The 2012 offseason’s pool of free agent– and other guns for hire– is particularly deep in international talent. While past offseasons have included a few big names at a time, the continued evolution of the professional baseball player market has left us with a immensely gifted class of superstars seeking entry into Major League Baseball.
More than a decade after Ichiro Suzuki inked a big league contract with the Mariners, the MLB and NPB have grown far more comfortable doing business through the posting system. Along with numerous other clubs, the New York Yankees are in hot pursuit of young Nippon-Ham Fighters star Yu Darvish. The young star is expected to be accompanied by other NPB talents like shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima and outfielder Norichika Aoki in posting within the next few weeks.
The international free agent market holds plenty of starpower as well. Even after snubbing the Oakland Athletics last offseason, Hisashi Iwakuma is drawing heavy interest and is expected to pitch for a big league team in 2012. Out of Japan, pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen and position players Matt Murton and Munenori Kawasaki are quickly becoming popular discussion topics around MLB front offices.
Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Aroldis Chapman carved a place for Cuban stars in Major League Baseballl while Shin-Soo Choo and Chan Ho Park have opened new doors for KBO players. Outfielder Yoennis Cespedes, only months after defecting from Cuba, has developed both YouTube stardom and a group of MLB franchises prepared to doll out big bucks for his services. Spicing up the pot even more, superagent Scott Boras– busy as usual– could add another intriguing name to the Hot Stove discussion: Korean pitching sensation and 2011 KBO MVP, Suk-Min Yoon.
To better acquaint yourself with these stars, check out BaseballNewsHound.com’s International Free Agent and Posting Candidate Rankings below:
International Free Agents
Yoennis Cespedes (Centerfielder)
Cuba’s starting centerfielder during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, twenty-six-year-old Yoennis Cespedes is the top non-pitcher on the international market. Defecting from Cuba this past summer, Cespedes expects to the MLB to grant his request to enter free agency and is quickly drawing a pool of suitors that rivals the attention Aroldis Chapman garnered a couple of years ago.
Tabbed a “five-tool player” by Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, Cespedes offers immense power potential, plus-plus speed, a cannon arm and premium defensive ability in centerfield. At his recent scouting showcase, he ran a scorching 6.3 and 6.5 60-yard dash times, put his (Cuban Professional Baseball) record-tying homerun power to work in batting practice and briefly advertised his weapons-grade shoulder. After attending his Friday workout along with scouts from a number of clubs including the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, a source close to sportswriter Jeff Passan compared Cespedes to top MLB prospect Mike Trout.
Cespedes’ talent won’t come cheap. Considering himself to be comparable in value to Aroldis Chapman, the phenom could command upwards of $30 million dollars. Though big-money franchises like the Yankees and Phillies seem like most probable landing spots, the Nationals, Marlins, Pirates and Cubs all have money to play with and lineup cards to fill.
Who’ll Sign Him? The New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals are the most likely candidates with the Marlins, Cubs, and Pirates looking like possible destinations as well.
Matt Murton (Leftfielder, Japan Central League Free Agent)
Matt Murton, the owner of Nippon Professional Baseball’s single season hits record, is preparing to return to the MLB after a two-year stint playing left field for the Hanshin Tigers. Similar to Colby Lewis, after his development hit a wall in the big leagues a couple of years ago, the former first round draft-pick used the NPB to polish his skill-set.
An on-base machine, Murton boasts a career .386 OBP in the minor leagues and managed a strong .352 mark during his five-season big league career. After leading Japan’s Central League in batting in 2010, posting an immense .349 average in 144 games, Murton just missed taking home his second batting crown this past season. The sweet swing and keen batting-eye that convinced the Red Sox to select him 32nd overall in the 2003 MLB Amateur Draft– in front of premium athletes Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Adam Jones and Drew Stubbs– has only improved since his days as a fourth outfielder.
A solid defensive leftfielder, Murton should be a nice consolation prize and a good value for any club that misses out on this year’s crop of first-tier outfielders. He has the potential to post an a batting average between .280-.300 and his plate discipline should keep his on-base percentage on the better side of .350. His price-tage will be well below comparable corner outfielders like Michael Cuddyer, though his interest in remaining with the Hanshin Tigers should put some pressure on his suitors.
Who’ll Sign Him? The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs are the early favorites though there’s still a strong chance that he’ll re-sign with the Hanshin Tigers.
Munenori Kawasaki (Shortstop, Pacific League Free Agent)
A veteran of the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, Kawasaki is widely considered the most polished this winter’s most polished NPB free agent infielder. Chosen over Tsuyoshi Nishioka for Japan’s 2009 WBC roster, Kawasaki is an above-average defender at shortstop, third and second base. His baserunning skills rate plus as well, while he’s a solid enough hitter to keep his batting average in the playable range for a middle infielder.
He’s embodies professional ballplayer and he’s drawn media attention for training with Ichiro during recent offseasons. Scout Yasushi Yamamoto graded Kawasaki’s defense and baserunning above both Nishioka and more toolsy fellow shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima while praising his makeup and grinder work ethic.
Kawasaki could land with any team looking for a Willie Bloomquist or Jerry Hairston Jr.-type utility infielder. However, if Hiroyuki Nakajima posts to the MLB, Kawasaki’s stock may not have enough flare to garner him any serious attention.
Who’ll Sign Him? Mariners? Kawasaki may very well stay in Japan, but his relationship with Ichiro Suzuki could make him somewhat attractive to Seattle.
The pitcher that outperformed both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish while playing for Japan’s ’09 World Baseball Classic tournament-winning team, Hisashi Iwakuma was posted by the Golden Eagles last season. Negotiations between he and the Oakland Athletics fell through and after an injured shoulder limited his playing time and effectiveness this past season, Iwakuma’s stock has tumbled considerably. He’s still a solid veteran arm however, and he’s poised to make a push to sign with a big league club this winter.
Arm injuries and changes to his delivery have reduced Iwakuma’s fastball velocity from mid 90′s heat to the 87-91 range. Now more of a finesse sinker-baller than a front-end power arm, Iwakuma’s veteran feel for pitching, deceptive mechanics, polished fastball command and his deep repertoire should still make him a useful pitcher for any team. He spots his pitches well and does a fine job of changing speeds and using his two-seamer/changeup/splitter combo to generate groundballs and weak contact.
A free agent, Iwakuma can avoid the posting rules that kept him from signing with a MLB ballclub last offseason. Now represented by Paul Cobbe — instead of Don Namura whom soured relations with the A’s– Iwakuma should have a clearer path to the big leagues.
Yu Darvish (Right-Handed Pitcher, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)
Just twenty-five years old, rigthhander Yu Darvish is considered to the top pitcher in Japanese baseball and is arguably more talented than a young Daisuke Matsuzaka. Since he was drafted by Nippon-Ham in 2004, Darvish has compiled a sparkling 93-38 record and has posted a spectacular 1.99 ERA and 0.98 WHIP through his 1,268-inning career. Owner of the 2007 Sawamura Award (given to the NPB’s top pitcher), Darvish has managed to improve his numbers annually. After pitching for Japan’s national team during the 2007 Asian Championship and the 2008 Olympics, Darvish impressed on the global stage with his shut-down performance in the ’09 World Baseball Classic. Sporting a 2-1 record and a 2.08 ERA, he led the tournament in strikeouts (20) and he shutdown superstar opponents Derek Jeter, David Wright and Adam Dunn.
Darvish is blessed with an athletic 6’3″, 200-pound frame with a whip-like build and long levers. Utilizing a drop-and-drive mechanics, he generates consistent 91-94 mph fastball velocity and razor-sharp spin on his breaking pitches. His 80-84 mph power curveball is his best secondary pitch– featuring nice lateral movement and hard, late break. He’ll also mix in a sinking two-seamer, cutter and a promising changeup with nice fade. His mechanics add explosive life to his fastball and afford him plenty of deception. His command is big-league caliber and already above-average. His feel for pitching well beyond his years and he has the potential to be a David Cone-type righthanded starter.
After going 17-6 with a 1.49 ERA and 261 strikeouts in 223 innings pitched in Japan last season, Darvish’s value is at its peak. While he’s expressed a desire to remain in his home country for at least the near future, it’s difficult to believe that both he and the Nippon-Ham Fighters management will be able to turn down the massive contract money teams like the Yankees and Rangers are prepared to offer.
Who’ll Sign Him? The Yankees, Rangers, Red Sox or Cubs. The Yankees (surprise) are the likely landing spot with the Rangers a possible dark horse bidder. Now that Epstein is on the Cubs, the same GM that brought Daisuke to Boston may or may not want to make a splash and add Darvish to his club’s staff.
Though the Lions denied his posting request last season, Nakajima looks poised to have his wish granted this winter. Considered to be one of the top hitters in Nippon Professional Baseball, the twenty-nine-year-old shortstop has an intriguing power-speed combination and boasts a .299 career batting average. He’s a patient hitter with a firm line-drive stroke. In the field, he has enough glove to hold down an everyday job at second or third base in the MLB and has the footwork and experience to play at short at least semi-regularly.
Because his defense at shortstop is a bit suspect, Nakajima may end up being another Akinori Iwamura-type infield tweener. Lacking the power to hit more than 10-15 homers in the MLB and without enough bat to make up for a profile short on impact-level tools, Nakajima could have a hard time finding a strong group of suitors. Teams seeking a utility infielder may be his best bet.