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Posted: Tuesday December 1, 2009 11:08AM; Updated: Tuesday December 1, 2009 11:43AM
Melissa Segura
Melissa Segura>INSIDE BASEBALL

Cuban defector Chapman remains a mystery -- and a risk (cont.)

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Aroldis Chapman
There is still great uncertainty around the type of money Aroldis Chapman will command.
AP

The smugglers' plan was doomed before their escape boat hit water. Chapman says the man who had offered to arrange his escape not only was caught by Cuban authorities before Chapman and the others boarded their boat to leave, but he also was talking. Chapman had figured out that the man must have given him up to the authorities when Aroldis was summoned by Raul Castro, Cuba's president, to his office to discuss his planned defection.

This is the end of my career, he thought as he headed over to his meeting from where he was training in Havana with other Olympic team hopefuls. He knew that athletes who try to defect don't come back to play on the national team and that he would face a two-year suspension from the National Series, as well. But more than anything, "I felt badly, not so much for me but for my family," he says, knowing that they, too, could face punishment.

Chapman says authorities removed him from the Olympic team in reprisal. "They didn't take me [to Beijing] because they said they weren't certain that I would return," Chapman says.

Others are not so sure that is the real reason. Dr. Peter Bjarkman, a foremost Cuban baseball scholar and chronicler, suggests that Chapman has reframed his Olympic exclusion as a punishment, rather than a performance-based roster cut. Bjarkman writes that the June 2008 Jose Huelga Tournament in Havana is when Chapman "pitched himself off" the Olympic team as he "displayed little control and less confidence, being knocked out early in his final appearance versus tame Puerto Rico by his own extreme wildness."

But the following winter, at the start of Cuba's National Series, Chapman seemed to recapture some of the magic that had enthralled scouts at the 2007 World Cup. He jumped off to a 6-0 start with a 1.89 ERA, according to Bjarkman's accounts, and struck out 52 batters in less than 48 innings, pitching his way back onto the Cuban roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

In his first game at the WBC, a 5-4 win over Australia in Mexico City, he dazzled scouts even if he didn't completely baffle batters. He launched 16 pitches registering 99 mph and four in triple digits on the gun while giving up three hits in four innings. In the next round, against Japan at San Diego's Petco Park, Chapman was frustrated by more disciplined hitters and a stingier strike zone than he was used to in Cuba. He surrendered three earned runs in 2 1/3 innings with three walks and one strikeout in a 6-0 loss. He bristled at umpires when he disliked calls and ignored teammates when pulled from the game even thought he knew all eyes were on him, all of the time.

Only the Cuban security guards watched Chapman more closely than scouts did during the Classic. He had offers to defect, but no intentions. His good behavior meant that when he returned to Cuba, the security force ordered to keep a close watch on him loosened its grip. The extra breathing room only breathed new life into his dreams of leaving. He had now played in the big stadiums and under the bright lights of an MLB field.

He would wait until July's World Port Tournament in Rotterdam -- a smaller tournament populated by what Bjarkman calls "the B-team" of the Cuban national roster. More modest talent meant less security to breach as Chapman walked out of the hotel and over to the car. To say that all went according to plan in Rotterdam would be inaccurate; things went even better. Chapman says Cuban officials broke a longstanding protocol of collecting players' passports at the airport. "They didn't have time to take my passport," he says, and Chapman didn't have time to change his mind, hopping into the car outside the hotel.

He eventually would pass through Belgium, France and Spain. He would find his way to Edwin Mejia of Athletes Premier International, a budding sports agency in search of its first big league client. Mejia would lead Chapman to Andorra, the tiny nation nestled between Spain and France where he could establish residency outside the U.S., an MLB requirement for international free agents. Mejia then shepherded Chapman to New York and Boston to begin meeting with teams.

Chapman's next stop? It might be just as uncertain as those first steps Chapman took out of his Rotterdam hotel.

*******

What's it worth? The question is no longer Chapman's to answer. What's it worth, major league teams now ask, to sign a left-hander whose pitches are as fast as his track record is inconclusive?

The velocity of Chapman's primary pitch is well-documented: It's blindingly fast. So much so that some scouts wonder if its speed obscures his weaknesses. Chapman has holes, and is aware of them. "I need to improve my control," he says. "In the last two years, I've had more control. I've trained a lot and improved a lot. Now, I think I have a little more room for improvement."

In his four years in the National Series, he had a 24-21 record with a 3.72 ERA. Almost as notable as his 379 strikeouts in 341 2/3 innings are his 210 walks. His career bases on balls per nine innings is 5.37, a stat that would rank him last -- below Arizona's Daniel Cabrera (5.24) and Milwaukee's Seth McClung (5.31) -- among the 245 major league pitchers who have thrown at least 341 career innings. And that's calculated without adjusting for a softer strike zone and freer swingers in the Cuban league. "In Cuba you knew you could throw a bad pitch and a batter would swing at it," Chapman admits. "In the big leagues, that doesn't happen very often."

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