Francisco Caraballo, Another Unknown Minor League Star
Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I love to write about obscure minor league stars playing great baseball in the remotest parts of the professional baseball universe. My latest discovery is Francisco Caraballo, who for the last season and a half has been the best player in Japan’s Baseball Challenge League (“BCE”).
Yesterday, I wrote my annual update on female knuckleballer Eri Yoshida, who is pitching this season for the Ishikawa Million Stars, a team in the BCE, which is basically a Japanese independent-A league. That got me looking at the BCE league leaders, and, viola, I found Carabello.
This season, Caraballo leads the BCE with a .437 batting average (59 for 135) and 20 home runs. The next bests in the league are a .382 batting average and 11 HRs. Last season, Caraballo finished second with a .366 batting average (league leader Chad Nading hit .370 in far fewer games played), and Caraballo’s 24 HRs led the BCE by 14.
Caraballo is a 30 year old OF/1B from Venezuela who originally played in the Houston Astros’ organization. At age 21 he had an .852 OPS in the Class A Sally League. However, while he continued to hit with power, his batting averages weren’t great the next two seasons, and he was released after an age 23 season in the AA Texas League in which he batted .256 with a .741 OPS.
If I had to guess, I’d say his defense must have been pretty bad, because it’s otherwise hard to understand why a player that young would get released after a season in which he hit reasonably well at the AA level and then no other major league organization would pick him up. The other possibility is that MLB organizations cycle through so many young players that some guys just fall through the cracks when a team decides to give another young player the opportunity instead.
In 2008 at age 24, Caraballo wound up on the Worchester Tornadoes of the independent-A Canadian American (Can-Am) League. This team also featured Chris Colabello, an independent-A league star who made news last year and early this season by finally making it to the bigs with the Minnesota Twins and having a little bit of success. Aside from having similar names and being the same age, Caraballo and Colabello had similar seasons (the former had a .970 OPS while the latter had a .974 OPS that year).
Interestingly, Francisco’s big 2008 season in the Can-Am League apparently got him a better offer to play baseball for the BCE’s Gunma Diamond Pegasus (the team he curently stars for) in 2009. After big seasons there in 2009 and the first half of 2010, he became the first player signed by an NPB team from a Japanese independent-A team mid-season. The Orix Buffaloes signed him for 5 million yen (about $50,000 — hopefully it wasn’t pro-rated) on July 9, 2010.
For the Buffaloes in 2010, Francisco batted .257 with an .806 OPS in 125 plate appearances. Despite what appears to be valuable performance at a fire-sale price, even by NPB standards, the Buffaloes cut Caraballo after a 1-for-11 start in all of four games at the start of the 2011 season. Caraballo then hit .271 with a .768 in 19 games for the Buffaloes’ farm team before he was released outright.
Again, you’d have to think there’s just something about him that teams don’t like (his defense? his personality?) in spite of the way he hits. His outfield defensive numbers don’t look great, or even good, but they’re not so bad that he couldn’t be at least a useful bench player in a top-level league. In fact, he may simply be a victim of the tight roster limits on foreign players that apply to NPB and KBO teams, which effectively render it impossible for teams to keep foreigners as bench players.
Caraballo returned to the Can-Am League in 2012, had another big year (.314 batting average, .913 OPS) and then returned to the BCE in 2013. By NPB standards, Caraballo is still not at all too old for an NPB team to give him another look. Whether they will remains to be seen. It certainly looks like he could help an NPB team with his bat.