—When the negotiations begin on the next Basic Agreement, expect Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg to become major subjects in the discussions about changing the draft.
Strasburg, the righthander out of San Diego State who went No. 1 overall in last June’s draft to the Nationals, is by consensus the best amateur prospect signed in the last year. Chapman, the lefthander who signed with the Reds after defecting from Cuba, ranks right behind Strasburg. Chapman turns 22 on Feb. 28, while Strasburg turns 22 on July 22.
Strasburg, however, signed out of the draft in August, receiving a four-year, $15.75 million deal. Chapman, meanwhile, signed with the Reds in January as a free agent, getting a six-year deal that guarantees him a minimum of $30.25 million. With a couple of twists provided by his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, the deal will jump well past $40 million if Chapman is as good as the scouting reports claim.
Cuban defectors are able to have their services bid on in a market that no other amateur players can enjoy. Players who are from the United States, its territories (including Puerto Rico) or Canada—or foreign players who attend school there—have their leverage limited by the draft. Even foreign players from countries like the Dominican Republic face a more competitive market because of the sheer number of players who are eligible to sign each year.
Cubans, however, usually are markets unto themselves. The defections are limited, and so when a player emerges he finds himself as the sole target in a bidding war, where prices are inflated well above the level a player of similar abilities would receive otherwise.
It’s a reminder of why Marvin Miller, the man who was behind the emergence of the Major League Baseball Players Association as a major power, admitted that his major concern when free agency first became a reality was that the owners would allow every player to become a free agent every year, and flood the market with talent.
Miller was quick to accept arbitration as a consolation prize for passing on the fight for free agency, and was not reluctant to create barriers that included major league service time—currently a minimum of six years—before a player could become a free agent. He wanted to limit the market.
Nowhere is the market more limited than with the Cubans.
Chapman is a perfect example. Not only did he receive the largest signing bonus ever given to a Cuban ($16.25 million), but his major league contract guarantees him another $14.75 million over the next six years.
And if Chapman becomes arbitration-eligible after the first three years of his contract, the $2 million salary in 2013 and the $3 million salary in 2014 turns into a $5 million signing bonus, and either the Reds have to negotiate new salaries for those seasons or Chapman can go to arbitration.
By comparison, Strasburg’s four-year, $15.1-million deal with the Nationals is the most money ever guaranteed to a player signed out of the draft. And to think, agent Scott Boras was actually ridiculed for suggesting at times that Strasburg was worth at least $50 million.
Problem is, Strasburg’s only leverage was the threat to return to San Diego State or play in an independent league, because the only team he could negotiate with was Washington. Chapman, meanwhile, was able to play all interested teams against each other.
One thing the Cubans have in common with everyone else: They don’t come with guarantees of performance.
Chapman is the third Cuban defector signed this offseason, joining shortstop Jose Iglesias, who signed with the Red Sox for a $6.25 million bonus, and lefthander Noel Arguelles, who signed with the Royals for a $3.4 million bonus.
In the last decade, four other Cubans have received bonuses of as much as $3 million, with varying degrees of reward for the risk.
Last season, the Angels began to see a return on their $3 million signing bonus investment in Kendry Morales back in December 2004. In his first full big league season, Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs.
Jose Contreras was the previous Cuban bonus record holder, getting $6 million from the Yankees back in February 2003. He has added another $61 million in salary in his seven years in the big leagues, going 71-63, 4.61, but only 23-36 the last three years as his age—he admits to being 38—catching up quickly.
Danys Baez, who received a $4.5 million signing bonus from the Indians at age 22, made it to the big leagues in 2001 but has gone 35-49, 4.04, and in the last four years he has a 5.30 ERA and a 9-18 record.
The White Sox gave third baseman Dayan Viciedo a $4 million bonus a year ago, and he reached Double-A last year.
Of the 17 other Cubans defectors signed in the last decade, nine of them have made it to the big leagues, but that includes the likes of righthander Aley Solar, who repaid the Mets’ $1.6 million signing bonus in November 2004 with a brief and ineffective big league appearance. He made eight starts for the Mets in 2006, going 2-3, 6.00, and was out of Organized Baseball by June 2007.
The only two of the 17 who have established themselves in the big leagues are shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who signed with the Mariners for $1.31 million in December 2004, and infielder/outfielder Alexei Ramirez, who signed for $500,000 with the White Sox two years ago.
Seven of the 17 have already been released: Soler; righthander Yoslan Herrera, who signed with the Pirates for $750,000 before the 2007 season; third baseman Andy Morales, who signed with the Yankees for $500,000 in 2001; first baseman Juan Diaz, who signed with the Red Sox for $400,000 in 2003; righthander Gary Galvez, who signed with the Red Sox for $400,000 in 2003; righthander Julio Villalon, who signed with the Rays for $300,000 in 2000; and righthanded Roberto Sotolongo, who signed with the Cubs for $200,000 in 2004.