There are few complete mysteries left in baseball. It is now a game where everything—every pitch, every swing, every ball in play—is tracked and measured with NASA-like levels of precision. Front offices and analysts are armed with player reports so comprehensive that high draft picks and potential trade targets are vetted more thoroughly than some members of the president's Cabinet. And yet, when Yoenis Cespedes first arrived in the A's spring clubhouse in Phoenix last March, the Cuban outfielder projected an aura of mystery that made him feel like something of a cross between Roy Hobbs and Bigfoot. He was "not quite real," says Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick. "None of us really knew anything about him, other than from that video."
Before the A's signed him to last winter's most fascinating deal—four years, $36 million—Cespedes was known to most people outside Cuba only through a bizarre 20-minute YouTube clip called "The Showcase," in which the protagonist is seen running sprints shirtless under a hot sun in slow motion, leg-pressing 1,300 pounds and, um, roasting a pig on a spit, among other things. "Let's just say a lot of us thought it was a little over the top," says Reddick.
Two years ago Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban phenom with his own legend, arrived at Reds camp in Goodyear, Ariz., under similar circumstances. Before he took to the back fields for his first workout with the club, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had never seen his $30 million investment throw a baseball in person. Last weekend, when the curtain opened on another postseason, the two Cubans were mysteries no longer; they were front and center in an October that was becoming a showcase for the global growth of the game. There was Cespedes, the unlikely face of Oakland general manager Billy Beane's first playoff team in six years, going 3 for 8 with two stolen bases in the first two games of the A's Division Series against the Tigers. (The A's lost both games in Detroit before the series shifted to Oakland.) There was the Rangers' $107 million Japanese import, Yu Darvish, who in the first American League wild-card game affirmed his status as a bona fide ace with a dominant, seven-strikeout performance in a loss to the Orioles. There was Chapman, Cincinnati's own Cuban Missile, the most dazzling reliever in the postseason and a man who struck out a staggering 44.2% of the batters he faced this season, unleashing 100-mph heaters—including three straight to finish off Buster Posey and the Giants in Game 1 of their Division Series.
And there were the Orioles, too, trotting out Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen and Mexican righty Miguel Gonzalez in consecutive games against the Yankees in their ALDS. Last year Chen, Baltimore's Game 2 starter, pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan's Nippon Professional League, while scheduled Game 3 starter Gonzalez toiled in the Mexican Pacific League, with a team called Los Venados de Mazatlan. Says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who by now is accustomed to the struggle of making himself understood in multilingual mound conversations, "There are more languages in our clubhouse than in the freakin' United Nations."
It has been more than a decade since small-market teams began, en masse, to run their front offices like Wall Street firms, culling assets undervalued by bigger-market teams—who, of course, caught on soon enough and forced the little guys to find fresh ways of staying ahead of the curve. Finding those undervalued players became increasingly difficult. But they were still out there.
Dan Duquette believed you had to go to the ends of the earth to find them. When he took over as general manager of the Orioles last November, he inherited a losing team (14 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, no postseason appearances since 1997) pinned to the cellar floor of the American League East by franchises superior in both intellectual and real capital. As he searched for the fastest way to turn Baltimore into a winner, Duquette identified the international market as the quickest route to relevancy. "Between the free-agent and trade markets, the draft and the international market, you have to select a few to be very good in if you want to be good year in and year out," says Duquette. "The international market was one I thought we could be good in right away."
Before Duquette arrived, the Orioles had a virtually nonexistent presence in the global market, but in the last 10 months the club has signed players from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, New Zealand, Mexico, Taiwan, Venezuela, Japan and South Korea. Most of those signings (see Pita Rona, a 17-year-old former softball player from Wanganui, New Zealand, whom Duquette picked up last winter on a minor league contract) are lottery tickets, but two have already paid off. One morning last January, Fred Ferreira, the man Duquette tapped to lead the team's international scouting effort (they had worked together in the 1990s when Duquette built the Expos into a force), was sitting in the stands at a Mexican League game in Mazatlan, on the country's Pacific coast. An 75-year-old scout with countless stories from his decades on the road, Ferreira is the kind of guy you imagine would get along with the grumpy old bird dog played by Clint Eastwood in Trouble with the Curve. He says it took him just nine pitches—"every one was exactly where he wanted it to be"—to be convinced that Gonzalez was worth signing. The Orioles signed the 28-year-old righty to a minor league contract. After spending much of the first half in Triple A, Gonzalez was one of Baltimore's best pitchers down the stretch, going 9—4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts.
Another key off-season signing was the 27-year-old Chen, who turned out to be the most reliable piece of Baltimore's rotation this season. Chen was 12—11 with a 4.02 ERA and was the only Orioles starter with enough innings (192 2/3) to qualify for the ERA title. Chen had a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons, and his 1.54 ERA in 2009 was the lowest for a starter in the Japanese league in more than four decades. Still, he was overlooked by most major league teams, and the Orioles scooped him up in January on a bargain deal: three years, $11.4 million. "A lefthanded pitcher in the prime of his career who throws in the 90s, with the command he has—it's not easy to find these guys," says Duquette. "Our scouts thought that he could be a top three starter down the road."
The Rangers' hefty investment in Darvish (they paid a $51 million posting fee to the righthander's Japanese team just for the rights to negotiate with him) and the Orioles' signing of Chen represent opposite ends of the financial spectrum. The success of both—Darvish was fifth in the AL with 221 strikeouts—will undoubtedly alter the market for East Asian pitchers. But Duquette still has his eye on the region. Even though Japanese pitchers have long been coming to the majors (Hideo Nomo blazed the trail in 1995, and righthander Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees' scheduled Game 3 starter, has been in the majors for five seasons), the G.M. believes that the area is still fertile. "There's a lot of untapped talent still in Japan," Duquette says. "Taiwan is developing, with more universities that have programs for elite baseball. And now a lot of teams are active in China. Everyone's looking for baseball's Yao Ming. That would be a game-changer. It's just a matter of time."
There are big gambles and there are small gambles when it comes to international signings. He's the most intimidating reliever in the postseason now, but in 2010 Chapman, then an unproven 22-year-old, was viewed by most teams as a huge risk. The Reds felt it was one worth taking, "especially for a team like ours," says scouting director Chris Buckley. "It's awfully difficult for a small-market team to come up with that type of talent. How do we procure a lefthanded pitcher who can throw over 100 mph? The thing about that [international] market is, we didn't have to trade four players to get him; we didn't have to give up draft picks."