Archive for November 2017

KBO and NPB Signings, Part I

November 30, 2017

While things have been slow in MLB this off-season with no major free agents yet signed as I write this, the Asian major leagues have been more active in filling their roster spaces reserved for foreign players.  The roster limits for foreign players in South Korea’s KBO and Japan’s NPB are as follows.

The KBO allows each of its ten teams to sign three foreign players, at least one of whom has to be a position player.  In fact, all KBO teams have signed two foreign starting pitchers and one position player since the league expanded foreign player roster spaces from two to three a few years ago.

The NPB allows only four foreign players on each of its twelve teams major league active roster at any one time, but has no limits on the number of foreign players who may be signed by an organization.  Thus, NPB teams now average about six foreign players per organization, with at least two stashed in NPB’s lone minor league in case a foreigner on the major league roster gets hurt or becomes unproductive.

The trend in recent years has been for NPB to sign foreign relief pitchers in greater numbers to serve as closers and top set-up men, roles that are more highly valued in Japan in terms of NPB’s salary scale compared to that of MLB.  Further, there are more MLB-system, borderline major league relief pitchers who have a high probability of success in NPB than at any other position.

Because the KBO has tighter limits on the number of foreign players their teams can sign and also the fact that MLB-system 4-A players have a higher probability of success playing in the KBO than in NPB due to the lower overall level of play in the KBO, KBO teams are now offering starting salaries to foreign players comparable to NPB starting salaries; and the two leagues are now largely competing directly to sign many of the same foreign players, subject to the fact that the KBO hasn’t signed any relief pitchers in several years.

A foreign player who succeeds in NPB can look forward to much higher salaries down the road than a foreign KBO star.  NPB salaries max out at around $5.5 million, while Dustin Nippert‘s 2017 contract that paid him a reported $2.2 million is the highest salary a foreign player has earned in the KBO’s history.  I also suspect that more first year contracts in NPB are guaranteed than first year KBO contracts for foreign players.

With all that said, here is a run-down on some of the contracts signed by foreign players in the KBO this off-season.

After a 20 win season for the Korea Series champion Kia Tigers, Hector Noesi just signed a $2 million deal for 2018, a $300,000 raise from last year, making him only the second foreigner in KBO history to receive a $2 million annual salary.  Noesi will probably be the KBO’s highest paid foreign player in 2018, because it is anticipated that Dustin Nippert will be forced to accept a significant pay cut after going “only” 14-8 in 2017 and not pitching particularly well in the season’s second half.

KBO teams are expected to bring back at least 60% of the foreign players who finished the 2017 KBO season for their teams, higher than usual.  Brooks Raley, Roger Bernadina, Darin Ruf, Mel Rojas Jr., Ryan Feierabend and Merrill Kelly all re-signed with last year’s teams for at least $1 million, topped by Ruf and Kelly who will make respectively $1.5M and $1.4M in 2018.  Esmil Rogers will also be returning to the KBO after a year away recovering from Tommy John surgery for a cool $1.5 million.

The most notable new players who signed contracts to play in the KBO in 2018 are starting pitchers Angel Sanchez and Tim Adleman.  Sanchez will make a reported $1.1 million in 2018 and Adleman a reported $1.05M.

I like the signing of Adleman more than those of either Sanchez or Esmil Rogers.  I’m not sure how much Rogers has left, and I’m surprised that the SK Wyverns gave this much money to Sanchez given his skimpy MLB record.

Adleman, on the other hand, has made 33 MLB starts and pitched a total of 192 innings at the highest level over the last two seasons.  He led the Cincinnati Reds in innings pitched in 2017, which says more about the sorry and re-building state of the Reds 2017 rotation than it does about Adleman’s abilities as an MLB pitcher.

However, Adleman pitched well enough that I would expect him to pitch great in the KBO so long as he stays healthy next season.  He’ll be taking all he’s learned in what amounts to more than a full year as an MLB starter into what is a decidedly inferior league.  Adleman just turned 30 years old, but on a one year deal, that doesn’t much matter.  I would guess that Adleman’s contract is guaranteed, while Sanchez’s is not.

The lowest salary I’ve seen a rookie foreign player so far to sign to play in the KBO in 2018 is the $575,000 that the Hanwha Eagles gave Jason Wheeler.  $100,000 of that amount is a signing bonus, which I assume means the remaining $475,000 is not guaranteed but will have to be earned by remaining on the Eagles’ roster.  However, Wheeler is only 27 in 2018, which means if he can hack it in the KBO, he’s got a good chance of making a lot more money in the future.

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Oakland A’s Sign Yusmeiro Petit

November 30, 2017

With only one business day left in November, the biggest free agent signing so far is today’s signing of Yusmeiro Petit for two years and $10 million (including a team option for a third season).  mlbtraderumors.com had a great article today, linking to a great article from Jeff Passan regarding the most likely reasons why the free agent market has been so slow to develop this off-season.

Signing Yusmeiro Petit is hardly anyone’s idea of a block-buster deal, but he does have his uses.  He eats up a whole lot of innings in middle relief without giving up a whole lot of runs, and he can spot start and even close games (he has six saves over the last three seasons) when needed.

The amount the A’s guaranteed him is a lot for a middle reliever, but it’s quite likely that coming off his best season since 2014, the A’s may have him make double digit starts in 2018 if he proves himself up to it.  When you’re a team like the A’s, trying to do move with less, a player who provides the flexibility you get from Petit has value, as we can see from the substantial deal the A’s gave him as he moves into his age 33 season.

Byung-Ho Park to Return to South Korea’s KBO

November 27, 2017

Byung-ho Park has reported agreed to a one-year 1.5 billion won ($1.37 million) with his old team, the Nexen Heroes.  In doing so, he may have agreed to forfeit the remaining $6.5 million on the four-year deal he signed with the Twins two years ago.

I thought that Park had a real chance to make it in MLB, and even last spring I thought he still had a chance, because he hit with a ton of power in 2016, if nothing else.  However, his age 30 season spent entirely at AAA Rochester didn’t go well, and now he looks old for a reasonable possibility of future MLB success.

It appears that Park lost the ability to control the strike zone in the U.S.  Park struck out a lot in the KBO, and he struck out a lot here, but in South Korea he walked a lot too.  In the U.S., he didn’t walk much at all.

It’s an interesting decision by Park to forfeit all of the remaining $6.5 million in his Twins’ contract without agreeing to a buy-out in some lesser amount.  Since current Twins management wasn’t enamored with Park when they came in last off-season, I would have thought they’d be willing to give Park two or three million bucks to go back to Korea.

In fact, the latest update as a I write this post is that Park’s agent is still working to get something out of the Twins as part of the deal.  That’s what agents are for, even if the player is tempted to make a rash decision.

Certainly, Park’s endorsement opportunities are better in South Korea, and as a proven KBO hitter, he’s still young enough to resurrect his superstar standing there.  He also reportedly would prefer to play in South Korea’s “major” league than an MLB “minor league.”  Nexen, meanwhile, has to be thrilled to get Park back on a one-year deal that costs them less than the $1.5 million they recently committed to pitcher Esmil Rogers for 2018.

How Eric Thames does in 2018 will probably have a lot to do with how MLB teams see KBO hitters going forward.  If Thames regresses significantly from his 2017 performance, following Park’s failure, MLB teams are going to be leery indeed about the prospects of future KBO hitters making the jump to the world’s biggest stage.  It will take some very, very out-sized offensive numbers in the hit-happy KBO to convince MLB teams that a player can make the transition to MLB.

40-Man Roster Madness

November 21, 2017

I’m getting a big kick out of all the last-minute bottom-of-the-roster moves and deals as MLB teams try to firm up their 40-man rosters before tomorrow’s deadline for the Rule 5 Draft.  It’s like a crazy game of musical chairs.

I wonder if it’s stressful for marginal players to bounce from one team to the other through the post-season.  The Giants lost light-hitting, glove-tree middle infielder Engelb Vielma on a waiver claim by the Phillies today after designating him for assignment off the 40-man roster.  The Giants had claimed Vielma on September 14th when the Twins placed him on waivers shortly after the minor league season ended.

I’m sure the players know that it’s part of the game and that since there is nothing they can do about it, they shouldn’t worry about it.  Just wait until February to see which team tells you where and when to report for Spring Training.  Still, it would be nice for players with minor league contracts (major league contracts pay enough to ameliorate such inconveniences) to get a small bonus, say $5,000, each time they are traded to a new team or a new team claims them off waivers.  For minor league players making minor league salaries even $5,000 bonuses would smooth away any anxiety over changing organizations.

I’ve also been interested in the trades involving international bonus money.  Teams can trade away up to 75% of their international bonus money allotments in $250,000 increments each off-season.  It’s really an exercise in capitalism in action.

What I mean by that is that because the bonus pools are capped, they achieve a value greater than their actual dollar amounts, at least for the teams seeking extra bonus pool money, much the way that free agent contracts are excessive because relatively few major league players become free agents in any one off-season.  Supply and demand, baby!

The Mariners traded 24 year Thyago Vieira to the White Sox for $500,000 in international bonus money.  Vieira had a pretty good minor league season, mostly in the AA Texas League, and he pitched an effective major league inning in August.  I can’t imagine that a team would sell Vieira for $500,000 cash, even though the move has the added benefit for the M’s of opening a spot on their 40-man roster.

The Yankees made an even more lop-sided deal with the Marlins for $250,000 of the Fish’s bonus pool money.  The Marlins received soon to be 27 year old 1Bman Garrett Cooper and 26 year old  LHP Caleb Smith in exchange for RHP Michael King, who will be 23 next May.

Both Cooper and Smith look like reasonable bets to help the Marlins’ major league club in 2018, while King doesn’t look like a realistic shot to have a major league career because his strikeout rates in the low minors are poor.  Again, the Yankees have cleared two spaces on their 40-man roster, but the deal is completely lop-sided in favor of the Marlins in terms of the talent exchanged.

Of course, what the Yankees and Mariners are trying to do is get as much money as possible together to try to win the Shohei Otani sweepstakes.  If Otani does not end up getting posted, because, for example, the MLBPA won’t agree to allow the Nippon Ham Fighters to get $20 million for Otani’s rights while Otani only gets a $3.5 million signing bonus at most, the Yankees and the Ms will find some high profile 16 or 17 year old Latin players to throw the extra money at, but these trades will look even more one-sided than they do now.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have designated for assignment former No. 1 overall draft pick Mark Appel, in part to make room for Glove-Tree Vielma.  Appel had a mediocre age 25 season in the AAA International League in 2017, and it’s starting to look like he could become a draft bust of historic proportions.  Still, Matt Bush righted his professional career at the age of 30, so anything is possible going forward.

Will We Ever See Livan Moinelo in MLB?

November 20, 2017

Livan Moinelo is a soon to be 22 year old, small Cuban lefty who took Japan’s NPB somewhat by storm in 2017.  He had impressed mightily pitching in Cuba’s team in the Independent-A Can-Am League in 2016, and after a strong 2016-2017 winter campaign in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, the Cuban government allowed him to sign with the SoftBank Hawks in May 2017.

Moinelo is indeed small.  Baseball Reference lists him as 6’0″ and 139 lbs.  NPB’s website lists him as a more plausible 5’10” and 152 lbs.  For whatever reason, left-handed pitchers can get away with being small, while small size is held against righties.  Moinelo is small even by NPB standards, but there are a lot more small pitchers there than in MLB.

Moinelo was promoted to the Hawks’ major league team in June and given a 20 million yen ($179,000) salary.  He rewarded the Hawks with a 2.52 ERA, 15 holds and a pitching line of 35.2 IP, 21 hits, one HR and 14 BB allowed and 36 Ks.  The Hawks were NPB’s best team in 2017 NPB regular season and then won the Japan Series convincingly.

By pitching in Japan, Moinelo may never have a reason to defect in order to play in MLB.  $179,000 isn’t MLB money, but it’s still a tremendous amount of money for a 21 year old Cuban to be making.  I don’t know what kind of cut the Cuban government takes from the players it allows to play in Japan — I would bet it is substantial but leaves the players with enough so that they don’t defect.  A 50-50 split, maybe?

Alfredo Despaigne played in his fourth NPB season in 2017 and earned a cool 400 million yen ($3.6 million).  Despaigne will probably receive a 500 million yen contract for 2018, as he also plays for the Japan Series champion Hawks and led NPB Pacific League this past season with 35 home runs.

Moinelo should at least double his 2017 salary in 2018, and once he puts in the years and if he establishes himself as a top NPB closer, he can also reasonably expect to make a 500 million yen salary one day.  That may be reason enough for him to stay in NPB indefinitely.

Thoughts on Winter League Baseball

November 17, 2017

I’ve been following the Caribbean Winter Leagues more this off-season than I ever have in the past.

The one big surprise for me is that more Independent-A League pitchers play in the Winter Leagues than I expected.  The other groups I expected — not quite major leaguers from the countries (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela) where the leagues are located; aspiring minor leaguers and North American minor leaguers trying to get better; Latino players who have recently left the MLB-system but still have something left; Mexican League (Summer) players (the most favored summer location to play for post-MLB system Latino players); and injured players trying to make a come-back.

The Caribbean Winter Leagues pay better than the minor league salaries without at least one game of major league service and a lot better than the Independent-A Leagues.  The best veteran players in the Winter Leagues can make $10K to $15K per month (for a two or 2.5 month season) compared to the maximum of $3,000/month paid by the Atlantic League.

The Indy-A players can play for well less than this max and still make more than their summer wages.  Even the Mexican League only pays $8K per month max to foreign players.  Also, the more you play (as long as you’re healthy), the better your baseball skills should get.

The Indy-A pitchers are pitching pretty good, or at least there are a significant number that have pitched well in this year’s Winter Leagues.  Reinier Roibal, Bryan Evans, Logan Darnell, Tyler Alexander, Ryan Kussmaul and Zack Dodson to name more than a few.

The Mexican Pacific League appears to have some kind of working relationship with the American Association, because the last three listed players all played in the AA this past summer.  The Venezuelan and Dominican Winter Leagues draw primarily from the better playing Atlantic League.  However, the Can-Am League. which has a designed Cuban League team and other Cubans playing on regular Canadian and American teams, has generated Cuban players who are playing in the Winter Leagues this season.

That brings us to the Cuba Serie Nacional.  Cuba’s Winter League plays a 90-game split-season.  The league has 16 teams in a country of only 11 million, but produces players like Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu.  In other words, the talent distribution in Cuba is perhaps similar to the old Negro Leagues which fielded players of wildly different abilities.

In the first half of the Serie Nacional season, veteran star Frederich Cepeda (he likely has a German somewhere in his not too distant ancestry) batted a ridiculous .480 in the season’s first half. By way of comparison, World Series semi-hero Yuli Gurriel batted .500 with an OPS proportionately better than Cepeda’s this season, in Gurriel’s last season in the Serie Nacional before defecting.

Few people outside of Cuba and greater Tokyo have heard of Cepeda; he couldn’t cut it in Japan’s NPB at ages 34 and 35; but he has been a truly great player in Cuba both before and after.  The now 37 year old is batting a more modest .340 with an OPB just barely over 1.000 in the Cuban League’s ongoing second half.

The top pitcher in the Serie Nacional this year is Yoanni Yera, a small left-hander (5’7″, 187 lbs) who is electric in Cuba, but was erratic/ineffective in 39.1 Can-Am League innings over last two seasons.  Some players are creatures of the county and league that developed them.  Cepeda and Yera probably haven’t defected for this reason.

It sure does seem like the Cuban player that haven’t defected are the ones who haven’t convinced anyone (even themselves) that they can play outside of Cuba.  Even Alfredo Despaigne, who has become a super star in Japan’s NPB, seems like a player who is playing where his value is absolutely maximized.  Another triumph for capitalism?

As a final note, Jung-ho Kang is currently the worst hitting qualifier in the Dominican Winter League.  He’s slashing a brutal .137/.224/.205.  He’s got one year left on his MLB contract, so he won’t be leaving MLB just yet, but it may well be time for him to return to South Korea’s KBO for everyone’s sake.

Asian Teams Don’t Show Their Mercenaries Much Love

November 16, 2017

The Asian major leagues (NPB, KBO and CPBL) are an avenue for players who don’t quite have what it takes to be MLB stars to make big money and become big stars playing baseball.  However, being a foreign ballplayer on an Asian team is a tenuous existence that doesn’t provide much room for error.

This is on my mind today because the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO have announced that they won’t be bringing back Eric Hacker in 2018.  Hacker has over the last three seasons established himself as one of the best foreign pitchers in the KBO’s history, and he pitched well in 2017.

Hacker’s 3.42 ERA was third best among qualifiers in a ten-team league, and he went 12-7.  His strikeout rate dropped sharply last year from 7.6 the year before to 5.4 in 2017, but he still had a K/BB rate of 3.3.  His other numbers, his KBO history and his relatively low salary ($650,000 in 2017) all suggest that he should have been given a contract for 2018.

Eric Hacker will be 35 in 2018, and the Dinos may have decided that he’s likely to drop off in 2018.  The Dinos also elected not to re-sign Jeff Manship, who will be 33 next year, in spite of the fact that Manship went 12-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 2017.  However, Manship was at the top of the KBO salary scale for foreign pitchers, making a reported $1.8 million in 2017, and he missed eight or nine starts due to injury.  KBO teams expect exceptional performance and health from foreigners being paid what Manship was paid.

The Dinos have signed Logan Verritt for $800,000 instead.  Verritt will be 28 in 2018.  There’s no guarantee, though, that he’ll be an adequate replacement for either Hacker or Manship, in light of the fact that his 2017 performance in the International League and his career minor league record aren’t particularly impressive.

Earlier this off-season, the Nexen Heroes made a similar decision not to bring Andy Van Hekken back for 2018.  Van Hekken also has a tremendous career KBO record, and while he will be 38 in 2018, he struck out just better than a batter per inning in 2017.  Van Hekken missed qualifying for the KBO ERA title by 5.2 innings pitched, but his 3.77 ERA was 10th best in the circuit among pitchers who pitched at least 135 innings (the KBO plays a 144 game schedule).  He made a reported $930,000 in 2017, which is also affordable for a pitcher of his KBO accomplishments.

Instead, the Nexen Heroes elected to sign 32 year old Esmil Rogers to a $1.5 million deal for next season.  Rogers had a great half season in the KBO in 2015, but then blew out his elbow tendon in 2016.  He pitched well in seven late season starts for AAA Syracuse this past season, but hasn’t been particularly impressive in five starts in the Dominican Winter League so far.  Trading in Van Hekken on Rogers seems like a case of the grass always being greener to me.

There is certainly a reasonable possibility that either or both Hacker and Van Hekken will receive offers from other KBO teams this off-season.  Still, it is mystifying to see pitchers who pitched as well as they pitched in 2017 for the amounts they were paid not to get invited back for another season.