Archive for July 2015

Los Angeles Dodgers Prospect Julio Urias

July 29, 2015

A season and a half ago I wrote a piece on Dodger pitching prospect Julio Urias, who dominated the full-season Class A Midwest League at age 16.  That’s right — age 16.

I read a post on today stating that the Dodgers are trying hard to put together a package for Cole Hamels, but aren’t willing to include either of the two top prospects, Urias and Corey Seager.  With three days left before the end of the trade deadline, that doesn’t mean much.

Anyway, I was reminded of Urias, probably for the first time since my March 2014 article.  He’s still looking like a tremendous prospect, although he missed a month this season for eye surgery to correct a congenital defect that prevented him from opening his left eye more than a crack.  A one-eyed pitcher who dominates his leagues in his teens — Urias is really something!

Missing a month of the 2015 season is probably the best thing that could have happened to Julio.  I don’t know how you develop a pitcher who’s this good this young, and I don’t think the Dodgers really know either.

In the minor leagues, you can limit his starts to four or five innings and limit him to 25 starts a year.  Once he hits the Show, however, the realities of roster space and a pitcher with this talent means he’s going to get over-worked by his second MLB season at the latest.

The best place for Urias, when he’s 20 years old and ready to crack the Dodgers’ roster, would probably be as a set-up man out of the bullpen with a role like that of Sergio Romo a few years ago, when the Giants were really careful about how many innings their small right-hander threw and received really tremendous results as a result of his carefully limited use.

That will work only as long as the Dodgers keep Urias in such a role and can’t be counted on if Urias continues to pitch as well as he has so far.  There’s always a risk that a pitcher this young this good will end up as the next David Clyde, rather than as a true star, because it’s so hard to resist overworking him once he reaches the major league level.

Rockies Trade Troy Tulowizski to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes

July 28, 2015

In a transaction describes as “stunning,” the Rockies today traded Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes, minor league pitchers Jeff Hoffman and Miguel Castro and a player to be named later.

On paper the deal makes sense for both teams, but has high risk for both teams.  The Rockies are trading away the current face of the franchise for a guy who has underwhelmed the last couple of seasons and is two years older than Tulo.  Jose Reyes could (seemingly) regain his youth playing in the thin air 0f Denver, or he could continue to underwhelm under the withering gaze of fans who aren’t happy to see their hero traded away.

I suspect that this is the moment we find out what Jose Reyes is truly made of, at least in terms of being a professional ball player.  If Reyes handles the initial hostility and has enough left in the tank to take advantage of Coors Field as the offensive wonderland it is, the fans will forget Tulo soon enough, at least if the Rocks start winning a majority of their games.

Miguel Castro seems to be the most valuable piece of the deal for the Rocks.  Jeff Hoffman is a former 9th overall draft pick who had Tommy John surgery and has pitched well at Class A+ and AA this season.  However, his strikeouts per innings pitched rate hasn’t been as impressive as one would like, and I don’t think we’ll know until well into the 2016 whether he just needed some time to adjust to professional baseball or he hasn’t come back from elbow surgery with the same stuff he had before.

This is a bold move for the Blue Jays, and one has to wonder if it isn’t an overreach for a team currently at an even .500.  Playing in the AL East, a team with the financial resources of the Jays needs to build a winning team out of young players obtained through the draft and through trades of veteran players during uncompetitive seasons.  Trading away top pitching prospects when the team is still playing .500 ball seems like a stretch.

At the end of the day, the deal has a faint stink of desperation emanating from both franchises.

A Test for South Korea’s Justice System

July 17, 2015

A case is currently making its way through the South Korean courts regarding former MLB pitcher Scott Richmond and his former team, the KBO’s Lotte Giants.  Richmond signed what he and his agent assert was a guaranteed contract for $700,000 before the 2013 season.  Richmond tore up his knee early in Spring Training, and the Lotte Giants haven’t paid a won (well less than a penny) of the money they allegedly owe him,

Lotte is claiming that Richmond arrived at Spring Training out of shape, and that’s the reason why they don’t have to pay him for the injury.  Whether Richmond gets paid depends on the specific language of his contract and how the South Korean court interprets it.  However, in MLB, a player would always get his guaranteed salary in circumstances such as these.

I’ve long been a fan of Richmond simply by virtue of his making the major leagues at all.  He started his professional career in his age 25 season in the Independent-A Northern League.  He eventually made the majors solely by virtue of the Independent-A leagues, because MLB organizations do not sign amateur players after their age 23 season.

Needless to say, his major league career wasn’t long (although he did stick around long enough to earn an MLB pension), and he never made more than most of the $402,000 minimum salary, on a pro-rated basis, in 2009.  Pitching in South Korea was a chance to have an exciting life experience and finally make some real money playing baseball professionally.

According to one report, Lotte’s management underwent a change shortly after Richmond signed his contract, and the new management had no interest in meeting the commitments of the prior management or bringing Richmond back after he had recovered from knee surgery.

Two and a half years later, Richmond’s case is still winding its way through the South Korean court system.  According to Richmond, the team offered him his $150,000 signing bonus, which hadn’t been paid, as complete satisfaction of his claim.  Not surprisingly, Richmond wanted more, and a lawsuit ensued.

Clearly, Lotte is hoping that the South Korean court will “home town” Richmond and not enforce the contract, or at least grant Richmond well less than the contract amount.

The case has significant implications for KBO teams’ ability to sign foreign players in the future, at least if Richmond gets screwed by a South Korean court.  Players from the Americas and Australia play baseball in the Far East for essentially one reason: to make money, more money than they can make playing baseball in the Americas or Australia.  If players know they won’t get paid if they get hurt while playing, it will take much bigger contracts to make this additional risk justifiable.

Meanwhile, Richmond, who turns age 36 on August 30th, is back pitching in the Independent-A American Association, where he presumably makes $3,000 a month, after two unsuccessful season in the AAA Pacific Coast League, where he presumable made somewhere between $85,000 and $125,000 a season due to his previous major league experience.

Based on what I know, which is admittedly far from everything, I’m hoping Richmond gets all of his $700,000, although I would expect his South Korean lawyers to take somewhere between a third and a half of that if the case goes to trial.

Top Japanese Pitching Prospects, Part 2: the Relievers

July 14, 2015

In compiling yesterday’s list of the top Japanese prospects who might one day pitch in MLB, I left out relief pitchers on the theory that the best pitchers outside of MLB are almost always starters who have enough different pitches that they will be better able to make the jump to MLB one day.  Of course, this theory fails to address the fact that some top foreign relievers may be good enough to be starters, but their current teams presently think their greatest value is in the bullpen.  That said, here are the three top Japanese relievers in terms of being future MLB pitchers.

Yuki Matsui.  He’s a tiny left-hander (currently listed as 5’9″, 163 lbs) who is only 19 years old this season, but has already established himself as the Rakuten Golden Eagles’ closer.  He currently has a 0.66 ERA with 60 Ks in 41 IP with a WHIP below 1.0.  Last year, as an 18 year old rookie, he had a 4-8 record with a 3.80 ERA as a starter, but struck out 126 batters in 116 IP.  The main question with Matsui is whether his arm can hold out long enough for him to reach MLB one day.

Yasuaki Yamasaki.  Yamasaki is a 22 year old right-handed rookie, who has established himself as the closer for the DeNA Bay Stars.  He presently has a 1.77 ERA with 47 Ks and only six walks in 35.2 IP.  He’s listed at 5’10” and 183 lbs, which is small for an MLB right-hander.

Yuji Nishino.  A 24 year old right-hander in his third full NPB season, Nishino was also a starter as a rookie and was then moved to the bullpen to become the Chiba Lotte Marines’ closer.  He currently has a 1,97 ERA with 40 Ks in 32 IP.  He’s presently listed as 6’0″ and 180 lbs, so he’s also small by MLB standards.

Top Japanese Pitching Prospects

July 14, 2015

[The post-2016 season update is here.]

About a year ago, I wrote about the top Japanese pitching prospects for MLB.  That list hasn’t changed much either in the last year, which tends to make me think that this list is pretty much on the mark in rating the top Japanese pitchers.

Shohei Otani.  He remains the NPB pitcher most likely to be the next Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka.  He’s big (6’4″, 198 lbs), he’s young, he’s extremely good, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that his NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, hasn’t been overworking him.  His 1.43 ERA is easily the best in NPB’s Pacific League, his 117 strike outs is league-best, and his 94.1 IP is only 8th most in the league more than half way through the 2015 season.  Otani turned 21 on July 5th, and he will be an MLB star one day if he remains healthy.

Kenta Maeda and Shintaro Fujinami.  It’s difficult to rank these two against each other, because they are so different.  If Maeda doesn’t get hurt before the end of the 2015 season, he’ll be pitching in MLB next season.  He will have eight years of NPB service, which means his team, the Hiroshima Carp, will be posting him this off-season.  Otherwise, they will lose him to unrestricted free agency after the 2016, and he will come to America or sign with one of Japan’s three rich teams.

Maeda is pitching exactly as expected this season.  His 2.04 ERA is 2nd best in the Central League, his 103 strike outs is 3rd best, and his 119.1 IP is 2nd best.  He has an almost 5/1 K/BB ratio.

The questions about Maeda are the fact that he’s a small right-hander who has thrown a lot of innings through what is now his age 27 season.  Will he suffer a quick decline like Tim Lincecum, or will pitching every fifth game bring on injuries as it may have done for Darvish and Tanaka?  There isn’t any way to know, but I think he’s worth an investment of four years and $40 million (posting fee and salary), even if he ends up as a reliever in MLB.

Fujinami is young (21 this year), tall (6’6″ but only 194 lbs) and progressing very nicely, thank you.  His 2.62 ERA is currently 5th best in the Central League, his 120 Ks is best in NPB, and his 113.1 IP is third most in the Central League, although high pitch totals aren’t what you want to see from a pitcher this young.  The only negative things you can say about Fujinami as an MLB prospect are that he isn’t Shohei Otani and that he pitches for one of NPB’s rich teams, the Hanshin Tigers, meaning he’s less likely to leave Japan for greener pastures than a player playing for a low-revenue NPB team.

Shota Takeda.  Takeda is a 22 year old right-hander who is pitching in his fourth NPB season.  He appears to have had an injury of some sort last year, and 2015 is the first season in which he’s been a regular starter since early in the season.  His 3.32 ERA is currently 9th best in the Pacific League, and he has 92 Ks in 95 innings pitched.

The fact that Takeda hasn’t thrown a lot of innings until 2015 is probably a good thing.  His career NPB ERA is 2.65 in 298.1 career IP, and his won/loss record is 22-11.  In other words, there are lots of reasons to think he’s the real deal.  He’s currently listed as 6’1″ and 187 lbs, which is big enough for his age.

Takahiro Norimoto.  A 24 year old right-hander in his 3rd full NPB season, his 3.30 ERA is 8th best in the Pacific League, his 109 K’s are 2nd best and his 106.1 IP is most.  Norimoto is a small right-hander who has already thrown a lot of NPB innings.

Naoyuki Uwasawa.  He had fine rookie season at age 20 in 2014, and his listed size is good (6’2″, 194 lbs).  However, he has taken a big step back so far this season, with his ERA up almost eight-tenths of a run and his strikeout rate down sharply.  He’s still listed listed here mainly because he’s so young.

Yuki Nishi.  Another small right-hander (5’11”, 176 lbs), the main things going for Nishi is that he can pitch, and he’ll have five full years of NPB service through his age 24 season.  His ERA is currently 3rd best in the Pacific League, and he has great ratios, but there’s little reason to think he could be anything better than a relief pitcher whose innings are carefully measured in MLB.  In my mind, Sergio Romo would be the best comp for maximum upside for this Japanese pitcher.

Tomoyuki Sugano.  A terrific young NPB pitcher who does not project to leave Japan.  His 1.73 ERA currently leads the Central League, and his 2.33 ERA in 2014 also led the league.  However, his strike out rate has steadily declined to 5.3 so far this season, and he’s 25 this year in only his third full NPB season.  He also plays for the Yomiuri Giants, NPB’s wealthiest team by far, so he’ll make plenty of money staying in Japan.

Top Japanese Position Player Prospects

July 12, 2015

About a year ago, I wrote a piece about the Japanese position players most likely to break through to MLB one day.  The three I noted were Tetsuto Yamada, Hideto Asamura and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.   Almost a a full year has past, and these three players are still the ones who stand out as possible future MLB stars.

The factors that make these guys the best Japanese position prospects for MLB are simple: youth and a high level of offensive performance in Japan’s NPB.  Age is a key factor for any MLB prospect — the younger a player establishes a certain level of performance/ability, the most likely that player will go on to become a major league star.

For NPB players, age takes on another dimension, because NPB players don’t become true free agents until they have completed nine years of NPB major league service.  The upshot is that an NPB player who hasn’t established himself as an NPB regular by his age 22 season at the latest, will be at least 31 years old in his first season after true free agency.

A 31 year old MLB rookie has very little chance of establishing himself as an MLB star of any duration.  Most players have a learning curve of at least two full seasons to really master the majors, and after age 32, 98 or 99 of every 100 players have their best seasons behind them.

Of the three NPB stars listed above, I still like Yamada the best.  He’s 22 this year (turns 23 on July 16th) and is again one of the best hitters in NPB’s Central League, as he was last year.  After a slow start this season, he’s currently slashing .314/.409/.566, which are 4th/1st/1st among the 26 Central League qualifiers so far this season.

Yamada will become a true free agent after either the 2021 or 2022 season (it’s a close call whether he got enough playing time in 2012 and 2013 to constitute a full season’s credit).  If he’s posted by his current team, the Yakult Swallows, he most likely would reach MLB around his age 28 season (2021).

Yamada is a 2Bman, which is a great position for a Japanese position player, since their power tends to disappear once they reach MLB; and his raw defensive numbers (5.69 chances per game, 105 double plays last season) look great.

Hideto Asamura had a huge year with the bat in 2013 at age 22.  He took a big step backward offensively in 2014, when he had a knee injury and was moved from 1B to 2B in the field.

Asamura is most of the way back with the bat in 2015, although his power stroke hasn’t yet returned.  He’s currently slashing .311/.395/.447, good for 6th/6th/12th among the 30 Pacific League qualifiers.

Asamura’s raw defensive numbers at 2B aren’t as good as Yamada’s, but Asamura has played at 16 NPB games at every defensive position except pitcher, catcher and center field, suggesting he’s a very good baseball player who can help a club almost anywhere on the diamond in a pinch.  Asamura likely becomes a true free agent after the 2019 season, which means he would also most likely play his first major league season at age 28.

As a reference point, Nori Aoki, the last Japanese position player to “make it” in MLB was age 30 in his MLB rookie season, while famous MLB bust Kosuke Fukudome was age 31 his first MLB season.  (While Fukudome was an MLB-caliber player, his $48M, four year contract was roughly twice what he was worth as an MLB player.)

Lastly, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is 23 year old left fielder for the DeNA Bay Stars who is currently slashing .326/.396/.523, ranking 2nd/3rd/3rd in NPB’s Central League.  As a left fielder, he appears to have far less defensive value than Yamada or Asamura.  However, he has played 108 NPB games at 3B, although his outfield assist totals do not suggest he’s got a right fielders arm.

Tsutsugo most likely becomes a true free agent after the 2021 season, which means he would most likely reach MLB in his age 29 season.

One thing that makes it more likely that we will one day see at least one of these three play in MLB is that all three play for low-revenue NPB teams.  If they continue to develop as their current ages and performance levels suggest and avoid major injuries, they will all eventually be playing for one of NPB’s three rich teams (the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and SoftBank Hawks) or in the U.S.

Flood of Cuban Players Continues

July 7, 2015

In October 2013, I wrote a post about how the trickle of Cuban players into the MLB system was becoming a flood.  This is a trend that only seems to have grown since then.

I’ve noticed that a number of top talents from Cuba have defected in just the last few months.  According to this article by Ben Badler of Baseball America, 19 year old Jorge Ona is the seventh of Baseball America’s top 20 Cuban prospects to have defected since BA put out their list in April.  Will the last Cuban baseball player to leave Cuba kindly shut the door?

One has to wonder whether all these defections are merely the result of so many previous Cuban defectors making big money and achieving MLB success, or whether the Cuban government simply isn’t trying as hard as it once did to prevent its baseball players from leaving.  With relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments having thawed tremendously in the last six months, the Cuban government may have realized that it makes more sense in the long run to let its top baseball talent leave in the hopes that the players will eventually bring some of the money they make in MLB back to Cuba.

In any event, it seems to be only a matter of time, possibly less than five years from today, before Cuban players are freely allowed to make themselves available to MLB teams.  It this point, there doesn’t seem to be much the Cuban government could do about the flood of baseball talent out of the country even if it wanted to.