Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman has been clocking in pitches at 100 mph.
For Chapman, the hardest part is done. He walked out of the hotel in Rotterdam. Those were the most painful steps he’ll ever take, not just away from his team and his country but his pregnant girlfriend and the rest of his family, whom he left because nobody appreciates a left arm that throws a baseball 100 mph more than men in suits in the United States. Executives, marketers, agents – they all dress nattily, and they all want a piece of Chapman.
And the only person he’s allowed himself to so far is Mejia, a 33-year-old lawyer whose career as a sports agent is suddenly flush with possibility. Matt Holliday(notes), Jason Bay(notes) and John Lackey(notes) are the top three free agents this offseason, certainly, though Chapman is the unquestioned Big One. He’s a big boy, 6-foot-4 and up to 206 pounds, with a big arm and big potential. He is, accordingly, subject to big hyperbole and big attacks because he wants what a 21-year-old who throws 100 mph tends to get: big money, perhaps as much as $60 million.
“He’s here now,” Mejia said, “and if you want him, you’re going to have to pay.”
“We know what we want,” he said.
Will you get it?
“Absolutely,” Mejia said.
For a fledgling agent, Mejia sounds the part, intelligent and focused and smoothing over whatever rough edges remain. Born and raised in Boston, Mejia grew up in a family that emigrated from the Dominican Republic, and so baseball always appealed. He played as a walk-on at UMass – “I was on the team to bring the GPA up,” he said – and later went to law school. Mejia established his agency in 2006 and has represented some minor league ballplayers and MMA fighters. Never anyone like Chapman.
The list of left-handers who throw 100 mph is short: Randy Johnson(notes), Billy Wagner(notes) and Steve Dalkowski. Now comes Chapman, whom most teams have seen in person once, during the World Baseball Classic, when he spent the majority of his 6 1/3 innings flustered by a strike zone that didn’t sit well with him.
Scouting being as much of a snap-judgment business as it is, Chapman’s reputation took a hit, and some of it has stuck. Anonymous scouts and executives have told reporters they worry about Chapman’s maturity. And the pitches aside from his fastball. And his command. And his personality. And pretty much everything short of the guy’s hairstyle. Such games are easy to play when Chapman’s market value is so difficult to peg. Any little perception – false though it may be – could erode his price.
“If I were them, I’d be saying the same thing,” Mejia said. “It’s incorrect. It’s completely false. One of the arguments is, we haven’t seen enough of him. Well, then how can you make judgments on his maturity? His decision to defect: If that doesn’t show maturity, I don’t know what does.”
Chapman tried to defect in 2008. He was caught, hauled into Raul Castro’s office and reprimanded. This time, Chapman’s story goes, was easier: He told his roommate he was going out for a cigarette, called a friend, hopped in a car and skipped town before a tournament in the Netherlands. Chapman then met up with an old friend from Cuba, whom Mejia was advising, and hired Mejia. Bigger agencies have swooped in with no luck. The kid so many teams want to take a risk on is taking one himself.
So far, it’s working. Mejia researched the best place to establish residency for Chapman and decided on Andorra, a tiny country tucked in the Pyrenees near Spain and France. Had he moved to the United States immediately, Chapman would have been subject to the June draft. Because he had his passport when he defected, the verification process on his age and identity went more quickly than usual, and the free-agent market had another star.
Chapman has settled in Westchester County, just north of New York. He visited the Red Sox already. Baltimore sent its international scouting director to meet with him. Seattle officials watched Chapman throw in Barcelona, where he lived before establishing his Andorran residency. Both New York teams are intrigued. Same for Los Angeles.
And even though Chapman hasn’t had an open tryout and probably won’t, Mejia said, “We’re already getting offers.”
“We’re not making this strictly about money,” he said. “We want him to get to know whatever organization can sign him. Meet the city. Get to know the city. Understand the fan base, the demographics. Appreciate it.”
Mejia understands the intrigue surrounding the money. Chapman could get $30 million and he could get $60 million, depending on how frenzied the bidding gets – and, considering the pitching available, wild is likely. He wants at least a four-year deal. What’s fair? No one knows. There aren’t any comparables to Chapman, who some see as a future No. 1 and others as someone who will need some minor league seasoning before he’s ready to pitch in the major leagues.
Three years ago, Boston spent $103 million to bring Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) from Japan, and in 2002, Jose Contreras(notes) defected from Cuba and received a four-year, $32 million deal from the Yankees. Baseball’s revenues have almost doubled since. While the free-agent market has crashed, top-tier talent remains immune.
“I’ve seen him throw bullpens that would have every GM doing backflips,” Mejia said.
Perhaps, though translating that into the major leagues – something Mejia is dealing with in his side of the partnership – takes more. Matsuzaka received $52 million from Boston – on top of the $51 million paid to his Japanese team – because he dominated in Japan. Chapman’s best season in Cuba came two years ago. Last year, he wasn’t even the best left-hander in the National Series.
To which Mejia or anyone enamored of Chapman can respond: Fine, but he throws 100. And he does. Chapman has the perfect pitchers’ body, long and lithe and projectable, and once he gets past the novelty of his new life, he’ll be ready to work.
Already he is taking a Rosetta Stone course to learn English and will soon get an instructor to help perfect it. He won’t know it well enough to say more than a few words when he signs his contract, which could happen before the winter meetings on Dec. 7-10.
“If the right offer comes in, it’ll get done,” Mejia said. “I’m not looking to prolong this. It comes down to what’s best for Aroldis, and the teams’ offers have a big say in what’s best. Are we prepared to wait until whatever? Of course.
“To be honest, it’s easy to be calm when you have a kid with this skill set.”
Soon enough, Chapman will unleash it on the world, his new world that he and Mejia hope is as bright and full of possibilities then as it is now.