Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Cuban Pitcher Crisis

Prior to the start 1995 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hideo Nomo, who had "retired" from his Japanese club in order to become a free agent. Nomo became just the second Japanese native to play in the Major Leagues and the first in more than thirty years. Nomo had a wildly successful rookie campaign, serving as the ace of the Dodgers' NL West winning staff and taking Rookie of the Year honors while posting a 150 ERA+ and leading the NL in shutouts, strikeouts, and K/9.

But in more than just his success on the field, Hideo Nomo was a revelation to the Dodgers. In a year that saw MLB attendance nosedive by about 20% in the wake of the 1994 strike, Dodger attendance dropped by only 7%. The Japanese-born Nomo drove Nomomania just as the Mexican born Fernando Valenzuela had driven Fernandomania 14 years earlier. And the Dodger realized the benefits between the lines, at the box office, in merchandising, and in national and international exposure.

At the time of Nomo's arrival, Major League baseball was already a diverse organization. Clubs had found successful reservoirs of talent in the States, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and to a lesser extent Canada, Mexico, Panama, even Nicaragua and Australia. Yet Japan, despite being a baseball-crazed nation with a well developed professional league, was a totally untapped resource. Part of that was due to Japan's restrictive player movement system, but another major factor was the old-boy-network of Major League Baseball in which the Japanese Leagues were deemed inferior. Nomo's success was a counterexample to that way of thinking and opened the door for more than forty Japanese-born players to reach the Majors with varying degrees of success since Nomo's debut.

While Nomo's rookie year may have opened the door for Japanese born players, there was still another country that was quite literally shut off from the Major Leagues. Cuba, less than one hundred miles from Key West and as passionate a baseball nation as any that graces the earth, has been subject to a U.S. embargo since 1960. So after Cuban born players like Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris, Luis Tiant, Tony Perez and the like debuted in the 1960s, no Cuban-born players of consequence made it to the MLB for decades, except for those who emigrated at a young age such as Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro.

That began to change at the same time Nomo came to the States. Cuban born pitcher Ariel Prieto emigrated to Puerto Rico after graduating college in Cuba. Because he chose to establish residency in Puerto Rico, he was subject to the draft and was chosen, with much fanfare, by the A's with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 draft.

That July, Livan Hernandez and Osvaldo Fernandez fled the Cuban National Team as well. However, they had the good sense to seek asylum in the Domincan Republic, thereby skirting the draft and earning themselves lucrative free agent deals. From there the floodgates opened: Rey Ordonez, Rolando Arrojo, Orlando Hernandez, Danys Baez, Adrian Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Yuniesky Betancourt, etc.

All of these players hit the open market with some degree of buzz about them. Some lived up to the billing (El Duque), some have carved out lengthy if average careers for themselves (Livan Hernandez), many utterly failed to live up to hype (Prieto, Arrojo, Contreras, Adrian Hernandez, etc.).

That isn't a knock against Cuban players. Projecting Major League talent is an inexact science, whether it's in evaluating high school or college players, sixteen year olds in Latin America, or even Japanese players from well established professional leagues. Cuban players are particularly challenging to evaluate. Because of the embargo it's difficult to scout them outside of occasional international competition. Unlike the Japanese leagues, Cuban players don't routinely compete against former Major Leaguers who can give some insight to their talent level. There is very little data on which to evaluate Cuban talent, and what little exists is highly unreliable.

But I think that Japanese and Cuban players, because they're something of a novelty and because they've been exposed to higher quality competition than other talent available to Major League clubs, are afforded more hype, and as such get rather large contracts when they sign.

The Yankees should be no stranger to this. They were in on Prieto before MLB ruled he was subject to the draft. They were in on Livan Hernadez and Osvaldo Fernadez before they signed with the Marlins and Giants respectively. They've signed Orlando Hernandez, Adrian Hernandez, Andy Morales, Jose Contreras, and Juan Miranda - with varying degrees of success. El Duque was worth every penny; El Duquecito never panned out. Andy Morales was found to have lied about his age, spent one miserable season in AA, and was released. Jose Contreras may have been traded away for pennies on the dollar, but he also never sustained anything remotely justifying the hype that surrounded his arrival and was exceedingly frustrating to watch. Miranda has shown signs of promise, but is buried behind Mark Teixeira and likely won't get a shot with the Yankees.

All of which is well worth keeping in mind as the Aroldis Chapman talk heats up over the next several weeks. The Yankees are clearly in on Chapman. They're linked in virtually every rumor about him, and hosted him at Yankee Stadium during the clinching Game Six of the ALCS. He is easily the most heralded player to come out of Cuba since - well, take your pick - Prieto, Livan, Arrojo, El Duque, Baez, Contreras, whoever. Chapman could prove to be the best Cuban hurler since Luis Tiant or Mike Cuellar, or even Fidel Castro himself.

If he's half as good as he's been hyped to be, it shouldn't be difficult for him to surpass the Cuban pitchers of the last 15 years. But whoever signs Chapman is going to have to pay a hefty price to find out if he's as good as billed. Given the track record of recent Cuban exports, especially considering their performance relative to how good they've been purported to be, I'd be very hesitant to give Chapman the dollars he will command.


  1. I fully expect Pettitte to sign another 1 year deal. Which sets up the rotation as CC, Burnett, Pettitte, Joba, Hughes. With Wang, Kennedy, and possibly Mitre and/or Gaudin as potential injury replacements.

    Why wouldn't the Yanks be in on Chapman as well? Like the saying goes, "You can never have to much pitching". If I were the Yanks I would only over spend for him if he is about to go to the Red Sox. Anyone else I would let him go and save the money for next seasons starters crop.

  2. You can't have too much pitching, and if all the rumors are to be believed the Yanks will be in on him.

    The point is that Cuban players have rarely - if ever - lived up to the hype. Whoever signs Chapman will dish out a contract similar to what top free agent might expect on the open market with absolutely no guarantee he'll be anything close to what he's purported to be. Virtually any spending for him will be overspending.

    I say let the Sox or whoever else sign him. I'd much rather roll the dice on that rather than risk another Adrian Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Kei Igawa, etc.