GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- We'd be interested in Aroldis Chapman even without the intrigue. We'd be fascinated by his left arm. We'd be wondering whether he really could be ready for the major leagues at age 21.
We'd be asking about Chapman the same way we're asking about Stephen Strasburg.
But here's the difference: Nobody's asking Strasburg if he's ever seen an iPhone.
That really was one of the questions asked of Chapman when he met the media this week at the Reds complex, and it was perfectly legitimate. We just don't know what to think about this kid who months ago was living in Cuba, this young man who left his parents and girlfriend and now eight-month-old daughter behind, for a chance to pitch in the big leagues.
He's not the first Cuban defector we've seen, but he may be the most intriguing.
We watch as he sits alone in the Reds clubhouse, even as a large group of Latin American pitchers carry on loudly in Spanish only a few lockers away. We watch as he throws in the bullpen, even though we realize it's hard to tell 95 mph from 100 mph in that setting.
We wonder if he's really as good as they say, and we also wonder why, if he's as good as they say, the Reds won a bidding war with the A's, and not with one of the mega-market teams that usually ends up with the big-money international free agents (think Orlando Hernandez, Hideki Matsui or even Daisuke Matsuzaka, who wasn't technically a free agent but did end up with the highest bidder).
We're as curious about him as he seems to be about us. He's learning new food, a new language and a new culture. We're learning everything we can about a pitcher who is in some ways different from any we've ever seen.
"There's a lot of things we don't know," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "But we do know he throws hard and is a good athlete."
More from Reds camp
THINGS TO KNOW
|Reds schedules & predictions|
Thread: Reds' expectations!
Price talked about how "overwhelming" all this has to be for Chapman, but he also talked about how overwhelming it could be for all of us.
"We all saw Fernando-mania," Price said. "I don't know if it'll go like that. Remember what it was like seeing Nolan Ryan pitch? This is a guy people will want to see pitch."
That's already true, even in Chapman's own clubhouse.
"He's been throwing on the opposite days from me, so I haven't seen him yet," Reds starter Aaron Harang said. "Yeah, I'm interested. From what everyone's saying, it's just amazing to watch the guy throw."
The Reds have been raving about Chapman, who cost them $30.25 million in a creative six-year contract. Besides the fastball, they talk about his baseball intelligence, his savvy, his athleticism.
They tell you that because he didn't start pitching until he was 15 or 16 (he was a first baseman before that), his arm is fresh. They say that when team doctors gave him a physical after he agreed to terms, they reported back that they had never seen such a pristine MRI exam.
But they also caution that because of the cultural adjustment, Chapman might not be ready for the big leagues as soon as his talent might dictate.
"I think baseball's probably the least of our concerns," manager Dusty Baker said. "Put yourself in his situation."
The Reds have an opening in their rotation this spring. They need a fifth starter, because Edinson Volquez is coming back from Tommy John surgery and won't return until midseason at the earliest. They call Chapman one of the candidates for that spot, although they seem more inclined to let him debut somewhere in the minor leagues first.
Sleeper ... Jay Bruce: He will be just 23 on opening day, which means there is still plenty of time for him to become the .300-30-100-100-10 player he has been billed to become. We modestly project .254-30-88-76-7, but we actually expect much, much more.
Bust ... Aroldis Chapman: He's not really a bust candidate, but if anyone is drafting Aroldis Chapman as anything more than a long-term keeper stashee right now, they are buying themselves a potential bust. He just hasn't proven anything as a pro and might open the year in Class A.
Breakout ... Joey Votto: You could see Votto on the board after the top 10 Fantasy first baseman, but he is capable of posting numbers that would slot him in the top 5 at the strongest position in Fantasy. He won't be as surprising as Mark Reynolds, Adam Lind, Kendry Morales or even Pablo Sandoval a year ago, but he could be even more productive.
-- Eric Mack
Top Reds Prospects (2010 destination)
1. Aroldis Chapman, SP, High Class A
2. Yonder Alonso, 1B, Triple A
3. Todd Frazier, OF, Triple-A
4. Juan Francisco, 3B, Triple-A
5. Chris Heisey, OF, Majors
|Reds outlook | 2010 Draft Prep Guide|
"If they feel I can make the club, fine," Chapman said through Tony Fossas, the former big league pitcher and Reds minor league pitching coach. "If not, I'll work hard until I can make that happen."
Fossas was born in Cuba, and the Reds have designated him to look over their precious new pitcher. A major league clubhouse isn't exactly an uncomfortable place for a Spanish-speaking player, but Chapman seems to need to lean on Fossas for support.
As Reds people will tell you, there's no concern that Chapman will be scared, not after what he had to go through to get here. He won't talk much about the details of his defection, when he left the team in a Netherlands hotel and later established residency in the tiny European nation of Andorra, in order to qualify as a free agent.
But Chapman will talk about the decision to leave.
"They say in Cuba that you have to be brave, and you have to make a move," he said.
Coming here was a brave move for him. Signing Chapman for $30.25 million was a brave move for the Reds.
"I think we surprised a lot of people," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "We look at it as an investment not only in the present but in the future."
They took a chance, but they figured it was a chance worth taking. Without the budget to compete for established big-money free agents, the Reds are gambling on a guy who could turn out to be great or could end up as a bust.
Now, having seen Chapman's arm up close and having had the chance to work with him, they seem more convinced than ever that he won't be a bust. But there's still so much we don't know about him, so much that the Reds themselves don't know.
They're anxious to find out, anxious to learn more, especially anxious to see how Chapman looks on the mound at Great American Ball Park. And anxious to find out how soon he can get there.
"We really don't have a timetable," Jocketty said. "I don't think it's good to have a timetable."
With a guy as unknown as Aroldis Chapman, that's fine. What's one more unknown?