The bidding for Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka is dominating headlines right now and it is easy to understand why. Tanaka is almost certainly the best player alive today who is not yet affiliated with an MLB team. He is just 25-years-old and he is already an established star with a huge following and years of experience in the spotlight. While Tanaka might be the best player outside of MLB, he is not the only international player who could have an impact here in the near future.
Several other international players could be headed to the majors in 2014 or 2015. Apart from Tanaka, there aren't any players who appear destined to be stars in their new home, but all of these players could have solid MLB careers and become important role players for the team that lands them.
Following the success of Korean lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who posted a 3.00 ERA over 191 innings with the Dodgers in his first year in MLB last season, teams will take a hard look at the second best arm out of the KBO. Yoon has the advantage of coming to the U.S as a free agent, so teams will not have to pay any posting fee to obtain his services, according to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors.
"Yoon is on the small side, standing at an even six feet and weighing 180 pounds. He throws in the mid-90s, though, and complements his fastball with a hard, biting slider and a change-up that MLB scouts describe as above average. Though a starter, he has only thrown what we would consider an entire season's work (~175+ IP) once, in 2011. As best I can gather, the average starter in the KBO throws around 150 to 180 innings, making 25 to 30 starts, per season, often supplementing those starts with relief outings here and there."
Yoon is 27-years-old and as Sypa notes, he has moved back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation in Korea, which has limited his innings totals as a professional. That could be a plus for major league teams, especially when compared to the heavy workloads that Japanese pitchers like Tanaka often carry before landing here. The downside is inexperience, however, and that could mean a longer transition than other international players have needed.
The Twins have expressed strong interest in Yoon since he first October, reports Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN and the Cubs have also expressed interest in him, according to Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. The lack of a posting fee should entice any team that likes his stuff to go after him, even if he is a Scott Boras client. He carries a good deal of risk thanks to his lack of experience against elite competition, but his upside is very intriguing; George E. King III of the New York Post reports that Boras was shopping him as a Kyle Lohse-type in October when he planned to pitch Yoon to the Yankees.
25-year-old Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda requested posting this winter but he does not appear likely to leave the Hiroshima Carps this offseason at this point, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America. Though teams may have to wait another year for Maeda, there will be no lack interest when he finally becomes available. Badler provides the following scouting report on the Japan's top performer from the 2013 World Baseball Classic -
"Maeda is a slightly-built 6 feet, 160 pounds and throws around 87-93 mph with good sink and run, though he doesn't get great angle on his fastball. He's a good athlete, which helps him repeat his delivery and thrive when his command, which can be plus at times, is on point. Maeda doesn't have one knockout secondary pitch, but he has a solid-average slider and mixes in a curveball and a changeup as well."
Badler also quotes a scout who projects Maeda as a quality fourth or fifth starter in the majors right away and feels that while he lacks the ability to overpower hitters, his command and his stuff will allow him to keep his team in games.
Without the ceiling that Tanaka has, Maeda may not command the full $20 million posting fee, but given the constant need for reliable starting pitching, he should be a hot commodity whenever he reaches the market.
Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena defected from his island home this fall with the intention of coming to America and the major leagues. The 23-year-old has drawn comparisons to fellow Cuban Jose Iglesias for his defensive abilities and there isn't much higher praise than that. He has been the starting shortstop for Cuba's international team in recent year so scouts and fans have had some oppertunities to see him in top international tournaments like the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but like any Cuban player, information on him has still been limited.
Ben Badler of Baseball America scouts him as an elite glove at glove at short, but has reservation about his bat-
"At 6 feet, 195 pounds, Arruebarruena has clean hands, quick actions and good body control. He's a below-average runner, but his quick first step and instincts give him good range. He has a quick transfer and a plus-plus arm with accuracy, which allows him to make throws from deep in the hole and turn 4-6-3 double plays with ease. His awareness in the field is advanced and he's shown the ability to make the barehanded play look routine and make strong throws from different angles. Scouts have called Arruebarruena a magician in the field, and if he can hit enough to be an everyday major league shortstop, he has the potential to win a Gold Glove.
The bat, however, is a major source of concern with Arruebarruena, even more so than with Iglesias and more along the lines of Marlins Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. A righthanded hitter, Arruebarruena has a long swing, struggles with pitch recognition, swings through breaking balls in the strike zone and is prone to chasing too many pitches out of the strike zone. He has a pull-oriented approach and minimal power, so several scouts are skeptical he could hit better than .220 or hit a .300 on-base percentage against major league pitching. His lack of foot speed would also limit his appeal as a potential defensive-oriented backup, since he wouldn't have as much value as a pinch-runner."
The issues with his bat will probably relegate Arruebarruena to the minors immediately after he signs, but teams will tolerate a good deal of weak hitting to get the kind of run-saving ability he can provide at short. The Mets have expressed some interest in him already, according to Andy Martino of the New York Daily News and the Red Sox, who developed Iglesias before trading him to the Tigers, could be another potential suitor.
It took two tries, but Cuban righty Raciel Iglesias finally managed to defect in mid-November, according to Ben Balder of Baseball America. At just 5'11, the 23-year-old Iglesias is relatively small and Badler notes that there have been few opportunities to see him pitch international recently, so he is considerably risky. However, given his age and potential he will draw scouts to him when he is able to put on a showcase for teams.
Badler projects him as a reliever long term, but notes that he could be developed as a starter in his first forays in pro ball, which he believes will take place in Double-A-
"At the World Baseball Classic in March, Iglesias pitched at 88-92 mph. When Cuba visited the U.S. in July for a five-game friendship series against the U.S. College national team, Iglesias looked more impressive, throwing 92-95 mph while varying the speed and shape of his sweepy 76-81 mph breaking ball to get swings and misses."
The other players here are closer to being viewed as free agents by teams rather than prospects. Iglesias doesn't fit that mold. He is likely to be more of a raw talent and could require substantial seasoning in the minors before he is ready for the show. His age and Cuban league experience makes him an international free agent, however, so the signing limits imposed on international amateurs don't apply to him. That means he will command more money, but it also means any team willing to bid for him can do so, regardless of draft pool allotments. That will make of a strong market for his services despite the obvious risks involved.
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