International free agents are receiving serious interest in the aftermath of Winter Meetings, with teams looking for relatively cheap and creative options to plug holes on their rosters.
This week’s big news features another high-profile Cuban player defecting in order to pursue a career in Major League Baseball, although it will likely be several months until he’s cleared to sign with a team.
Here’s a look at the latest news regarding the top international free agents and the teams that could be interested in their services.
Erisbel Arruebarruena, Shortstop
Shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena has left Cuba and hopes to sign with a major league team, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.
Because he's 23 years old and has played in Cuba's Serie Nacional for six seasons, Arruebarruena will not be subject to the international bonus pools. MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez also notes that the player has already established residency in Haiti but has not yet been cleared to sign by the United States' Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and MLB.
Regarded as the premier defensive shortstop in the Serie Nacional, Arruebarruena also handled the position for the Cuban national team and played in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Badler has only great things to say about his defensive prowess:
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.
While there's no doubt that Arruebarruena's defense will translate in the major leagues, the same can't be said about the 23-year-old's bat, regardless of what his career numbers in Cuba suggest.
He enjoyed a breakout season at the plate in 2011-2012, batting .320/.367/.520 with eight home runs and a 39-19 strikeout-to-walk rate in 306 plate appearances.
A right-handed hitter, he has a lack of physical strength that is noticeable in the length of his swing and inefficient bat path to the ball. The pitch recognition is also concerning; he struggles to pick up spin out of the pitcher's hand and frequently overcommits his weight to the front side. As a result, Arruebarruena chases too many offerings outside the strike zone and tries to yank the ball to the pull side when he does get something in the zone.
He played in a showcase in the Dominican Republic earlier in the month that had scouts from several major league teams in attendance.
MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo spoke with a scout who attended the event:
From his evaluation, it sounds like he will certainly bring some Major League-caliber skills to a team, but he doesn’t see him as a true impact player, like a Cespedes, Puig or Chapman. Here’s his thoughts on what he’s seen of Arruebarruena:
“He’s what you’ve been reading. He’s a very good defensive player. His glove is very close to the big leagues. The bat, you kind of think he’s one of those guys who’ll bat down in the order. He can really play shortstop, if that’s the type of player you’re interested in. He’ll be a quality defensive shortstop in the Major Leagues, but you wonder if he’s going to hit. Some of the others who have come recently – Jose Iglesias, Adeiny Hechavarria — I felt more confident about the bat. We’ll have to hear what the money is. This isn’t like watching Aroldis Chapman or Yeonis Cespedes. You’re not going to hear from 15 teams. You’ll hear from teams that are hurting a little bit at shortstop.”
No organization needs a shortstop more than the New York Mets. So, it’s not surprising that they’ve expressed interest in Arruebarruena and sent scouts to the Dominican Republic for his showcase.
Rusney Castillo, Outfield
Cuban star Rusney Castillo has defected from the island and will pursue a contract with a major league team, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.
It will be several months before he can actually sign, though, as the 26-year-old center fielder must first establish residency in another county to be declared a free agent by Major League Baseball. He also will have to be cleared by OFAC.
Because Castillo has played five seasons in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, he will be exempt from international signing bonus pools and eligible to sign as a free agent.
However, he hasn’t played competitively since late in 2012, when he was suspended from Cuba’s national team and the Serie Nacional season for trying to defect.
The center fielder put up monster numbers in 2011-12, hitting .332/.395/.545 with 28 doubles, 16 home runs and 22 stolen bases in 420 plate appearances. However, he struggled during his final year in the league, posting a pedestrian .250/.352/.342 batting line in 43 games.
Here’s what Badler had to say about the 26-year-old’s game:
Castillo is short but has a strong, athletic frame at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. His best tool is his speed, as he’s an above-average runner and one of the better base stealers in Cuba. More of a doubles hitter than a big home run threat, Castillo puts a charge into the ball with a line-drive righthanded swing, though he can get long to the ball at times and some scouts think he’s prone to chasing pitches off the plate. Primarily a center fielder in Cuba, Castillo has also played some second and third base, so his versatility could be a draw for some teams. He’s an aggressive, high-energy player, though some teams see him as a fourth outfielder.
Badler also mentions that Castillo could potentially make the jump directly to the major leagues after signing, although a tune-up in Triple-A isn’t out of the question either.
If that’s also the consensus among major league teams, then expect Castillo to draw significant interest from a range of suitors.
While he hasn’t been linked to a specific team, the 26-year-old could be a fit for clubs in need of a long-term center fielder or even super utility player. Teams that could be interested in Castillo’s services include the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers.
Aledmys Diaz, Middle Infield
Aledmys Diaz is a 6’1”, 185-pound shortstop who has drawn favorable reviews from evaluators for his projectable bat and power potential, as well as solid range and a strong arm.
While he’s ineligible to sign with a team until February after falsifying his age last offseason, there already is plenty of interest in the 23-year-old.
According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, Diaz has been working out in Culiacan, Mexico and has drawn interest from the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Kenta Maeda, Right-Handed Pitcher
Kenta Maeda has been one of the top starting pitchers in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball over the last several years. However, he doesn't have that sexy, front-of-the-rotation profile of Masahiro Tanaka.
Although he's a 6'0", 160-pound right-hander with a fastball that rarely eclipses 90 mph, Maeda baffles opposing hitters thanks to deception in his delivery and plus command of a deep arsenal.
Specifically, the 25-year-old features both a two- and four-seam fastball that grade out as below-average offerings in terms of velocity, although the two-seamer has late run to the arm side.
Maeda throws a slider that registers in the upper-70s with significant movement—albeit of the sweeping variety—down and to his glove side. He also throws a second breaking ball, a curveball, that averages roughly 70 mph with a huge vertical break that compares to Ted Lilly and Barry Zito’s, according to Clint Hulsey of I R Fast.
The right-hander also mixes in a changeup that offers a nice change in pace in terms of velocity at about 82 mph with an average sinking action. It's a serviceable pitch that will presumably be vital toward his success against major league hitters, especially left-handed ones.
Maeda recently expressed interested in playing in the major leagues, according to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker, perhaps as early as the 2015 season.
Yenier Bello, Catcher
Yenier Bello left Cuba for Ecuador earlier this year and has established residency in Mexico. He's already been declared a free agent by MLB, but he 28-year-old catcher is yet to be cleared to sign by OFAC.
A 5'11", 225-pound right-handed hitter, Bello batted .274 with 13 home runs Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2011. He hit .276/.324/.458 with 82 home runs from 2003-11.
He is known mostly for his rocket arm behind the plate, as he threw out exactly half of attempted base-stealers (118-of-236) in his nine-year career.
According to Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet, between 15 and 20 teams sent scouts to Tijuana, Mexico in early November to watch Bello in a showcase.
The Dodgers are the only team linked to him so far, with Spanish site Solo Beisbol reporting that they have evaluated him Tijuana.
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