Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Will the Economic Collapse in Venezuela Impact Its Ballplayer Pipeline to MLB?

June 26, 2017

Everyone who has been following major league baseball for the last 20 years knows that Venezuelan players have become an integral part of the game, now matching or even surpassing the Dominican Republic as the Latin American country producing the most major league players and superstars.  I wonder what effect the slow motion collapse of Venezuela’s economy will have on the country as a continuing source of major league talent.

Obviously, even very poor countries can produce major league stars.  Until very recently, a majority of major league stars came from poor or relatively poor backgrounds, as baseball and other professional sports were avenues for the most talented and driven poor young athletes to strike it rich.  The first generation of Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Dominican players who came up in the 1950’s and 1960’s were coming from much poorer places than those countries are today.

However, Venezuela has reached a point where a majority of the population no longer has enough to eat (Venezuelans call it the “Maduro Diet”), and it’s hard to build large numbers of strong young athletes in a country experiencing severe food shortages.

For those of you who haven’t followed Venezuelan affairs over the last twenty years, here is a quick primer on what’s happening there.

In 1998, former military man and left-wing demagogue Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela on a platform to improve the lot of the poor majority in the country.  Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, or very close to the world’s largest, but it was a typical third world country where most of the wealth was controlled by a small, politically connected capitalist elite.

Chavez imposed what he called “Bolivarian Socialism” on Venezuela, fixing the prices of basic food stuffs and commodities and over time nationalizing many of the countries largest companies and industries.  As long as oil prices were reasonably high, Chavez was able to finance his policies at home and grab attention and allies throughout Latin America with below market oil shipments.

Chavez’s policies did improve the lot of the poor majority in Venezuela, and this made it virtually impossible for any other politician or political party to beat him at the ballot box.  Unfortunately, Chavez, who first became involved in Venezuelan politics in 1992 when he led a failed coup attempt, had no real commitment to or belief in either democratic values or institutions.  Over time Chavez used nationalizations of industry to disenfranchise financially his political opponents, and he handed control over these industries to cronies, who were selected for loyalty to the regime, rather than because of competence or honesty.

This was the case even at the state oil company, PDVSA, with predictable results.  Profits were skimmed, and production levels have steadily fallen over the last 20 years because of lack of competence and investment, even though oil revenues were the key to Chavez’ project.

Venezuela once had no problem producing enough food for its citizens.  However, government mandated prices enforced by credible threats of nationalization to farmers who protested they couldn’t make a profit, led inevitably to farmers simply going out of business.

Chavez died suddenly of cancer in early 2013 at age 58.  He was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, a loyal Chavista who lacked Chavez’ charisma.  However, the Venezuelan economy was still operating fairly well in 2013, and Maduro won a close election to become the next president based on Chavez’ continued popularity with a majority of Venezuelans.  In 2014, the price of oil crashed and has yet to recover (and probably won’t any time soon due to ready availability of American shale oil and Canadian tar sands oil).

By 2015, the consequences of Chavista economic policy had come home to roost, and with the oil money spigot cut off, Venezuela’s economy tanked and continues to tank.  A majority of Venezuela’s population quickly realized that Chavez’s policies were no longer sustainable and that changes needed to be made.  In 2015, congressional elections were held, and the opposition appeared to win a tight two-thirds majority that could overturn the Chavez/Maduro policies.  However, after 17 years in power the Chavistas had successfully packed the courts and filled the army with regime royalists.  Venezuela’s National Assemby was ultimately divested of power by the country’s supreme court, and Maduro now rules by decree.

There still is oil money coming into the state’s coffers, which has had the effect of making the economic collapse one long, slow-motion train wreck.  The government is effectively in control of the food supply, since Venezuelan farmers are no longer producing for anyone but their own families, and most food must be imported using oil money.  This leaves the state largely in charge of distribution, and there have been allegations that regime loyalists are first in line for the limited supplies.  Further, the government has refused to accept foreign aid to make up for the food and medicine shortages, because to do so would be to admit the abject failure of Bolivarian Socialism.

Maduro sounds progressively more and more like an out of touch dictator than a democratically elected head of state, but he has that oil money, the military and the organs of the state at his disposal, until he elects to give up power or there is a civil war.  Very little suggests that Maduro will give up power voluntarily, and I for one kind of expect that one day in the near or distant future he’ll end up swinging from the roof of a gas station like Mussolini.

To get back to the topic of baseball, it does not look like Venezuela’s problems are going to be fixed any time soon, unless a large enough portion of the Venezuelan military elects all at once to dump Maduro and allow for real change.  Until then, an awful lot of Venezuelans are going to continue to go hungry.  It’s entirely possible that at some time in the future we will see a band of Venezuelan children of a certain age who have largely had their physical and mental development stunted by their countries’ lack of accessible and affordable food and medicine.  I think it is entirely possible that at some time in the future, there will be a period of two or three years where the number of young ballplayers coming out of Venezuela drops sharply compared to other Latin American baseball powers as a result of the problems in Venezuela now.

Cubans Impacting Japanese Game

June 24, 2017

I was remiss in my last post for failing to mention that two Cubans, Alex Guerrero and Alfredo Despaigne, are presently leading their respective NPB leagues in home runs.  Guerrero is leading the Central League with 19, and Despaigne is tied for the Pacific League lead with Yuki Yanagita at 18.

Despaigne is in the running for the world’s best position player who will likely never play in MLB.  His family has connections with the Communist government in Cuba, so he hasn’t been willing to defect.  The Cuban government worked out a deal with NPB a couple of years ago to allow some of its best players to play in Japan to prevent their defections.

I don’t know what cut the Cuban government gets of the money Despaigne earns, but they are probably both benefiting greatly by the arrangement since Despaigne’s 2017 salary is a reported 400 million yen ($3.59 million).  Even a small fraction of that would go a long way in Cuba, where because of heavily state subsidized prices, $1000 a month in hard currency income would allow a family to live like royalty.

I would compare Despaigne to South Korea’s Dae-ho Lee, who proved last year that he is an MLB-level hitter.  Despaigne and Lee are both thickly built right-handed hitting sluggers, with Lee being physically bigger and Despaigne being a few years younger.

Guerrero signed a big deal with the Dodgers a few years ago and quickly washed out due mainly to his inability or unwillingness to take a walk. (Several media reports also suggested he wasn’t too bright.)  In Japan, his power and raw talent make up for the fact that his on-base percentages are poor, at least so far.

I can’t imagine Cuban players not becoming every bit as important to Japanese baseball as they’ve become to MLB in recent years.  There are a lot of defecting Cuban players who are just a little too old and/or a not quite talented enough to become MLB stars, but who would be great bets to become stars in Japan.

If Guerrero and Despaigne finish one-two in home runs at the end of the NPB season, the desire to sign the next Cuban slugger will be high indeed throughout NPB.

Japanese Baseball News

June 23, 2017

Tad Iguchi, now age 42, has announced that this will be his last professional season.  It has been quite a career, as he has combined to date for more than 2,200 hits, 294 HRs and 224 stolen bases between MLB and Japan’s NPB.  Lusty numbers indeed for a career 2Bman.

On June 14th, Shun Yamaguchi, Scott Mathieson and Arquimedes Caminero combined for a no-hitter for the Yomiuri Giants against the SoftBank Hawks.  It was Yamaguchi’s first start or appearance of the 2017 NPB season.

A few years ago, Yamaguchi was definitely an MLB prospect, but it’s now looking like he’ll stay in Japan for his career.  Does anyone remember the first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB?  (Answer at bottom.)

Chris Marrero, whom I wrote about in my last post on the 2017 NPB season about a month ago, appeared to hit his first NPB home run on June 9th.  But he missed home plate!  The catcher went over and tagged Marrero, and the umpire called him out.

That’s no way to make an impression on your new team in a foreign country.  However, the man on base ahead of Marrero still scored, and Marrero has continued to hit with power in what appears to be a platoon role.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles signed American Josh Corrales recently.  What is interesting about this move is that Corrales was signed out of the BC League, Japan’s independent-A league.  He’s not the first player from the Americas to be signed by an NPB organization out of the BC League.

Corrales had an interesting year in the full season A League Midwest League at age 22, posting a 4.09 ERA and striking out 54 batters in 55 innings pitched but also walking 40.  After he was apparently released, he must have somehow decided that his chances of one day reaching NPB were better than reaching MLB, because he has no record of pitching in any of the more stable American Indy-A Leagues.  He’s only 27 years old, so an NPB big payday is still possible!

The first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB history was when Babe Ruth and Ernie Shore did it on June 23, 2017.  The Babe, who was then one of the Junior Circuit’s aces, walked the first batter of the game and was promptly thrown out of the game for arguing about it with the umpire.  Shore came in, the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal second, and Shore retired the next 26 batters consecutively for what has widely, but not unanimously, been recognized as a perfect game, sort of like Harvey Haddix‘s 12-inning perfect effort in 1959.

The first time in MLB history three or more pitchers combined for a no-hitter was September 28, 1975, when Vida Blue, Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad and Rollie Fingers accomplished the feat.  The A’s had already clinched a play-off birth and decided it was wise not to overwork their ace Vida “True” Blue (a little joke there for Charlie Finley fans).  Seems kind of ho-hum today, but it was a big deal in the 1970’s.

The Flood of Cuban Players

June 20, 2017

I just read a good article on espn.com about one of the side effects of the flood of Cuban baseball players into the international market since the beginning of 2014: huge numbers of Cuban professionals are stuck in the Dominican Republic unable to play baseball professionally because they aren’t quite good enough to sign lucrative contracts with MLB organizations.  The article reports that 349 Cuban ballplayers have left Cuba since the start of 2014.

I’ve written about the flood of Cuban players several times in recent years (see this article for example), mainly as it effects the major leagues.  The espn.com article reflects one obvious effect of the ginormous contracts that the very best Cuban players have signed in recent years.

The problems for the perhaps several hundred Cuban players stuck in the Dominican Republic are fairly obvious.  Most of them were good but not great Serie Nacional regulars who are past age 28, who simply do not have a reasonable chance of making the major leagues going forward, and thus cannot get offers from mlb organizations that the buscones, who fronted the money to smuggle the players out of Cuba and who typically get about 30% of the player’s first post-Cuba professional contract, are hoping to get.

The last three-plus years have already begun to show that the early bargains (by MLB standards) for players like Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu resulted in irrational exuberance on the part of many MLB organizations who signed a number of Cubans players for too much money and got burned.  For example, the Dodgers and Red Sox have committed a grand total of $193 million to Hector Olivera, Rusney Castillo, Alex Guerrero and Yaisel Sierra in deals which now look like wild overpays (Sierra may yet be a capable major league reliever, but I’m doubtful he’ll prove to be worth the $30 million the Dodgers will be paying him through 2021).

In short, we have probably reached a point now where mlb organizations will still pony up eight figure contracts for the very best Cuban defectors, some of whom will pan out and some of whom will not, but organizations aren’t going to throw even low six figure amounts at players who don’t have a reasonable chance of playing in the majors going forward.  Japanese NPB teams will offer signing bonuses between $100,000 and $1M for a handful of these players, but that still leaves the vast majority with few prospects.

After the major leagues, there are plenty of places for these second-tier Cubans to play professionally, including Mexico, the Independent-A Leagues and the Carribbean Winter Leagues, but none of those will offer the kinds of signing bonuses the buscones are looking for just to cover their initial investments in bringing the players in from Cuba and supporting the players in the D.R. for up to a year.  Meanwhile, many players end up sitting around in the Dominican Republic for years, their skills rapidly atrophying, often without proper papers and unable to play professionally anywhere.

One thing that some of the recent over-pays for Cuban players also shows is that the value of baseball talent to MLB organizations is just enormous.  The MLB Draft and the International bonus pools artificially decrease the monies teams pay for amateur talent subject to these regimes substantially.  As a result, any player who can escape these regimes, such as MLB free agents or foreign veteran professionals from Cuba, tend in a mature market to be overpaid as a result of the fact that mlb organizations have a surplus of money freed up to throw at these players who are operating in much closer to a free market environment.

Jamie Romak Finds His Level

June 3, 2017

31 year old minor league slugger Jamie Romak is off to a hot start in South Korea’s KBO.  While he is batting only .274, 10 of his 20 hits are home runs, and he has nearly as many walks as hits.  His OPS is now 1.157.

As Romak well knows, the key to success in Asian baseball is getting off to a hot start.  After a big year in AAA in 2015, which got him a cup of coffee with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Romak signed with NPB’s Yokohama Bay Stars for 2016.  However, an 8-for-71 start finished his Japanese career after only 30 games.

Romak really can hit.  He’s improved steadily in AAA the last three years.  He may be one of those guys who has benefited by increasing his launch angle, the new craze.  It may also have to do with the fact that he’s getting better a selecting which pitches to swing at.

At any rate, he was hitting a ton for El Paso in the Pacific Coast League this year when the SK Wyverns came calling, after Danny Worth failed to cut the mustard.  The Wyverns are paying him $300,000, I assume for the rest of the 2017 season, since Romak was probably making $90,000 to $125,000 this year for AAA service time and somewhere between the major league minimum and $600,000 for major league service time.  He was likely to get at least a little major league service time, given the way he was hitting at El Paso (1.192 OPS in 102 plate appearances).

This is almost certainly Romak’s last real shot to make some real money playing professional baseball.  At age 32 next year, he’s unlikely to get any more opportunities.

Asian leagues cut bait on slow starters right quick, but once a player establishes himself with a strong season, in subsequent seasons his team will allow him to ride out slumps like other players.  Now established NPB stars Brandon Laird and Zelous Wheeler got off to brutally bad starts this season, but they were allowed to work through it and have since come around and started to hit with authority.

Romak’s almost certainly done enough already to stick around for the rest of the 2017 KBO season.  If he keeps hitting reasonably well, he’ll be able to come back for another season, probably for at least $700,000, which is MLB money any way you look at it.

My Favorite Minor League Stars 2017

June 2, 2017

Those few who have followed my blog over the years know that I love to write about players who have used the Independent A and Mexican leagues as a spring board to professional baseball success after their careers in the MLB system looked over.  Here are a few players I’ve been following for the last few seasons as they work their ways through interesting baseball careers.

Josh Lowey.  One of the Atlantic League’s best pitchers in 2013, Lowey had a terrific first half in the Mexican League (summer) in 2016.  That earned him a shot in South Korea’s KBO on a reported $200,ooo contract for the second half.  I don’t know if the 200 grand was pro-rated for the half season he played, but either way it was the first time in his professional baseball career he had made any real money.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go well for Josh.  Although he struck out 68 batters in 60 innings pitched, he also gave up 74 hits, six dingers and 37 walks, leaving him with an ugly, even for the sluggin’ KBO, ERA of 6.30.  Needless to say, he did not return to the KBO this season.

Instead, Lowey is back in the Mexican League, where’s he pitching well, but perhaps not good enough to get a shot to make more money in Taiwan’s CPBL in the second half.  He has the best strikeout rate of any Mexican League starter so far, but his ERA 4.06 ERA is only 22nd best in the 16-team circuit.  He’s also 32 years old this season, which does not help his future prospects.

Mike Loree.  As I wrote a year ago, Mike Loree remains the best starting pitcher in Taiwan’s four-team CPBL.  Minor injuries have limited him to seven starts so far this season, and his 1.60 ERA so far was the league’s best a day or so, but he’s now one inning short of qualifying.

This is Mike’s fifth season in the CPBL, and given the fact that he was the league’s best starter in 2015 and 2016, I would guess he’s probably making somewhere from $100,00 to $125,000 this season.

Loree got a raw deal from the KBO’s KT Wiz back in 2014.  The Wiz had signed both Loree and former major leaguer Andy Sisco to play for the Wiz’s minor league club the season before the Wiz started play in the KBO’s major league.  Although the limited information I was able to obtain indicated that Loree pitched better than Sisco in 2014, the Wiz brought Sisco back in 2015 but not Loree, almost certainly because of Sisco’s better MLB pedigree.

Sisco got bombed for the expansion Wiz and was quickly released, while Loree had to go back to being the Ace of the CPBL for less money. Sisco subsequently pitched in the CPBL also, but nowhere near as effectively as Loree.

Cyle Hankerd and Blake Gailen.  A pair of now 32 year old outfielders, both Hankerd and Gailen are still playing and still hitting.  Unfortunately, neither looks to have much chance to move up at this point to a real money league.

Gailen played for Israel’s surprisingly successful World Baseball Classic team this Spring, but didn’t play especially well, and he’s back in the Indy-A Atlantic League.  His .336 batting average is currently fifth best in the eight-team circuit.

Hankerd is back in the Mexican League for a fourth season.  His .976 OPS is currently 8th in a 16-team circuit known for its hitting.

The obvious place of advancement for players of Hankerd’s and Gailen’s proven talent level is Taiwan’s CPBL.  However, that league has only 12 slots for foreign players (three each for the league’s four teams), and, as far as I am aware, all twelve of those slots are currently held by pitchers.  Like the KBO, the CPBL wants mainly foreign pitchers.

Both the Atlantic League and the Mexican League remain loaded with former major leaguers well over 30 who can still excel at this level.  Sean Burroughs (age 36) and Alberto Callaspo (34) are first and third in the Atlantic League in hitting presently, and Lew Ford (40) played in a few games this year before likely getting hurt.  Chris Roberson (37) and Corey Brown (31) are respectively 4th and 5th in OPS in the Mexican League as of today.  I don’t have nearly as much sympathy for any of these guys, however, because all appear to have enough MLB service time to have earned a pension which presently starts at $34,000 a year at retirement age.

Players I am keeping an eye on in these leagues right now are Yadir Drake, K.C. Hobson and Ramon Urias.  Drake is a 27 year old Cuban right fielder who played pretty well at AA Tulsa in the Dodgers’s system in 2015, but started the 2016 in a terrible slump and was cut after only 19 games.  He’s currently the top hitter in the Mexican League slashing .406/.454/.703.  Hobson is a big 26 year old 1Bman, whose .959 OPS is currently 4th best in the Atlantic League.

Ramon Urias is the only real prospect, however.  He is a Mexican middle infielder who turns 23 tomorrow.  He played two seasons for the Texas Rangers’ Dominican Summer League team in 2011 and 2012 and played well enough for his age for me to wonder why the Rangers apparently released him or sold his rights to the Mexico City Red Devils.  It’s possible that the Red Devils had a more experienced player the Rangers wanted and traded Urias’ rights for that player.

At any rate, Urias had a strong age 21 season in 2015 in both the Mexican summer and winter leagues.  He apparently had some injuries in 2016, but this year his .998 OPS is currently his league’s 7th best.  Urias’ raw defensive numbers at 2B, SS and 3B look good enough that it’s surprising some major league team hasn’t already shelled out the $1M to $3M the Red Devils probably began asking for him after his 2015 campaigns.

Karl Gelinas has started his 11th consecutive season with the Quebec Capitals of the Can-Am League.  Unfortunately, at age 33 now, he doesn’t look to have a whole lot left.  2016 was his least successful campaign for the Capitals since 2009, and he’s started his season slow with a 6.55 ERA after three starts.  He started 2016 slow too, though, and finished up with what was still a solid season for this level.  Although his success for one minor league team no longer shows up in the career totals the way it once did, he remains this generation’s Lefty George.

It appears that Jose Contreras‘ professional baseball career is finally over.  At age 44 (at least), he made 10 starts in the Mexican League early in the 2016 season.  He pitched pretty well, and it is surprising that his pro career seams to have ended then.  I think his hope was to pitch again in the CPBL in the second half of 2016, as he had done the year before, but probably no Taiwanese team came calling.  He pitched in a Florida senior league this winter, and this recent article states that he is volunteering his time to the Ft. Myers Little League, teaching 8 to 12 year olds how to pitch.  The man clearly loves baseball with passion.

The above referenced article concludes with a great quote from Contreras about his pro career: “I had 28 great years: 14 in Cuba and 14 here.”

Jon Velasquez, Paul Oseguera and Brock Bond also appear to be done.  I will always feel that MLB in general and the San Francisco Giants in particular didn’t give Brock Bond a fair shake.

I’m still keeping an eye out for two guys I wrote about last year: Telvin Nash and Jack Snodgrass.  Snodgrass, formerly of the Giants’ system, pitched well enough in the Atlantic League early last year to get a shot from the Rangers.  He was hit hard in four appearances in AAA, and then got sent down to AA, where he pitched well in six starts.  Not well enough, however, to stay in organized baseball.  He’s back in the Atlantic League this year at age 29, where he appears to have quickly injured himself.

Nash (26) was signed by the White Sox last season after a strong Atlantic League start and hit well in the Class A+ Carolina League.  This year, he’s mostly been hurt.  His season didn’t start until May 12th, and he quickly hit his way up to AA, but after three games for Birmingham, he hasn’t played since May 21st.  Injuries are a great way to ruin what may be Nash’s last real shot at a major league career.

News from Japan

May 31, 2017

The Orix Buffaloes just signed Chris Marerro for a reported $400,000.  San Francisco Giants fans should remember Marrero, as he made the major league team out of Spring Training.  However, a 5 for 38 start got him sent down to AAA Sacramento, where he didn’t hit much better.

It’s obviously a wise move by Marrero.  He turns 29 in July, and this spring was probably has last real chance to establish himself as an MLB player.  Even if he washes out in Japan’s NPB, I don’t see how it will impact his likely future minor league career here.

The other big news out of Japan is that possible (probable?) future MLB pitcher Takahiro Norimoto became the second pitcher in NPB history to strike out ten or more batters in six straight starts.  The first pitcher to do it was Hideo Nomo back in 1991.  That’s certainly good company to keep.

What stands in the way of future MLB success for Norimoto is the fact that he’s a small right-hander (he’s still listed at 5’10” and 180 lbs) who has been worked mighty hard in his four-plus year NPB career.

On the subject of NPB pitching prospects who have been overworked, it looks like the Hanshin Tigers have succeeded in blowing out Shintaro Fujinami‘s arm.  At the end of last season, I ranked Fujinami as NPB’s best pitching prospect for MLB purposes after Shohei Otani, which is saying something, but I said then (and not for the first time) that I was greatly concerned about the Hanshin Tigers leaving him in for 150+ pitch starts (he topped the 150 pitch mark in starts in each of 2015 and 2016).

Fujinami’s 2016 performance was beginning to show the strain, the signs are unmistakable this season.  After seven starts, he has an ERA of 2.66 with a run average below 3.40, but he hasn’t pitched nearly that well.  He’s allowed a whopping 33 walks in 40.2 inning pitched while striking out only 21.

The Hanshin Tigers have sent Fujinami down to the team’s minor league club for a “tune-up” start on June 3rd.  Given Fujinami’s past performance, he doesn’t need to work out his issues in the minor leagues — he needs a long rest.  When a young pitcher of Fujinami’s proven talent level suddenly can throw strikes and his strikeout rate plummets, it usually means an arm injury is well on its way.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Shohei Otani still isn’t back from the hamstring injury he suffered running the bases only eight games into the 2017 NPB season.  The injury has raised a lot of questions both here and in Japan about whether Otani’s desire to be a two-way player opens him up to twice as many opportunities to hurt himself.

I don’t think the Nippon Ham Fighters will prevent a player of his talents from both hitting and pitching, if that is what he wants to do.  However, Otani is almost certainly going to have to accept less money than he’d otherwise get to find a team willing to let him do both in MLB.