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Originally published Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 12:00 PM

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Larry Stone

Hard-throwing lefty from Cuba has drawn a lot of interest

Aroldis Chapman crossed paths with Ichiro in the World Baseball Classic (where he had a 5.68 ERA in 6-1/3 innings while pitching for Cuba, giving up three runs in just 2-1/3 innings against Japan) and is said to be aware of the presence of Felix Hernandez anchoring the Mariners' rotation. In fact, one person close to the situation confirmed that the Mariners are one of the few teams that actually saw Chapman throw in Barcelona when he was working out at the old Olympics baseball facility, before moving his base of operations to Madrid.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Envision a 21-year-old pitcher — left-handed, no less — that has lit up radar guns to the tune of 102 mph, drawing raves from scouts as the southpaw Stephen Strasburg.

Now consider that this pitcher is not just a myth, but a living, breathing entity, who can be found these days in, of all places, Madrid.

And just one other thing: He's a free agent, poised to sign in the upcoming weeks with a major-league team.

Perhaps even the Mariners.

Meet Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban who defected in July during the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, was driven to Barcelona, eventually established residency in Andorra — a small country (population, 84,000) located in the eastern Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France — and, on Sept. 25, was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball.

"Whoever signs him will be getting a true gem," said Edwin Mejia of Athletes Premier International, the White Plains, N.Y., agency that is representing Chapman. "A unique talent like this comes across every 40 or 50 years."

Mejia, a graduate of Boston University Law School, is a fledgling agent, but Scott Boras couldn't have said it any better.

Sure enough, a bidding war is expected to ensue over Chapman's rights that hasn't been seen involving a Cuban defector since Jose Contreras signed a four-year, $32 million deal in 2003 with the Yankees. That outcome so infuriated Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, also hot after Contreras, that he reportedly broke a chair in his hotel.

While the usual big-market teams are expected to be heavily involved — the Dodgers, Angels and Mets along with the Yankees and Red Sox — the word in scouting circles is that the Mariners are also a serious player. They are said to have scouted Chapman extensively for the past several years as his reputation in international circles grew.

Chapman crossed paths with Ichiro in the World Baseball Classic (where he had a 5.68 earned-run average in 6-1/3 innings while pitching for Cuba, giving up three runs in just 2-1/3 innings against Japan) and is said to be aware of the presence of Felix Hernandez anchoring the Mariners' rotation.

In fact, one person close to the situation confirmed that the Mariners are one of the few teams that actually saw Chapman throw in Barcelona when he was working out at the old Olympics baseball facility, before moving his base of operations to Madrid.

Mejia, in a phone interview Friday, declined to discuss which teams have made contact.

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But he did confirm that Chapman has cleared all the necessary logistical and governmental hurdles, "and teams are free to sign him tomorrow if they agree to the proper terms. At this point, we're being very patient."

On the other hand, with the major-league free agents — including an impact pitcher like John Lackey — hitting the open market after the World Series, it makes sense to strike soon with Chapman while they have a captive audience.

It's possible that Chapman's people could stage a showcase for teams to scout and meet the pitcher — or they could skip that process entirely and cut a deal.

Mejia would only say, "We're going to have a nice surprise for everyone soon."

Meanwhile, Chapman himself is throwing bullpen sessions, working out and running in Madrid, and has put on 15 pounds since his defection, Mejia said. He had been listed at 6 feet 3, 185 pounds.

Scouts are unanimous that Chapman has a magnificent arm and an overpowering fastball with the potential to be a No. 1 starter, but there is some concern over his secondary pitches. He throws a slider, split-fingered fastball, changeup and curveball.

"I love Chapman, but as a prospect and not as a major-league ready pitcher," said agent Joe Kehoskie, who has extensive experience with Cuban baseball players.

As a lefty who throws in the 100 mph range, Chapman might have more upside than any other pitcher on the planet, but he's still very raw. Aside from a high strikeout rate, Chapman never dominated the Cuban National Series, and some of his key metrics have been trending in the wrong direction.

For example, his ERA in the Cuban National Series rose from 2.77 to 3.89 to 4.03 over the last three seasons. Chapman never was named to the Cuban all-star game in his four seasons, and his 2009 WBC appearance was his only top-level international event.

There is also concern, one baseball executive said, over his tendency to sometimes lose his composure on the mound. At the WBC, Chapman was clearly distressed by a strike zone that was smaller than in Cuba, and when removed against Japan, didn't look at his manager as he ran off the mound.

"When you're asked to lay out big-time money, you want to know the total package," said the executive. "You want to know if he can control his emotions."

Other scouts, however, say they like Chapman's competitiveness and fire and point out that he is just 21 and was under extreme pressure in Cuba.

"A lot of pitchers — great pitchers — have shown emotion on the mound," Mejia said. "I don't think it's a big concern. There have been more incidents of him keeping his composure than not keeping it."

Few believe that Chapman — who left behind a girlfriend and recently born baby in Cuba, as well as his parents and two sisters — is ready to start his career in the major leagues. But one scout said, "He's extremely close to the big-league level."

Since defecting, Chapman has done a handful of interviews in Spanish, one with USA Today and an extensive one with ESPN.

"I want to be the best pitcher in the world," he told ESPN's Jorge Arangure in August. "I'm not yet. But with work I can be."

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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