The impressive way in which Aroldis Chapman began his career in the U.S.—in his first four starts for the Louisville Bats, Cincinnati's Triple A affiliate, he had a 1.29 ERA and struck out 22 in 21 innings—is less surprising than where it began. When the 6'4", 22-year-old lefthander defected from the Cuban national team last July, it was widely assumed that he'd eventually be firing his 100-mph fastballs for one of the high-revenue, high-payroll teams that usually control baseball's free-agent market. But when all the bids were submitted in January, Chapman's best offer—six years, $30.25 million—was not from the Yankees or Red Sox or Cubs but from the Reds, whose $71.8 million payroll ranks 20th in the majors.
That signing was not an anomaly: Over the past six months clubs near the bottom of the salary table have consistently beaten out richer competitors for the services of the Cuban players who have flooded the market. Yes, Boston signed shortstop Jose Iglesias (for four years and $8.35 million last September) and catcher Adalberto Ibarra (five years, $4.3 million last week). But in January the Royals, who rank 21st in payroll, agreed with Noel Arguelles, like Chapman a 6'4" southpaw, on a five-year, $6.9 million contract. Last month the Blue Jays (22nd in payroll) gave four years and $10 million to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, a 21-year-old who had been pursued by the Yankees as a potential successor to Derek Jeter, and the Rays (19th in payroll) gave four years and $1.725 million to 28-year-old outfielder--first baseman Leslie Anderson.
"People should not be surprised when small-market teams get heavily involved in this market," says A's G.M. Billy Beane, whose team came in second in the Chapman bidding. "It's heavily populated with clubs that realize this is where we're going to plant seeds for a longer return on our investments. Clubs are saying, If I'm going to spend, say, five million bucks, why spend it on a one-year deal on a major league player who's in his mid-30s?"
Adds Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels, "While the top end of the free-agent market can be cost-prohibitive, we can all compete for the best amateur talent. It might be riskier, but you get players who can impact your organization for a long time."
It helps that the Cuban market is teeming; the number of defectors jumped from three in 2007 to 11 in '08 to 22 last year. Clubs still have to decide about defectors based largely on workouts that are tightly controlled by the players' handlers. But small-market teams such as the Reds and the Blue Jays are finding that even a mysterious Cuban star is less of a gamble than a domestic free agent; they're more inclined to bet that players such as Chapman and Hechavarria will quickly develop into underpaid All-Stars. And with more than 30 Cuban defectors reported to be looking for employment, it's a trend that won't end anytime soon.
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GARY BOGDON (HECHAVARRIA)
HAVANA CLUB The Jays outbid the Yankees for Hechavarria (left), while the Rays got Anderson (inset).
TOM DIPACE (ANDERSON)
[See caption above]