We’ve seen many players over the years try to make the transition from their overseas competition to Major League Baseball. Some have worked out very well (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui), some have flopped (Kei Igawa, Tsuyoshi Nishioka) and others have grade cards that are still incomplete (Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin).
Below are this offseason’s crop of international players that are poised to possibly make the jump to MLB. Some might not come over at all, and some that do will likely never be impact players. But, there are a few that have the potential to certainly be intriguing for fantasy owners next year. Let’s get to know them a little better.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Cuba
Most (myself included) had never heard of Cespedes just a couple months ago. But, a scouting video that surfaced on the internet quickly made him an overnight sensation and had people comparing him to some combination of Matt Kemp, Mike Stanton, The Flash and He-Man. In all seriousness, Cespedes’ raw talent is lauded by everyone, including Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, who has called the outfielder "arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation."
Cespedes batted .333/.424/.667 with 33 home runs and 99 RBI in 90 games in Cuba during the 2010-2011 season, as he and José Dariel Abreu set a new league record for longballs. The 26-year-old has tremendous raw power, is considered a good defender that can play all three outfield positions and also has pretty nice speed, as well. Some scouts question whether he’ll be able to make contact consistently, but it’s the power/speed combo that has teams lining up for his services. He seems likely to top Aroldis Chapman’s $30.25 million deal from last winter.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Japan
Darvish, 25, has been the most talked about pitcher to come out of Japan since Daisuke Matsuzaka, and not only is he considerably younger than Matsuzaka was when he posted, but most feel he has more upside, as well. It’s still a question as to whether or not Darvish will end up coming over to the states this offseason, but the general feeling is that it’s more likely than not that he will be in a major league uniform on Opening Day next year.
The stats put up by Darvish in Japan have been eye-popping. He has posted a sub-2.00 ERA in five straight seasons, three times held a WHIP of 0.90 or lower and has maintained a K:BB ratio of nearly 4.4:1 while punching out over a batter per inning. He’s twice been named the league's MVP. The 25-year-old’s fastball sits steadily in the 93-95 MPH range, and he also has a two-seamer, a cutter, a couple varieties of a slider and a slow curveball, all of which are considered at least average pitches.
Whoever ends up with Darvish will likely need to fork over $50 million to his Japanese team just to negotiate with him, so the price will be steep. But, you’re looking at a young hurler with ace upside, so there are plenty of interested parties. The Nationals, Yankees and Blue Jays have been the teams most often linked with him.
Wei-Yin Chen, LHP, Japan
Chen was born in Taiwan but has pitched in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league for several years now. The bad news is that his results this past season in Japan were down a bit, as his strikeout rate dropped and his stuff for most of the year simply wasn’t as good. The good news is that his velocity was back to its normal 92-94 MPH range by the end of the year and the bite of his trademark slider had returned.
Chen has the most upside of any international pitcher beyond Darvish and turned just 26 in July. Given the lack of quality arms available on the free agent market, and the fact that the left-hander will be a true free agent that won’t require a posting fee, he should have at least a handful of teams interested. Chen is reportedly looking for a four-year deal in the range of $20 million.
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Japan
The A’s won the negotiating rights to Iwakuma, 30, last offseason for $19.1 million but were unable to come to an agreement with the right-hander. He’s hired a new agent, though, and seems much more likely to be locked up by a team this winter. Iwakuma has posted an ERA of 2.82 or lower in three of the last four seasons, including a 2.42 mark this year. His strikeout rates have been modest, which is a concern given that they’re surely go down in the majors, and he dealt with shoulder issues this season that limited him to 17 starts.
Iwakuma has a fastball that tops out around 90 MPH and also features a plus slider, but he succeeds mostly because he throws strikes and keeps the ball down. Assuming he’s given a clean bill of health, Iwakuma is someone that could help out at the back end of someone’s rotation.
Jorge Soler, OF, Cuba
As someone that just turned 19 last month, Soler isn’t close to helping out a major league club. But, he has the power potential that will have a good number of teams interested in his services. The Nationals are one of those teams, and their Director of International Scouting Johnny DiPuglia told the Washington Post that Soler has “a Hanley Ramirez-type body… Plus arm. Plus bat speed.”
The Phillies, Yankees, Cubs and Rangers also reportedly have interest in the Cuban defector. Soler might need close to 1,000 at-bats in the minors, but that’s probably not going to keep someone from giving him more than the three-year, $15.5 million deal the Rangers gave to outfielder Leonys Martin last offseason.
Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP, Japan
The best closer in Japan, Fujikawa is no safe bet to be posted this winter, but it’s certainly possible given that he has one year left before true free agency. The 31-year-old saved 41 games for the Hanshin Tigers this season while boasting a 1.40 ERA and striking out a whopping 80 over 51 innings. Though it’s possible major league clubs might at least initially consider him for more of a setup role, Fujikawa is the best bet of any international player to potentially see some save chances in 2012.
Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS, Japan
Nakajima, 29, has put up some nice numbers in Japan, as he’s batted at least .297 in each of the last six seasons -- including a .331 mark in 2008 -- while also offering some power (four 20-homer seasons) and speed (he averaged 20.3 steals over the last four years). He’s also driven in at least 92 runs each of the last three seasons. But, teams will likely be scared of Nakajima after Tsuyoshi Nishioka flopped both at the plate and in the field, particularly since Nishioka posted similar offensive numbers in Japan and had a better reputation defensively.
Chong Tae-Hyon, RHP, Korea
A couple weeks ago, it looked like the Orioles were going to lock up Tae-Hyon on a two-year deal, but now it appears he’s considering remaining with the Korean Baseball Organization. Regardless, the soon-to-be 33-year-old right-hander isn’t terribly intriguing. He did post a 1.48 ERA this past season in Korea, but that also came along with a 39/25 K/BB ratio in 54 2/3 innings and his fastball tops out only in the mid-80s. He’ll just be a middle reliever if he does wind up signing with the O’s.
Norichika Aoki, OF, Japan
Aoki is a three-time Central League batting champion and just in 2010 hit .358 with 14 homers while tallying 19 stolen bases. But, his numbers dropped off considerably this past season, as he hit .292 with four longballs and just eight steals. He hits left-handed and has experience playing all three outfield positions, but Aoki, who will turn 30 in January, looks like more of a bench player if he does wind up in the states next season.
Tsuyoshi Wada, LHP, Japan
Wada, 30, enjoyed a career year for the Softbank Hawks in 2011, going 16-5 with a 1.51 ERA and a 168/40 K/BB ratio in 184 2/3 innings. Also working in his favor is that he is eligible for free agency this winter, thus MLB teams won’t have to pay a posting fee in order to sign him. But, the upside with Wada isn’t great. The diminutive left-hander tops out in the high 80s and doesn’t have a true “out” pitch for MLB hitters. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a shot to catch on as a No. 5 starter somewhere, though. The Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees and Mariners could have interest.
Other names of note:
Munenori Kawasaki, SS, Japan – Kawasaki, 30, has posted some decent numbers in Japan, but he’d likely be a bench player and has limited himself by saying he would only sign with the Mariners.
Shinobu Fukuhara, RHP, Japan – Fukuhara, 34, held a 2.59 ERA and 59/16 K/BB ratio over 48 2/3 innings this season with the Hanshin Tigers and also has starting experience. He’s drawn interest from the Indians but might not be able to get a major league deal.
Hiroki Sanada, RHP, Japan – Sanada, 27, underwhelmed with a 4.22 ERA and measly 3.3 K/9 rate this season for the Yokohama Bay Stars. He’ll be lucky to get a minor league deal.