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Cincinnati Reds make shrewd move signing Cuban pitcher

Baltimore Sun

Some think the Reds just took the biggest risk in franchise history. I think they made the shrewdest acquisition of the offseason.

Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman, signed away from the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Angels and other suitors at a cost of $30 million, is a difference-maker, and there were darn few of those available on the 2010 free agent market.

Give general manager Walt Jocketty and the team's owner, Bob Castellini, tremendous credit for investing so heavily in a guy who would have been ranked 1A to Stephen Strasburg if he had stood alongside North American talent in last year's draft.

One of baseball's most veteran scouts told me in March, immediately after the World Baseball Classic, that Chapman was the best pitching prospect he had seen. And Chapman had not been sharp for Cuba in Mexico City.

Chapman has a triple-digit fastball, a power slider that whispers Steve Carlton and a verified passport that shows he turns 22 next month. He walked away from the Cuban team during a tournament in Europe over the summer.

Jocketty has made a strong career out of finding bargains, first as an assistant to Sandy Alderson with the A's in the Bash Brothers era and then with the Cardinals, where his deals for Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan put a World Series ring on Albert Pujols' finger. He was able to do the Chapman deal because it required only $1 million in salary in 2010, the rest coming from a budget for amateur scouting and the payroll flexibility that will be created when Aaron Harang comes off the books in the fall.

Under Jocketty, the Reds already had made more progress than most realized. Their 27-13 mark after Aug. 22 was the best in the National League last season, and it was done while ace Edinson Volquez was out after Tommy John surgery.

Jocketty said in November he felt the Reds were "close" to being able to contend against the Cardinals and Cubs (and maybe the Brewers) in the NL Central. It's not far-fetched to think Dusty Baker will make that happen in 2010.

Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto were solid for 30-plus starts last season. Homer Bailey, who like Cueto is 23, stoked the imagination by going 6-1 with a 1.70 ERA in his last nine starts, a night-and-day reversal from previous form (6-12, 7.05 ERA in his first 28 starts). With Chapman, Volquez and 2009 first-rounder Michael Leake, a huge winner at Arizona State, the Reds may have the best stable of young pitchers in the majors.

The Reds were 11th in the NL in scoring last season but hope to improve with Scott Rolen at third base. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce should be hitting their big league strides and Chris Heisey, a high-energy player who could fill holes in left field and at the top of the order, could provide a huge lift. The bullpen is already the best in the Central.

This is a solid team, and Chapman proves its commitment to get better.

Calling the bluff: The Marlins' four-year, $39 million contract extension for Josh Johnson came on the heels of a joint press release from Major League Baseball, the Marlins and the players' union on a new monitoring plan to assure teams reinvest their revenue-sharing money. It's a victory for new union leader Michael Weiner and Florida's fan base, because Johnson established himself in 2009 as one of the 15 true No. 1 starters in the majors.

There's a risk involved for the franchise, as injuries limited Johnson to 14 starts per year from 2006-08, but the bigger story here is MLB and the union working together. This may lessen the chances of collusion charges being filed about the slow free agent market the last two years and is seen as an encouraging sign for the next round of labor negotiations, scheduled for 2011.

As for the size of Johnson's contract, it mirrors one Zack Greinke received last winter. The Marlins hope Johnson will likewise deliver a Cy Young Award, which is a distinct possibility at some point in the four years.

Catch the ball, please: There's a lot of talk around Boston about the Red Sox's newfound emphasis on fielding, thanks in part to the increasing ability of senior adviser Bill James and others to quantify defensive performance.

Mike Lowell's lack of range and poor health has made third base a weakness since 2007, and there's no doubt Adrian Beltre will be a huge improvement. Beltre has averaged a plus-18.4 Ultimate Zone Rating the last two years, compared with Lowell's minus-14.4 last year.

"I can tell you this: They added a leader and they added one of the better-fielding third basemen I've ever seen," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who managed Beltre with the Dodgers.

The Red Sox also believe they will get a huge lift with Mike Cameron in center field and Jacoby Ellsbury in left. It's hard to believe given Ellsbury's athleticism, but the Red Sox ranked last in the majors in center field UZR last season. The Red Sox were 25th in left, where Jason Bay was the regular.

The last word: "For us to compete in the market size we're in, we have to do some things like this from time to time - a bold move." - Jocketty on the Chapman signing

Phil Rogers covers baseball for the Chicago Tribune.

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