Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Twins’ Prospect Ryan Costello Dies of “Natural Causes” in New Zealand

November 18, 2019

Professional baseball received some sad news today when it was reported that 23 year old Minnesota Twins prospect Ryan Costello was found dead in his hotel room in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was preparing to play in the Australian Winter League for the Auckland Tuatara.  According to the relevant authorities, the “preliminary indications suggest” that Costello died of “natural causes,” which raises a lot more questions than it answers.

“Natural causes” means it does not appear to have been suicide, murder or a fatal accident, and instead that the cause of death was a “natural” health process like heart attack, stroke, infection, etc.  Of course, healthy 23 year old professional athletes just don’t drop dead of heart attacks or strokes unless there is something else going on.

When Angels’ pitcher Tyler Skaggs‘ death was first announced around July 1st, there was initially no mention of the cause of death, except that it did not appear to be a suicide or murder.  At the time, I thought it sounded mighty fishy, since 27 year old professional athletes just don’t go around dropping dead.  Ultimately, it turned out that Skaggs had asphyxiated on his own vomit after overdosing on opiod painkillers to which he had apparently developed an addition of a period of years.

It seems highly unlikely that Costello suffered a heart attack or stroke at his age out of the blue.  Professional athletes are thoroughly evaluated medically on a routine basis, probably at a minimum at least annually around the time they report to Spring Training.  If Costello had had a congenital heart problem or other medical condition, it’s highly likely it would have been known and that Costello would have been advised of the risks of continuing to play professional sports.

Of course, Costello apparently died in his hotel room, where he most likely was not engaged in the level of strenuous physical activity necessary to cause a heart attack or stroke in an otherwise healthy 23 year old.

Because Costello is an unheralded minor leaguer, we may never see a final report in the media regarding his actual cause of death.  That’s a shame, because if it was drug related, that’s something the public needs to know.  A second drug-related death by a professional baseball player in six months’ time would suggest that professional baseball has a much bigger drug problem than anyone realizes and that MLB needs to do something about it.

In all fairness, I am not saying that drugs were the cause of Costello’s death.  Like everyone else, I simply don’t know why he died at this point.  I just find it irritating that when something like this happens, we get only the most vague description of the apparent cause of death, which, as I said above, invites far more questions than it answers.

Yomiuri Giants Post RHP Shun Yamaguchi

November 18, 2019

The Yomiuri Giants have agreed to post their 32 year old ace Shun Yamaguchi for MLB.  Yamaguchi will be the first player ever posted by the Giants.  However, after playing parts of 14 seasons in NPB, it’s not clear to me why Yamaguchi had not already earned his international free agency rights.  At any rate, Yamaguchi will turn his back on what would likely be bigger guaranteed money to stay in Japan for a chance to show what he can do in the world’s best baseball leagues.

Jim Allen says that the MLB scouts he’s spoken to see Yamaguchi as a back-end starter or a relief pitcher in MLB, which was more or less the opinion I expressed when I wrote about Yamaguchi about a month ago.  For some reason, Yamaguchi reminds me of Koji Uehara — they are similar in size and each had success both starting and relieving in NPB before coming to MLB in their 30’s.

Just about every major league team could use another Koji Uehara out of the bullpen, so I have to think that Yamaguchi will generate serious interest.  However, I would guess that interest would be at set-up-man money, rather than as a starter.  So maybe $6M or $7M guaranteed for two seasons with a team option for a third year at $5M?  That would be my guess, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Aaron Brooks and Ricardo Pinto to Join the KBO in 2020

November 17, 2019

The Kia Tigers of South Korea’s KBO have reached agreement on a one-year deal with soon to be 30 year old former Baltimore Oriole Aaron Brooks, while the SK Wyverns have inked former Tampa Ray Ricardo Pinto.

What I find interesting about the signings is that contract amounts are small, both well under $1 million, but both look to be fully guaranteed, which is unusual for new foreign pitchers joining the KBO.  Brooks is getting a $200,000 signing bonus and a guaranteed salary of $479,000 (so, $679,000 in total), and Pinto is getting a $100,000 signing bonus, a $450,000 guaranteed salary and a $250,000 team option for 2021, at what I would bet dollars to donuts would be a for another $800,000 salary.

Aaron Brooks’ major league record in 2019 looks a lot like Tim Adleman‘s 2017, both players’ respective age-29 seasons.  Adleman got a $1.05 million contract to pitch in the KBO in 2018, which was probably guaranteed, in light of the facts that at the time the contract amount was not as high as it reasonably could have been given Adleman’s 2017 season and that the Samsung Lions kept him around all season in spite of the fact that his performance didn’t match his relatively-high-for-the-KBO salary.

First year contracts for foreign players was limited to a cool $1M effective the 2018-2019 off-season.  It’s entirely possible that Brooks, in particular, could have negotiated a contract that paid a $300K signing bonus and an unguaranteed $700K salary, but it’s just as likely that the Tigers were willing to guarantee his full salary in order to lock him in a lower total compensation amount.  KBO attendance was down in 2019, so a bigger guarantee to lock in a lower salary would certainly make sense from the team’s perspective.

The MLB major league minimum in 2020 will be $563,500 in 2020, but neither Brooks nor Pinto had any real shot of getting a major league (i.e., guaranteed) contract.  Aaron Brooks likely would have earned $575,000 for major league service time in 2020, but after an age-29 season in which he posted a 5.65 ERA and corresponding ratios, it was certainly uncertain that Brooks would have spent even half of the 2020 season on a major league roster.  Better to go to South Korea for a guaranteed $679,000, with a big chunk up front.

Despite his much more limited MLB success, Pinto commanded a bigger guarantee because he has a lot more leverage entering his age 26 season.  His chances of spending a big chunk of the 2020 season on a major league roster are probably better than Brooks’.  Also, the Wyverns have apparently locked him into a second KBO season for what would be a total commitment of $1.35M (at least based on the way second year options almost always work for KBO foreigners).  The Wyverns have been quoted by Yonhap as looking at Pinto as a player they can develop into a mult-year star, although KBO teams almost always treat their foreign players as win-now, immediate-performance.

Pinto is expected to replace Henry Sosa, which is a shame, because Sosa proved he was still a KBO starter after spending the first half of the season in Taiwan’s CPBL.  That’s baseball, and it could mean a repeat performance by Sosa in the CPBL in 2020.

Brooks will replace either Jacob Turner or Joe Wieland, assuming the Tigers don’t decide to replace them both.  I have to assume that Turner is the one who just lost his job, but Wieland shouldn’t be laying out money for living expenses in South Korea in 2020 either.

KBO’s KT Wiz Sign Pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne

November 12, 2019

The KT Wiz of South Korea’s KBO signed RHP Odrisamer Despaigne for 2020 at a $750,000 salary and another $150,000 in performance incentives.  The only thing unusual about the signing is that Despaigne will be 33 in 2020, which is about two years older than the typical cut-off age for players going to South Korea or Japan to start the season.

In Despaigne’s favor are the facts that he has the kind of MLB experience Asian teams look for, and he had a good year at AAA in 2019.  His 3.47 ERA was third best out of 23 International League starters who threw at least 100 innings in the suddenly hitter-friendly circuit.  His 124 Ks was also third best in the IL, and struck out almost exacty one batter per inning pitched.  Finally, Despaigne is Cuban, and Cubans are a hot commodity in the Asian majors right now.

Despaigne is a great pitcher who doesn’t have major league stuff.  Sometimes, guys like him can be very successful in Asia, at least so long as they find the league in which their stuff is good enough to take advantage of their ability to pitch.  Asian teams generally prefer foreigners with major league stuff, who haven’t been able to put it together in the MLB majors, usually because their command isn’t quite good enough.  Pitchers with big fastballs, a sharp breaking pitch and a little brains can be very successful in Asia if they figure out that they can afford to miss out over the plate more often than they could in MLB.

The nice thing for the Wiz is that Despaigne is a relative bargain.  His level of past MLB major league experience would usually require a total commitment at the $1M KBO cap for first year foreign players.  Despaigne would likely have gotten the full $1M if he were two years younger.

In a related note, I saw that Tim Adleman recently re-signed to a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers for 2020.  Too bad — he had as good a season in the International League as Despaigne did.  He pitched in the KBO in 2018 on a $1.05M contract the Samsung Lions had given him (the KBO’s $1M cap was imposed the next off-season), after he led the Cincinnati Reds in innings pitched in 2017 (the Reds’ pitching that year was bad and hurt).

Adleman wasn’t terrible, with an 8-12 record and a 5.05 ERA when the KBO was still an extreme hitters league, but it wasn’t good enough for the money he was making, and he found himself starting the 2019 season in the Atlantic League, almost certainly because he was already 31 entering the 2019 season.  The Tigers signed him after only three Atlantic League appearances, and he put in a fine season for them at the AA and AAA levels.

All of which means, Adleman wouldn’t be a bad bet for a KBO team on a contract paying a $600,000 salary and another $200,000 in performance incentives.  Now that Adleman knows the league, he might be better in a second go ’round.  Of course, that could occur only if Adleman was willing to spend another year in South Korea.  Some American players don’t enjoy the experience of playing and living in a foreign country for six months out of the year.

Hiroshima Carp to Post 2B Ryosuke Kikuchi

November 8, 2019

NPB’s Hiroshima Toyo Carp have announced their intention to post their slick-fielding 2Bman Ryosuke Kikuchi for MLB teams this off-season.  I don’t think this Kikuchi has the bat to draw major league interest, but we’ll have to wait and see.

mlbtraderumors’ post on the subject notes that Kikuchi is an absolutely terrific defender and provides numerous video clips to prove it.  I’d guess that Kikuchi would prove an elite defensive 2Bman even in MLB.

However, Kikuchi just does not get on base enough to hold a major league regular position for long.  The last three seasons, his age 27-29 seasons, Kikuchi has posted on-base percentages of .311, .301 and .313.  I feel with near certainty those NPB numbers would translate to less than .300 in MLB.  Kikuchi has some pop, hitting 13 or 14 HRs each of last three seasons, along with between 27 and 36 doubles.  However, the home runs are likely to all but disappear in MLB’s larger ballparks against better league-average pitching.

Could Kikuchi be worth a two-year, $2M guarantee from an MLB team to be a middle infield super-sub? Maybe.  I will note that with all the infield shifting and launch angle swinging in today’s game, Kikuchi’s 2B defense probably isn’t as valuable to an MLB team as would be to an NPB team.  I don’t see him having the opportunity to make as many plays in MLB as he has in Japan, not least because he’s no spring chicken going into his age 30 season.

The Carp are posting Kikuchi because the team feels fairly certain they will lose Kikuchi next off-season when he gets his domestic free agent rights.  It would not surprise me to see Kikuchi get at least a three-year $12M offer from one of NPB’s wealthy teams next off-season, and he’d be worth it to those teams.  I don’t see him being worth that kind of money to an MLB team, where glove-tree middle infielders are a dime a dozen.

As a completely unrelated note, the Padres just released RHP Eric Yardley.  He pitched pretty well for the Friars last year in ten relief appearances as a 28 year old rookie, but, again, he’s no spring chicken.

What is interesting about Yardley is that he’s one of those extremely rare players who started his pro career in the Independent-A Pecos League but ultimately reached the majors.  Players only earn $50 a week to play in the Pecos League, and they are almost exclusively players who just finished a four-year college career, aren’t good enough to make even a Frontier League roster, but just can’t give up the pro baseball dream.

The Pecos League website lists all of 20 players to have reached even the affiliated minor leagues in the Pecos League’s nine year history.  Chris Smith also accomplished the feat of eventually reaching the majors, but I’m not sure there are many (or any) others.  I hope another MLB team picks up Yardley in time for the start of the 2020 season, but guys with Yardley’s Indy-A ball roots usually don’t get much respect from MLB organizations.

Venezuelan Pro Baseball Takes a Hit

November 8, 2019

Venezuela’s Winter League started this week, and I, for one, was interested to see how the new American sanctions regime would affect this year’s rosters.  Indeed, it looks like there are not only no American-born players playing in Venezuela this winter, but no active MLB-system minor leaguers either.  Engelb Vielma and Luis Ysla both played in the affiliated minors in 2019, but both are currently free agents whose future MLB-system prospects do not look encouraging.

There are still a few foreign (to Venezuela) players in the VWL this winter, including Brazilian Tiago Da Silva, Cuban Yadir Drake and a number of Dominicans including Welington Dotel and Denis Phipps.  Da Silva and Drake played in the Mexican League this past summer, and Dotel and Phipps played in the Indy-A Atlantic League.

By way of comparison, as recently as last season the VWL featured among others, Willians Astudillo, Franklin Barreto and former MLB star Delmon Young.

Needless to say, even aside from the sanctions, the deaths of former major leaguers Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo — they were murdered by attempted car-jackers/highway robbers while traveling to their home city after an away-series during the 2018 VWL season — had to have discouraged a lot of foreigners from playing there in the future.  The fact that the VWL still has some foreign players says a lot about how much those players need the $10,000 to $15,000 in total they make playing there for the winter season.

Venezuela produces so many baseball players, that even relying heavily on over-the-hill Venezuelan players who are years removed from the MLB system and no longer good enough to hold a job in the Mexican League, the VWL can still put a professional-level product on the field, even if not a very good one.  In fact, with the league loaded for bear with washed-up Venezuelans this season, it is probably costing the Venezuelan government less money to keep play going than it did only a year ago.  $2,000 or $3,000 a month in today’s Venezuela at least puts food on the table and then some.

I saw this article on line today.  It says that the price of two tickets, two beers and two hot dogs “easily costs $15” in the VWL this season, which is roughly twice the minimum wage most Venezuelans earn each month.  The VWL is thus a privilege for the few remaining relatively well-off people in Venezuela and for those who are “gifted” free tickets from the government as a reward for their continued loyalty to the regime.  The article contains a photo of a couple of Venezuelan hotties sitting in what appears to be the front row — I’d guess they are either girlfriends of the relatively well-paid ballplayers or the girlfriends of wealthy men connected to the regime.

Meanwhile, I also read an article about how the “special police” called the FAES created in 2017 have been accused by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet of engaging in extra-judicial killings of regime opponents in Venezuela’s slums.  Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says Bachelet is lying, but I know which of the two I believe.  You can’t keep control of a country in its fourth year of economic free fall without murdering a few hundred dissidents to keep everyone else in fear and in line.

God, what a way to run a country!  That said, if the current administration’s sanctions regime simply turns Venezuela into another Cuba, which is still a Communist state as U.S. sanctions against that regime enter their 60th year, I’m not sure what will be accomplished other than making millions of Venezuelans suffer even more and further de-stabilizing the rest of Latin America.

NPB Signings, Rumors and Speculations

November 3, 2019

We are in the phase of the MLB post-season, where teams are mainly designating marginal players for assignment and players and teams are deciding whether to exercise their option rights.  It’s not a tremendously exciting time for anyone but the individual players involved and the real hot stove league die-hards.

Aroldis Chapman exercised his opt-out right to squeeze another season (2022) and $18 million out of the New York Yankees, which seems entirely reasonable for the parties concerned.  It’s hard to imagine a Cuban player like Chapman wanting to leave NYC.

Stephen Strasburg has also opted out of the last four years and $100M with the Nats.  My guess is that he could well command six years at $150M going into his age 31 season.  We’ll see if the Nats are willing to pay that, or if another team steps in and ponies up the bucks.

The most recent two signings of former MLBers by Japanese teams are the Yakult Swallows signing former Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar for a reported $800,000 for 2020 and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp signing former Padres and Phillies 2Bman Jose Pirela for a reported $600,000 plus another $250,000 in performance incentives.

Escobar spent most of 2019 at AAA Charlotte in the White Sox organization, until he was released on August 2nd, probably because Escobar was frustrated the Sox had’t promoted him to Chi as he had expected.  Escobar will 33 in 2020, which is old for a foreign player signing a first contract with an NPB team, but Escobar has a record of staying healthy and playing every day.  He posted a .787 OPS in the suddenly hitter-friendly International League in 2019, which seems in line with his past MLB performance.

The most interesting thing about the Escobar signing is whether it means the Swallows are more likely to post 2Bman Tetsuto Yamada this off-season.  Escobar will presumably play SS for the Swallows in 2020, because that’s where is value (mostly defense) is greatest.  The Swallows’ main shortstop in 2019 was Taishi Hirooka, who batted a feeble .203  and struck out an awful lot.  However, Hirooka was willing to take a walk and hit 10 home runs, resulting in a .710 OPS, which isn’t bad for a 22 year old middle infielder.

I don’t really see the point in signing Escobar, unless the Swallows plan to post Yamada and move Hirooka, who is still worth trying to develop into an NPB star, to 2B.  With Yamada going into his age 27 season in 2020, he should bring the Swallows a pretty penny if posted to MLB teams.  We’ll see soon enough.

Pirela is no spring chicken either, going into his age 30 season.  He also mostly played at AAA in 2019.

Rumors have it that Seibu Lions’ star outfielder Shogo Akiyama wants to play in MLB in 2020 now that he’s earned his international free agents rights.  However, he suffered a broken toe on a HBP on November 1st while playing in a post-season exhibition game.  An untimely injury makes it at least a little more likely he remains in Japan.

The Hanshin Tigers reportedly offered 2019 break-out relief pitcher Pierce Johnson a two year contract for 2020-2021.  However, Johnson’s wife just had a baby, leading to speculation he’ll want to return to the U.S. if he can get a major league contract offer from an MLB team.

Rumors also have it that the Hanshin Tigers are targeting Adam Duvall and Tyler Austin this off-season.  I would expect Duvall to get a major league contract offer from an MLB team after his strong late-season performance with the Braves, although the Tigers could certainly offer him more money than an MLB team might guarantee.  Tyler Austin is now a free agent after being outrighted off the Brewers’ 40-man roster.  Going into his age 28 season, Austin looks like a prime candidate for NPB, as does former Brewer and Padre Corey Spangenberg, who turns 29 next March and was also just outrighted by Milwaukee.

Other news out of Japan is that Scott Mathieson, who had by and large eight very successful seasons pitching out of the bullpen for the Yomiuri Giants, announced his retirement at the end of the 2019 Nippon Series, in which the SoftBank Hawks swept the Giants in four games. He won’t be well remembered in MLB circles, but he’s unlikely to be forgotten any time soon by Japanese baseball fans.  And, of course, he made a pile of money playing in Asia.

I haven’t seen anything yet on signings of new foreign players by KBO teams, which usually all take place by the end of November.  Most likely the signings will start once all MLB teams get closer to making their final 40-man roster cut-downs going into the free agent signing period, which starts tomorrow.