican Republic, Aruba, Colombia, and Panama
Group B: Cuba, Canada, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, and Dutch Antilles
The tournament structure has teams playing within groups during Round One and then across divisions for round two. The two group winners will eventually meet in a best-of-three playoff for the gold and silver medals, while group runnerups meet in a single contest for the bronze medellion. Opening round venues will include Ponce’s Paquito Montaner Stadium, Carolina’s Roberto Clemente Stadiun (San Juan), and the Isidoro Garcia Stadium in Mayaguez. The full opening around schedule is now available on our website at: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/panamericano2010/calendar.html
Cuba will sent a strong team nearly identical to the roster that earned the silver medal prize at last September’s European World Cup matches. The preliminary Cuban roster of 39 was cut to 33 earlier this week and is currently training in Havana before taking on Nicaragua’s entry in a six-game exhibition series this coming week. The preliminary Cuban roster was earlier discussed in my recent article at: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/panamericano2010/peter_001.html. The Team USA final roster for this event (comprised of AAA and AA minor leaguers) is also available on our tournament website page.
While ultimate victory is always in the minds of all top contenders (those being Cuba, the Americans, host Puerto Rico and possibly Venezuela), this tournament is only a qualifier for next fall’s World Cup (likely to be held in either Venezuela or Puerto Rico) and also next summer’s Pan American Games tournament in Guadalajara. The top six finishers will represent the Americas in the former event, while the top seven clubs from Puerto Rico will move into the latter tournament in Mexico.
My recent published doubts about Aroldis Chapman have once more prompted a bevy of heated responses and a renewed charge (arising mostly from fans in Miami and Cincinnati) that my views are colored by Cuban Diaspora politics. Some assume that I am actively rooting for Cincinnati’s $30-million-man to fail at baseball’s top levels simply because of my personal bitterness over Chapman’s abandonment of Cuban baseball and the Cuban national team. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth. I remind everyone here that the on-the-field record should be clear enough evidence that Chapman’s impact on Cuban League play and on the Cuban national team was hardly large enough for anyone to spill any tears over.
If there has been any individual player whose recent departure from the Cuban scene has had a regrettable impact on the island’s international baseball fortunes that player would have to be another recent multi-million-dollar signee who will debut this week for the cellar-dwelling Washington Nationals. With the recent meltdown of Stephen Strasburg, it is this second and far-less-heralded Cuban flamethrower who may well be the true “impact newcomer” in the Washington starting rotation for 2011. But even in the case of Yuniesky Maya this author has always been interested only in countering the frequent misconceptions and often excessive hype that so often of late surrounds the MLB debuts of Cuban League ex-patriots.
I have no problem with any of my www.BaseballdeCuba.com readers disagreeing with my assessments of Chapman (admittedly skeptical), Maya (largely optimistic), and Noel Arguelles (beyond skeptical). Or any other former island prospects. That is what makes baseball and baseball fandom so much fun. I have written a great deal about Chapman–as all my readers know–and my repeated claims have always been the following: 1) that Aroldis was not close to being the best pitching prospect ever to leave Cuba, as so many think he was; 2) that he had only moderate success in the Cuban League for four seasons and was never a top star on the national team, as sometimes assumed; and 3) that the fact he is still throwing 100 mph-plus does not of itself make him a can’t-miss superstar. Those are the hot-button issues I have been emphasizing, pure and simple.
I watched both Maels Rodriguez (clocked at 101 in Sancti Spíritus in 2001) and Aroldis Chapman (whose Cuban League-best 130 Ks in 2009 were exactly half of Maels’s record 263 total in 2002) in Cuban League action, and for me Maels was the better prospect if only because he was more emotionally in control on the mound, had better movement on his fastball, and more often than not showed excellent mastery of the strike zone. It is true enough that Maels was largely a “thrower” rather than a pitcher, and that of course is even more the case with Chapman. That is, in fact, precisely the point I have been belaboring.
I enjoy the controversy my columns sometimes create and I welcome any reader’s informed disagreements. But I am also compelled to point out that readers are way off base (as many have been over the past week) to assume that my evaluations of any Cuban ballplayers are somehow based more on political stance than baseball acumen. I certainly do not wish that Chapman might fail in Cincinnati, and I am not at all bitter about him because he left Cuba and is now laboring for mega dollars in Ohio rather than for personal pride in Holguín. That charge misses the point entirely.
I have written positively about many other players who have left Cuban baseball–especially about José Contreras (Cuba’s best big leaguer of the modern epoch), Kendry Morales (potentially the next Rafael Palmeiro), Maels (who I have repeatedly claimed had the best arm I ever saw until an unfortunate clubhouse brawl in Sancti Spíritus effectively ended his promising career), and most lately Yunieski Maya. Later this week, I will publish an entirely positive story about Maya, as follow-up his scheduled Wednesday MLB debut in Washington versus the New York Mets. When Maya left the island last year I shared my views with many of my friends who are MLB scouts that Yunieski was (in my opinion) the best all-around pitcher to leave Cuba during the recent decade (perhaps including even Contreras and El Duque). Maya was the legitimate number two starter on the national team (something Contreras could claim but El Duque never could), a fearless competitor in international competitions, and a truly intelligent pitcher. It was definitely Maya and not Chapman that the Cuban team desperately missed during the World Cup in Europe last September. Maya has all the tools for success in the big time. Note that Chapman recently spent five months at AAA while Maya is coming to the majors as a starter after pitching only five minor league games. I am obviously every bit as high on Maya as I am skeptical about Chapman, but only time will tell.
Yes, I am doubtful about Chapman’s long-range prospects. Of course I could be very wrong here. And of course all readers are more than free to dissent. That is part the purpose of my columns–to stimulate just such discussions and debates. Admittedly I also wish to see the top island stars remain on the island, simply because for me Cuban baseball and IBAF international tournament baseball hold an unsurpassed charm that the overly commercial MLB game can never quite match. But I have never rooted for ex-Cuban stars to fail in the corporate big league game. As a fan of Cuban baseball I of course want to see all the Cuban players demonstrate just how talented they actually are (and therefore just how good Cuban baseball back on the island actually is). But that does not mean I will hold back from giving my views on the weaknesses of some of the Cuban big league refugees who I thing might have been overrated our overhyped by the scouts and general managers that have signed them. I call them as I see them, and that is the only reason most of you read my columns in the first place.
I assess Chapman as being highly overhyped. I see Maya as highly underrated and thus as being potentially a true big league surprise. Time will tell if I am largely right or dead wrong. I am no more the “perfect prophet” than any of my readers are, although I have usually seen these players performing first hand on numerous occasions–both back in Cuba and also in international competitions–something that many of my critics can not claim. Therefore my opinions may be a bit more informed than those of some of my doubters. But politics have absolutely nothing to do with my views of any Cuban ballplayer, on or off the island. It’s time to put all those old personal wounds and flagrant misconceptions arising from the Cuban Diaspora to one side. Let’s stick to baseball folks.
The baseball world is now literally “atwitter” with the phenomenon of Aroldis Chapman’s first two innings of major league action–two altogether successful 3-up and 3-down frames in which the flame-throwing southpaw has unleashed several heaters clocked at between 103 and 105 mph. Certainly a noteworthy achievement and one that lifts Chapman into the same category with now-sidelined MLB prospect Steve Strasburg and short-lived Cuban League phenomenon Maels Rodriguez (both of whom saw their magical arms quickly disintegrate under the pressures of launching supersonic missiles). We now know that Chapman can heave a baseball in excess of three-digit speed on a JUGS radar gun. And today’s baseball fans simply can not get enough of the 100-plus fastball, especially it seems in Cincinnati.
But have I missed something here, or didn’t we already know that Chapman could top that impressive three-digit velocity standard? Has he not already done it on several levels of diamond competition? Was there any reason to think that Chapman’s arm would not be just as lively in Cincinnati as it earlier was in Holguín (where he broke the plane for the first time several seasons back) or Louisville (where he supposedly reached 105 a few days before his Cincinnati call-up), or Indianapolis (where he broke the ceiling for the first time in North America last April)?
Of course today’s ball fans (and seemingly a high percentage of today’s pitching coaches) are totally enamored with hurling speed above all else that might exist in a pitcher’s arsenal. Just as today’s fans in large part worship the long home run drives and big offensive explosions above any of the sport’s finer defensive and strategic subtleties. It is the loud noise and big muscular displays that seemingly enthrall us the most on the diamond and in the grandstand. What we have today is a game built on power alone, one hardly distinguishable from the physical mayhem that is a staple of the football gridiron, basketball court and hockey arena. Our big time made-for-television sports are seemingly all about brute force. This is after all (somewhat sadly for me) the highly marketable baseball of the immediate future.
So we know Chapman can throw very hard–perhaps harder than any man on the planet. But Aroldis threw 100-plus in Holguín and struggled to find a slot on the Cuban national team (where he failed in several trials). He heaved 100-plus this spring in Louisville, where he had but moderate success (a .500 won-lost record) as a starter. He now seems to be coming into his own in the highly specialized role of a pitcher assigned to face no more than three or four batters at a time. (The short relief specialist is, of course, a defining element of modern baseball, but again something that has for this writer robbed the sport of much of its original charm.) In brief, Chapman has so far proven that he is indeed the second coming of Steve Dalkowski (you can look him up, in Casey Stengel’s words). But he is still a decade or so removed from proving that he is anything approximating a second coming of Jim Palmer, Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan. Or for those who know Cuban ballplayers, a second coming of Pedro Lazo, Rogelio García or even Lázaro Valle.
Aroldis Chapman may indeed now have a brighter future in the big leagues than some of us originally suggested, especially since his short-stretch velocity is ideally suited to today’s pro game and its 15 or 20 pitch single-inning closers. Chapman is a superb thrower. The jury is still out, however–despite the eye popping numbers–on whether he will ever become that increasing rare commodity known as a skilled “pitcher.” Arm strength helps, but in the end it was just as much “head strength” (true pitching science and true pitching intelligence) that made a Pedro Lazo or a Greg Maddux or a Tom Glavine.
The world today is jumping up and down about the fact that Chapman has thrown a baseball at 105 mph from a big league mound. Hats off to this strong-armed rookie who has finally reached the “big time” after five long seasons of trials and tribulations at the AAA-level (one summer in Louisville and four winters in Holguín). Maybe the entertainment of a few triple-digit darters is indeed worth a $30 million investment. But I still hold to an apparently worn-out version of old world baseball values. Apparently I am not quite “up to speed” with the appropriate thrills of today’s game. But wake me up in five years time. Get back to me after we find out if big league hitters are unable to exploit Chapman’s wildness over the course of several long hot summers in “The Show”–or indeed after we find out if Chapman’s elbow will be able to survive more innings before it pops than did Stephen Strasburg’s. I will be much more impressed when I am able to read about Chapman reaching the magic number of 100 in the big league victory column rather than on the radar gun. And come to think about it, perhaps $30 million should require closer to 300 career victories for fair return on the Cincinnati franchise investment.
I have seen 100 mph from Chapman (on several occasions in Cuba and in the stadiums of professional baseball) just as I once saw it from Maels Rodríquez (now in exile in Costa Rica after a blown rotator cuff reduced his once-saliva-producing 100-plus comets to yawn-producing minus-85 floaters.) Pardon the skepticism and curmudgeonly stance here, but I much prefer to see 100 games in the victory column. Or even 100 Saves in the record book. Those are the numbers that truly impress.