Overseas Scouting Report
Coming From Japan
By Patrick Newman, courtesy of NPBTracker.com (@NPBtracker)
Early this offseason, as the MLB hot stove was burning with an intensity rivaling our sun, the Far Eastern front was quiet. Player movement both to and from Japan was slowed as MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) negotiated changes to the widely reviled Posting System. The changes that were settled on were substantial and divisive. Gone is the blind auction process, where the high bidder was awarded exclusive bidding rights. In its place is a pseudo-free agency system, where the NPB team sets a transfer fee up to $20 million (US), and the player is free to negotiate with any MLB team that is willing to pay the fee.
THE HEADLINER: Masahiro Tanaka
rhp, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
DOB November 1, 1988
No player was affected as immediately or as significantly by the new posting agreement as Rakuten's Masahiro Tanaka. When Tanaka signed his 2013 contract, he let it be known that he would like to move to MLB prior to qualifying for free agency. He went on to have a legendary season, going 24-0 and leading the Golden Eagles to their first NPB championship. Throughout the year, it was seemingly understood that Rakuten would post him following the season. Apparently Rakuten's willingness to part with their ace was based on the assumption that they would be able to get $50+ million in the posting fee for him. With their return capped at $20 million, Rakuten made their best effort to convince Tanaka to stay, but ultimately relented and posted him.
The MLB attention on Tanaka really galvanized in 2011, as he was the obvious successor to Yu Darvish as Japan's top MLB prospect. For his part, Tanaka has only proven that the attention was justified. His video game numbers (24-0, 1.27 ERA, 183:32 K:BB, 212 IP) in 2013 are well documented, but what might get overlooked is that those numbers aren't really out of the ordinary for Tanaka. In 2012, he missed a few starts with some muscle strains, but still managed a 1.87 ERA in 173 innings, with 169 strikeouts against just 19 walks. And in 2011 he was even better: 19-5, 1.27 ERA, 241:27 K:BB over 226.1 innings, besting Yu Darvish for the Sawamura Award as Japan's top pitcher.
Tanaka passes the eye test as well. He's a sturdy 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He features three pitches that project as above average: a fastball that runs 90-96 mph, a sharp splitter at 85-90 mph, and a sweeping slider. He'll work in a two-seamer and an occasional curveball as well.
Like any other Japanese pitcher transitioning to MLB, there are a few issues to look out for. Health and durability are always a concern, and Tanaka famously threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series, and then closed in Game 7. Perhaps more of an eyebrow-raiser is that his strikeout rate has dropped in each of the last three seasons, from 9.6 K/9 to 8.8 to 7.8 in 2013. He'll also need to adapt to a new culture, but it's worth noting that Tanaka has played with several MLB veterans, including Kazuo Matsui, Akinori Iwamura, Andruw Jones and Takashi Saito.
Despite those caveats, it's reasonable to expect Tanaka to live up to his billing as a No. 2 starter in the big leagues.
Beyond Tanaka, the NPB market didn't have much to offer in the 2013-14 offseason, so we'll look ahead at some of the younger talent in Japan that could transition to MLB down the road.
rhp, Hiroshima Carp
DOB April 11, 1988
While Maeda is older than the players that follow him in this article, we'll see him in MLB sooner. When signing his 2014 contract, Maeda declared his intent to move to MLB for 2015. As of this writing, Hiroshima seems to be in support of his plan. Maeda currently ranks as the second most accomplished pitcher in Japan after Tanaka. While he grades out a bit lower than Tanaka across the board, Maeda still projects as an MLB starter. He's been a reliable innings eater throughout his NPB career; and features a fastball at 90-94 mph, and a breaking pitch that traverses the plane from cutter to slider.
MLB ETA: 2015
rhp/of, Nippon Ham Fighters
DOB July 5, 1994
If Ohtani's name rings a bell, it's probably because he made waves in 2012 by declaring his intent to forgo an NPB career and sign directly with an American team. Undeterred, the Nippon Ham Fighters drafted him and eventually convinced him to sign with them. Part of Nippon Ham's sales pitch included their willingness to let Ohtani be a two-way player, and he did just that. Ohtani opened the 2013 season as Nippon Ham's starting right fielder, and debuted on the mound in May. He finished with a .238/.284/.376 line in 204 plate appearances and a 4.23 ERA over 61.2 innings on the mound. While those stats may not be cosmetically impressive, it's relatively rare for an 18-year-old to step off a high school field and contribute at Japan's top level in any role, much less as a two-way player. He showed glimpses of what might be to come with sweet lefty swing and solid gap power, and a fastball that scrapes the upper-90s.
Given that Ohtani is probably the best athlete currently active in NPB, he has all of the ingredients to become Japan's next superstar. Logic dictates that he'll have to settle on a position at some point, but there's no indication that will happen in 2014. Prior to signing with Nippon Ham, MLB clubs saw him as a pitching prospect. It's no secret that Ohtani wants to make it to the Majors, and Nippon Ham seems supportive of that objective. It will be fascinating to see how he progresses over the next few seasons.
MLB ETA: 2018
rhp, Hanshin Tigers
DOB April 12, 1994
Fujinami, Ohtani's high school rival, may not have the same intrigue, but he's off to an impressive start to his career. Fujinami won the No. 3 spot in Hanshin's rotation out of spring training, and held onto it throughout the season. Fujinami worked mostly with a very good 90-95 mph fastball, and poise beyond his years. He posted a 2.75 ERA with 126 strikeouts over 137.2 innings. The best is likely yet to come with Fujinami. Listed at a lanky 6-foot-7, 189 pounds, Fujinami should add velocity as he fills out. His effectiveness will also improve as he develops his secondary pitches to complement his fastball. Hanshin wisely limited his workload in 2013, and will presumably lift the reins as his career progresses. Already immensely popular with Japanese fans, there's no reason to expect to see him in the States anytime soon, but if he builds on the success of his rookie year he'll be a compelling MLB prospect in a few years.
MLB ETA: 2021
Coming From Cuba
By Peter Schoenke
The pipeline of talent from Cuba has increased the past few seasons with several defectors signing high-profile contracts and making an immediate impact at the major league level. Aroldis Chapman was the first Cuban player of the recent wave to defect who was at the top of the island's professional league. He received a five-year, $25 million contract from the Reds in 2011. It took about a year, but he became one of the top relievers in baseball.
The wave of Cuban players in their prime then appeared to accelerate with Yoenis Cespedes signing a four-year, $36-million deal in 2012 and finishing in the top-10 in MVP voting that season. Yasiel Puig agreed to a seven-year contract worth $42 million in June of 2012, and was second in NL Rookie of the Year voting the following season. The 2014 season will likely continue the trend with Jose Abreu leaving Cuba and signing with the White Sox last October, and with several more high-profile players set to join MLB.
1B, Chicago White Sox
DOB January 29, 1987
Abreu was one of the best players in Cuba this decade, setting the all-time home run record in the Serie Nacional in 2010-2011 (hitting .453 with 33 homers in 66 games). He defected last summer and signed a six-year, $68 million deal in October with the White Sox and is expected to be the everyday starter at first base.
At 27 years old, Abreu is in his prime. He led the Serie Nacional in home runs and OPS during his last season before leaving. He also hit .389 with three home runs in six games for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. While he has great power, it's uncertain how he'll be able to adjust to the steady diet of offspeed pitches he'll face in the majors, as the Serie Nacional lacks a deep supply of quality arms. He also doesn't come with the athleticism of Cespedes or Puig, so he won't add much with his glove.
MLB ETA: 2014 Opening Day
2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
DOB October 20, 1986
Guerrero became one of the better players in Cuba by hitting .302 with 102 home runs from 2005-2012 and making several All-Star teams. He defected in January 2013 and later that summer signed a seven-year, $32 million deal with the Dodgers. He hit .290/.402/.576 with 21 home runs in his last season in the Serie Nacional. It's not clear if his power will translate to the majors, but he showed good plate discipline in his last season in Cuba with more walks (39) than strikeouts (30). At age 27, he's also in his prime. While he played shortstop in Cuba, his defense isn't seen as strong enough for the majors and he'll move to second base. The Dodgers have already announced he's the leading candidate to start at second base this season.
MLB ETA: 2014 Opening Day
MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ
SP, Philadelphia Phillies
DOB September 23, 1986
Gonzalez was a top pitcher in Cuba and was on Cuba's World Cup team in 2009 and 2011. He hasn't pitched in an organized league since 2011 amid his struggle to defect. He also had bone spurs removed from his elbow during that time. He originally agreed to a six-year, $48 million contract with the Phillies, but later signed a three-year, $12 million contract after the elbow problems were revealed. At 6-foot-3, the 27-year-old can reach 96 mph on the radar gun and he throws six different off-speed pitches, including a knuckleball, although he'll likely reduce that arsenal in the majors. He's penciled into the Phillies' starting rotation this spring.
MLB ETA: 2014 Opening Day
SS, Free Agent
DOB May 25, 1990
Arruebarruena has been a star in the Serie Nacional for six seasons and was on Cuba's team for the 2013 WBC. He's a shortstop who is seen as a defensive wizard, and he may not have a big impact with his bat. He hit .275/.324/.366 with two home runs in the first half of last season's Serie Nacional and hit .317/.415/.495 with four homers in the second half that was broken up by the WBC. He defected in November 2013, so by the time he establishes residency outside of Cuba and is approved by the U.S. Government to work in the States, he likely won't be playing in the U.S. until 2015.
MLB ETA: 2015
SS/2B, Free Agent
Diaz was a shortstop with a well-rounded skill set in Cuba's professional league, hitting .315/.404/.500 with 12 home runs in 270 at-bats during the 2011-12 Serie Nacional season before he defected. After MLB found he presented a false birth date when he applied to become a free agent, he was barred from signing with a team until Feb. 19, 2014. The 25-year-old is seen as a potential starting second baseman, but he didn't have as high a profile in Cuba as Abreu or Guerrero.
MLB ETA: 2015