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Chapman deal months in the making

Chapman deal months in the making

CINCINNATI -- Before their bold and surprising signing of Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, the Reds didn't even garner a mention during the majority of the bidding process -- at least not until the very end.

That's exactly how general manager Walt Jocketty wanted it.

Mark McGwire

"That's the way I like to do it from time to time -- stay under the radar," Jocketty said. "It worked, I think, because there wasn't a lot of attention to it."

When it was over, Chapman was inked for at least six years worth at least $30.25 million guaranteed.

Jocketty, however, didn't just swoop in at the last minute and swipe Chapman out of the grasps of other bidders. In fact, the Reds' scouting department spent months laying the groundwork before the left-hander even defected from a tournament in Rotterdam in July.

It started as early as March, when Chapman was representing Cuba on the mound during the World Baseball Classic and made two starts.

"We filed reports, and you just keep them on file on computer," said Chris Buckley, the Reds senior director of scouting. "After he defected, we started getting as much information as we could. I'm pretty sure the other teams did the same thing."

Chapman's Classic numbers weren't very impressive. He was 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA, six hits, four walks and eight strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings. Despite his lack of command, he had that high-90s fastball, and there were reports that the lefty's fastball had touched 102 mph in December 2008.

"We always try to watch the Cuban team, because a number of their players defected," Buckley said. "You try to keep information, but it's much better to see a player in a game rather than a workout."

The workout

Chapman had already become a coveted talent by the fall, and teams were lining up for the chance to sign him. The Red Sox had reportedly put a $15.5 million offer on the table.

An indoor workout was set up on Dec. 15, during which Chapman could pitch before interested clubs. About 40-50 scouts were on hand -- radar guns at the ready -- at the Baseball USA complex in Houston. It's the city that is home to Chapman's agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks.

"That proved to be a seminal moment," Randy Hendricks said. "What we did was put Aroldis on a program for three weeks to build up to that period of time. ... He was spectacular. In a mid-December workout where we said he'd be at 85 percent, his mechanics were better. He was coached to be more downhill and overly rotated. His last pitch was 97 mph. His slider was tighter than many people had seen before. He threw a changeup that looked good. Everybody walked away totally impressed."

Jerry Walker was among the contingent of Reds scouts that made the trip to Houston to watch Chapman. Walker, the team's vice president and special assistant to the GM, has been part of Jocketty's inner-circle for 14 years in both St. Louis and Cincinnati. He also once had an eight-year career as a Major League pitcher.


"Frankly, I think they did a great job. They understood what they were doing. I think they have a similar plan to us. They saw the benefit in acquiring someone with a real upside."
-- Nationals president Stan Kasten, on the Reds' signing
of Aroldis Chapman

As Chapman went through his workout, Walker could be counted among the very impressed.

"I saw him for the first time but had heard about him and saw him on TV a bit," Walker said. "I was very excited about what I saw. He was a good-looking, young, athletic kid. Everything he did was exciting. His mechanics were good. His delivery was a little slow, but everything worked together. At no time did I think he exerted all of his effort, despite there being 40 people watching him. He was poised and did what he planned to do.

"There was what looked like a two-seam and four-seam fastball with movement. His breaking ball to me seemed more in the slider range than a curveball, but he kept it down. He threw a circle-type change and kept it in the strike zone. I really didn't see any shortcomings."

After the workout, Walker, Buckley, Latin American scouting director Tony Arias and others alerted the front office that Chapman was a prospect worth pursuing seriously.

Jocketty was already interested and listening. A week before the workout, during the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, the team held conversations about Chapman and Jocketty said things "really got involved in a more significant way right before Christmas."

"These guys are very important to me," Jocketty said. "I respect and rely on their judgment and opinions. Everything they told us and told [owner Bob] Castellini indicated to us that this was something that we really needed to be strong on and move on to try and improve this organization."

Getting serious

In the days and weeks after the workout, reports surfaced that the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Nationals, Angels and Marlins were among the suitors pursuing Chapman.

The Reds? The only Hot Stove blips they registered were about how inflexible their payroll was and that big free-agent moves weren't feasible. Three days before the Chapman workout, popular outfielder Jonny Gomes was non-tendered because the club didn't want to meet Gomes' salary demand, which could have reached as high as $3 million.

"It was something like a 10K run," Hendricks said. "The Reds were always there but never like the lead person. Nobody really saw them or really talked about them."

But behind the scenes, the Reds had the wheels very much in motion -- albeit quietly. Like some of the other clubs, Cincinnati arranged for private workouts to see Chapman pitch in South Florida.

"We watched a lot of DVDs, slowed it down and broke it down," Buckley said. "[Pitching coach] Bryan Price, Jerry Walker and I looked it all over. We had a number of conference calls with nine different people on at some point about Aroldis. We had different input and put it all together. We had a number of calls around Christmas and kept trying to iron it out. It was difficult."

Once Chapman was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball, speculation was that the 21-year-old's asking price might make big-market, deep-pocketed clubs favorites to acquire Chapman. But that proved to be a wrong assumption.

Many teams, such as the Red Sox and Yankees, were indicating to Hendricks they viewed Chapman as mostly a luxury. Boston, which had recently signed free agent John Lackey, already had a stocked pitching staff. So did the Yankees. Clubs like these viewed Chapman as part of their big league plans -- in 2011 or '12.

The Reds presented themselves as a younger club that could provide a chance for Chapman to pitch in the Majors in 2010.

"So here's the metaphor I used when teams expressed concern this would be for just the highest bidder, like New York or Boston," Hendricks said. "'If I had a great first baseman from Cuba, do you think I'd call the St. Louis Cardinals first?' We wanted opportunity. We would like to put him in a system where he'd have an opportunity to emerge sooner."

Besides staying competitive with the money and offering opportunity, the Reds also stressed the intangibles that would eventually help sway Chapman.

"We talked about having a Latin catcher [Ramon Hernandez] and a manager [Dusty Baker] that speaks Spanish," assistant GM Bob Miller said. "We talked about our new facility in Goodyear, Ariz., and there being a good, young core of pitchers and players he could grow with. We talked up Bryan Price and the history of the Reds. He liked the idea of wearing the 'C' on his head."

A deal is reached

The Reds stayed in the Chapman race even as a reported Blue Jays offer worth $23 million was thought to be the leading candidate. Cincinnati made its first offer about a week before Christmas. Over the next three weeks, several offers and counteroffers were sent back and forth, with changes in numbers here and tweaks in language there. Castellini was kept in the loop, and he approved of the various offers.

"We were competitive the whole time," Miller said. "We never really believed or thought that we had to jump it up to get back in the running."

The Marlins were believed to have offered $16 million and the Nationals were also involved, offering a five-year, $25 million contract. Washington was not willing to add a sixth year.

"We had about 8,000 conference calls, and Walt asked a million questions," Buckley said. "Bill [Bavasi, vice president of scouting and player development] asked questions and Bob Castellini did. We went over it and over it. They were sending faxes back and forth to Houston."

During the holidays, Jocketty took a family vacation abroad to Spain but stayed in contact with Bavasi and Miller on the phone.

"Bill, Walt and I got on conference calls probably five or six times in the two weeks Walt was away," Miller said. "We were always in touch."

While Jocketty was vacationing, Bavasi was responsible for communicating the GM's thoughts to the agents via e-mail.

Last week, as the jockeying continued, Hendricks set a deadline.

"I told everyone I wanted it to be done Saturday night," Hendricks said.

"We were holding our breath, thinking Boston or the Yankees would come in at the last minute and blast us," Buckley said.

In the end, it was the Reds that came out on top, and everyone could exhale. They effectively did offer the sixth year Chapman wanted in the form of a player option. If he declined the option, he would still remain with the Reds and eligible for arbitration.

Included in the $30.25 million was a bonus worth just over $16 million. If all the money would have had to have been paid up front, it might have strapped the Reds ability to spend in the future. But the club was able to backload some of the salary and spread out the bonus over 10 years to blunt the immediate financial impact. Very little of the contract will impact the Major League payroll in 2010.

"We got on the first plane to Cincinnati first thing Sunday morning," Hendricks said.

News leaked on Sunday afternoon that an agreement was reached. Chapman arrived in town and went directly to the offices of team medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek for the physical.

Hendricks revealed on Monday that another small-market club, the A's, were the runners-up for Chapman. The third-place club wasn't revealed, but like the Reds and Oakland, Hendricks said it was a team with a losing record in 2009. That could have been Toronto or Washington.

"We were very, very involved in it until the end," Nationals president Stan Kasten said on Monday. "The Reds would not have been one of the teams I predicted. Frankly, I think they did a great job. They understood what they were doing. I think they have a similar plan to us. They saw the benefit in acquiring someone with a real upside."

The Reds did not rule out having Chapman start the season in their rotation, but that will depend on whether he's able to refine some of his raw talent. The pitcher has been compared to Randy Johnson in his early years. Like Chapman, the power-throwing lefty and future Hall of Famer had tremendous velocity but difficulty commanding the strike zone.

Unlike Johnson, Chapman will have to grasp the American way of life and adjust to the Majors after living his whole life in the Communist nation of Cuba. He had never heard of Cincinnati until being educated by his agents.

"We all have to be patient with him and support him as much as we can," Jocketty said. "That's something that we have promised to try and do. Obviously, the more we help him, the faster he will get comfortable and acclimated. And the better he will perform for us."

And only then will the Reds know for sure if their risk and huge financial commitment to Chapman was the right move.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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