With the deadline for signing Stephen Strasburg just a week away, hopefully the Nats are consumed with negotiating the size of the barrel Scott Boras is going to bend them over. But after the Strasburg negotiations are over, the Nats should turn to what ought to be their next challenge: signing Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman reaches triple digits with his fastball and has been described as a "left-handed Stephen Strasburg." While there are concerns about the effectiveness of Chapman's secondary pitches and his maturity level, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Chapman the top international free agent. The Yankees have already declared their interest, and other free-spending teams are sure to join in bidding. We're told that a contract on par with those given to Jose Contreras ($32/4) or Daisuke Matsuzaka ($50m/6) is likely.
Even after forcing the resignation of Jim Bowden, cutting ties with Jose Rijo, and sending Mike Rizzo to the Dominican Republic to clean house, the stink of Smileygate still hovers over the organization's international operations. They signed a few prospects out of the DR this summer, but one could hardly call them players on the international market. With so much competition for top Latin talent, there's been no sign that the team has begun to mine underexplored places like Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Africa, or India for baseball talent.
Wiping out the memory of Smileygate would be merely a side effect of signing Chapman. Putting Chapman in a Washington Nationals jersey would be a warning to other teams that the Nats will no longer stand idly by while other teams ink top international prospects.
Chapman could also complement, or -- worst case scenario -- replace an unsigned Strasburg in the starting rotation. It's no secret that for all the pitching, pitching, pitching the Nationals have drafted the last few years, there are serious problems with the names the front office has touted the most. Number 1 prospect Jordan Zimmermann -- down with an elbow injury and referred to Dr. James Andrews. First-round draft pick Ross Detwiler -- some rocky seasons in the minors followed by a rocky time in the bigs this season capped off with a return to the minors. Jack McGeary -- the old college try didn't work and he's still struggling in the low minors. Shairon Martis had a few lucky wins and he's now pitching poorly in AAA. Scott Olsen -- recovering from labrum surgery and just as likely to be non-tendered after the season as to make another start for the Nats.
After Lannan, there's little to count on in the rotation going forward. Maybe Balester is starting to become something, but Stammen, Mock, and Martin are at best fourth or fifth starters on a bad team (or the Mets). Even if both Strasburg and Chapman need to spend an entire season in the minors, Lannan will remain under team control long enough for him, Strasburg, and Chapman to provide an effective 1-2-3 for a few seasons. Getting back a healthy Zimmermann might give the Nats the best rotation in the NL East.
Sure, there's a lot of risk in signing Chapman. Contreras and Matsuzaka are far from the world-beaters the Yankees and Red Sox believed they were getting. Chapman could be as immature as he looked when Japan knocked him out early in the WBC this year. Or he could get hurt or simply not pan out. But there's a lot of risk in not signing Chapman, too. There's the risk that the Nats don't sign Strasburg and end up with nothing more than pick 1A in the 2010 amateur draft and an even more deflated fanbase. If they do sign Strasburg, there's the risk that his fastball really is as flat as it looked against Virginia in the NCAA Irvine Regional. Or he could fall prey to injury. Or maybe Lannan's not as good as he appears and he makes a sharp regression to the mean. Or Zimmermann needs Tommy John surgery and won't make another start until 2011.
That's the whole point -- real pitching prospects are inherently risky. And that's why the Nationals need to acquire as many of them as possible, even if it costs them tens of millions of dollars. Like Strasburg, Chapman is the kind of high risk-high reward gamble the Nats are going to have to take if they're ever going make a decisive step towards becoming competitive. Sure, Chapman might cost a lot more than Strasburg, but that's an argument to subject international free agents to the amateur draft, not an argument against signing Chapman.
Of course, you never know what the Nats might do. If they do sign Chapman but then aren't in the mix going forward, every time the fans complain about another team making a significant free agent or international signing, the Nats could point to Chapman and say "But look what we did and how much money we spent!" And if they make a serious play for Chapman but don't sign him, like with Mark Teixeira, the Nats can use their failure to ward off fans' complaints that the the team isn't a player on the free agent or international markets by reminding fans that they tried that one time.1 And then there's the most likely possibility of all, which is that the Nats don't even try to sign Aroldis Chapman.
1These two scenarios apply doubly to signing Strasburg, who can only negotiate with the Nats, with the added bonus of 2010 pick 1A for the Nats to point to.