Who Are the Next Top International Players Who Could Jump to MLB?
The sweepstakes for Masahiro Tanaka officially came to an end on Wednesday, as the Japanese right-hander agreed to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees, as first reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
But now that Tanaka is off the board, who will be the next international player to make the jump directly to the major leagues?
Here’s a look at six international prospects that have realistic futures in Major League Baseball.
Jose Miguel Fernandez, 2B (Cuba)
Jose Miguel Fernandez has been a known commodity in Cuban baseball for what seems like an eternity. Since debuting in Serie Nacional as a 19-year-old in 2007-08, Fernandez has steadily emerged as one of Cuba’s top prospects thanks a strong track record against both domestic and international competition.
The 25-year-old had a monster 2012-2013 season in Serie Nacional, as he led the league with a .393 batting average, ranked fourth with a .495 on-base percentage and ranked fifth with a .593 slugging percentage. Fernandez also showed decent power with nine doubles and seven home runs in 185 plate appearances along with an advanced feel for the strike zone (27-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season).
Baseball America’s Ben Badler shared the following notes after scouting Fernandez during the 2013 World Baseball Classic:
At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Fernandez has a flat lefthanded swing and good hand-eye coordination that helps him make plenty of contact. He sets his hands up low and has an unusual toe tap where he turns his front ankle towards the pitcher, but it works for him as a timing mechanism. He has the power for 10-15 home runs in a season, perhaps a little more. He’s not a great runner and isn’t a threat to steal bases, with range better suited at second base than shortstop.
Badler goes on to mention that Fernandez’s polished bat could help him crack a major-league lineup immediately should he ever defect from Cuba.
If he ultimately leaves the island, expect suitors to be lining up at the door for his services.
Kenta Maeda, RHP (Japan)
Kenta Maeda has been one of the top starting pitchers in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball for the last several years. With that said, he doesn't have the sexy, front-of-the-rotation profile of Masahiro Tanaka.
In spite of being 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 high 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 and features a huge vertical break that is comparable to Ted Lilly's 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 of 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 previously expressed interested in playing in the major leagues sooner rather than later, according to Patrick Newman of NPB Tracker, perhaps as early as the 2015 season. With a strong command profile and at least mid-rotation potential in the major leagues, expect a bidding war to ensue when he’s posted.
Rusney Castillo, OF (Cuba)
Back in December, Ben Badler of Baseball America reported that Cuban star Rusney Castillo had defected from the island to pursue a contract with a major-league team.
It will likely be several months before he can actually sign, however, 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 spent five seasons in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, he will be exempt from international signing bonus pools and eligible to sign as a free agent.
Castillo hasn’t played competitively since late in 2012, when he was suspended from Cuba’s national team and Serie Nacional season for trying to defect.
Prior to that, Castillo 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 overall 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.
Seung-Hwan Oh, RHP (South Korea)
Although he has a thicker build and lacks physical projection at 5’10”, 200 pounds, Seung-Hwan Oh has shown the ability to work on a consistent downhill plane toward the plate and pound the strike zone.
In terms of his arsenal, the 31-year-old right-hander throws his fastball in the 90-97 mph range with late life. When he’s working toward the low end of the velocity range, Oh generates decent sinking action on the pitch and is capable of inducing ground balls at any level. At the same time, the offering tends to flatten out and plays straight when thrown up in the zone at higher velocities.
Oh’s top secondary offering is a slider that registers anywhere from 80-89 mph, and he demonstrates a feel for adding and subtracting depending on the situation and hitter. It’s not a tight, wipe-out pitch, but it does generate consistent glove-side slice with some late downer action. The right-hander will mix in a curveball at times that can range from 71-79 mph with a variant shape, but it is less developed and less effective than his slider.
Kyuji Fujikawa signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract with the Cubs prior to the 2013 season after a highly successful age-31 campaign, and I wouldn't be surprised if Oh receives something similar from a major-league team. He doesn't project to be a closer, as the Cubs envisioned when they inked Fujikawa, but the right-hander has upside of a solid late-inning reliever in a big-league bullpen.
Erisbel Arruebarruena, SS (Cuba)
In November, Ben Badler of Baseball America reported that shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena had left Cuba with the hope of signing with a major-league team.
Because he's 23 years old and 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.
Arruebarruena enjoyed a breakout season at the plate in 2011-12, batting .320/.367/.520 with eight home runs and a 39-19 strikeout-to-walk rate in 306 plate appearances.
The right-hander hitter's lack of physical strength is noticeable in the length of his swing and inefficient bat path to the ball. His 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.
Scouts from several major-league teams attended a showcase in the Dominican Republic in December to get a firsthand look at Arruebarruena.
MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo spoke with a scout who was on hand:
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 didn’t come as a surprise to learn they were one of the teams represented at the Dominican Republic event.
Yulieski Gourriel, 3B (Cuba)
Yulieski Gourriel has been viewed as a major-league prospect for the better part of the last decade.
After debuting in Serie Nacional as an 18-year-old, Gourriel quickly emerged as one of the league’s premier players by winning back-to-back MVPs in his age-20 and -21 seasons. Furthermore, the 29-year-old has been a part of every Cuban team to participate in a major international event, including all three World Baseball Classics.
Though he’s still posting solid numbers, Gourriel’s production has been on the decline in recent years. In the 2012-13 season, the right-handed slugger batted .325/.430/.500 with four home runs and a 14-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 186 plate appearances.
Gourriel production has shown further signs of regression this season, as he’s currently batting .286/.396/.482 with five home runs and a 17-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 203 plate appearances.
According to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, the scouting community is divided over Gourriel’s future in Major League Baseball:
Gourriel, 28, has a bat wrap that creates length in his swing, but he has the strength and bat speed to get away with it, showing the ability to catch up to mid-90s fastballs with a knack for squaring up the ball on the barrel. He has plus power and gets to it in games with a good hitting approach, showing the ability to hit to all fields. His hand-eye coordination helps him cover the plate and leaves him without many holes in his stroke. He has a strong arm with the tools to be an above-average defender at third base and made some nifty plays in Japan, but he also makes some head-scratching errors where routine grounders got by him. That happened with a ninth-inning error that led to the Netherlands’ winning run in the loss that eliminated Cuba.
Some scouts think he’s a plus runner but don’t see him run hard home to first. He has some experience at second base in the past and is athletic enough to move there if needed. Some scouts think Gourriel is the best player on the Cuban national team with a chance to be a major league all-star, while others think he’s stagnated in Cuba, but the chance of him ever leaving is slim.
Due to his family’s strong ties to the Cuban government (and therefore baseball), Gourriel has always been regarded as one of the players least likely to defect from Cuba. However, if he was to leave the island, the 29-year-old’s right-handed bat would likely draw interest from several American League teams.