Archive for International

Scouting the Mesa Brothers

On Monday, the Marlins officially signed Cuban OFs Victor Victor Mesa and Victor Mesa Jr. for approximately $5 million and $1 million, respectively, according to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez. Below is a post published earlier this month featuring scouting information on each of them — plus pitcher Sandy Gaston — sourced from clubs who attended their lone stateside workout.

Marlins Park hosted three Cuban prospects — CF Victor Victor Mesa (our No. 1 international free agent on THE BOARD), RHP Sandy Gaston (No. 20), and OF Victor Mesa, Jr. (not ranked) — for a workout on Friday. The media was not allowed at this scouts-only event, but we’ve collected thoughts from some evaluators who attended the showcase, which featured a standard array of activities for a baseball workout, including a 60-yard dash, outfield drills, and some reps against live, Marlins instructional league pitching. We’ve compiled some thoughts from people who attended the workout below, as well as some of our own thoughts on what kind of bonuses talents like this typically command on the pool-capped, international-free-agent market.

Cuban prospects have sometimes undergone drastic physical transformations between the point at which they’ve last been observed in Cuba and their workouts for teams. Sometimes these changes are positive (as with Luis Robert, who looked like an Ancient Greek sculpture when he worked out for teams in the Dominican Republic in 2017) and sometimes they are not (Yasiel Puig’s living conditions made it impossible for him to remain in baseball shape for his eventual workout in Mexico), but this was not the case on Friday. Victor Victor Mesa, 22, looks to have retained the sort of physicality he possessed the last several years in Cuba. He ran his 60-yard dash in about 6.5 seconds (give or take a few hundredths of a second, depending on the stopwatch), which is in the 65-70 range on the 20-80 scale, and he’s a 60 runner in games as he was in the past, while his arm remains above average.

Mesa hit some balls out to his pull side during batting practice, showing 50-grade raw power, but he has a linear, contact-oriented swing that we think will lead to below-average power output in games. There’s no question he can hit, defend, and add value on the bases, but there’s real doubt about the game application of his power. In aggregate, it looks like an average to slightly below-average offensive profile on an above-average defender at a premium position. Scouts think Mesa is a low-risk, moderate impact prospect who should be ready for the big leagues relatively soon. He garners frequent comparisons to Cubs CF Albert Almora. There’s a chance Mesa has a three-win season or two at peak, but expectations are more of a solid 1.5- to 2.0-win type player. He’s a 45+ FV on our July 2nd version of THE BOARD, which would be somewhere in the 130 to 175 range overall in the minors.

Mesa’s talent would typically be valued between $5 million and $10 million (depending on market conditions when he became a free agent) in the prior, non-pooled international environment, and that would come with a matching tax for exceeding pool limitations, so call it about $15 million in a total outlay. That kind of money isn’t available on the July 2 market anymore. The lack of comparable talents still available at this point, however, could help Mesa earn a larger bonus than Shohei Ohtani ($2.3 mil) did last year, even though Mesa isn’t nearly as talented, because everyone with money left wants to land him. We consider the Marlins the favorites to do so.

Cuban righty Sandy Gaston, just 16, ranked 20th on our July 2nd board as the lowest 40 FV, and he was the clear second-most interesting prospect at the event. Kiley saw him in February when he topped out at 97 mph and flashed an average curve and change, but Gaston also sent four balls to the backstop in a one-inning showcase against other 16-year-olds. Last Friday, Gaston worked 94-97 with similar secondary stuff, but with better feel, particularly in his first inning. There’s still a reliever look to him due to his delivery and mature physicality, but at age 16, so much will change that you can’t project that with certainty at this point, and Gaston has one of the most talented pure arms in the world at his age.

There generally is not a market for $2-plus million bonuses for 16-year-old pitchers, as teams tend to spend more on hitters. The track record of flame-throwing teenagers is not good. We consider Gaston to be a seven-figure talent but think many teams probably have him valued a bit lower than that because of the risk associated with his demographic. New Phillies RHP Starlyn Castillo is pretty similar to Gaston (we ranked Castillo 18th in the most recent July 2nd class) and he got $1.5 million, which is close to where we think Gaston’s bonus will be if teams engage in a bidding war for him after Mesa signs. Gaston was rumored to have a deal for that much or more with the Marlins around July 2nd, but it never materialized.

Victor Mesa, Jr. ran his 60-yard dash in the 6.9 second, which is average. He also showed a 55 arm and a linear swing geared more for contact. He’s 17, so there’s still room to project improvement based on maturing physicality, but he’s currently a tweener with hit and throw being his only above-average tools — and some scouts lower than that on the hit tool. On talent, we think he fits in the low, six-figure range.

Reading the Market

So what teams are best positioned to sign these guys? A glance at the market reveals that the Orioles have the biggest hard-capped pool amount remaining at about $6.7 million. That’s the most anyone can offer a single player, making any price that a team pays for Victor Victor a bargain compared to what he’d get in an open market. The Orioles ($6.7 mil) and Marlins — who just traded fringe pitching prospect Ryan Lillie to Cincinnati and reliever Kyle Barraclough to Washington in exchange for pool money — can offer the most at this point.

For reference, Jon Jay is a past-his-prime version of Mesa, and he garnered $4.4 million in 2018 ($3 mil plus what he earned in attained incentives) for his age-33 season. Victor Victor will likely get close to that amount, but represents six years of similar production instead of one and, at age 22, also possesses the possibility of turning into a better player than we’re projecting, He’d also be very marketable in Miami.

The Marlins, as noted, have made some moves to increase their pool size, and buzz among scouts and executives is that they’re looking to add all three players (the Mesa’s are likely to sign with the same team), which would cost at least $5 million, possibly over $6 million. The Orioles are obviously already in position to offer something like that, but that organization is currently in a state of flux due to the recent departures of the manager and GM, and you’d understand if the three Cubans would prefer a comparable offer from the Marlins. Thus, it seems reasonable that they’ll wait and see how much the Marlins can add to their pool.

As for what will be left over for the clubs that don’t land these Cubans, there’s some chatter among scouts that some clubs have deals with Mexican prospects who aren’t eligible to sign at the moment, as MLB has shut down the country to clubs for an unspecified period. If it doesn’t open before next July 2nd, then those clubs would have to find somewhere else to spend their pool money. We think they’d try to spread it around across several six-figure talents and that prospects in Asia may be targets.

There’s more intrigue surrounding this process due to the recent Sports Illustrated report regarding the U.S. Department of Justice investigation of MLB affairs in foreign countries. All three of these Cuban players are represented by Scott Shapiro and Barry Praver of Magnus Sports Agency. Praver and Shapiro once employed Bart Hernandez who in 2017 was convicted of illegally smuggling Cuban ballplayers to the U.S. via other countries.


Job Posting: Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (NPB) Data Engineer

Position: Data Engineer, Baseball Strategy Office

Location: Sendai, Japan

Description:
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of NPB are seeking a data engineer to join the Baseball Strategy Office. This position will assist in building an analytic system to:

  • Generate new insights
  • Automate existing reports
  • Allow wider audience to reach data
  • Integrate new data sources

A successful candidate will be an excellent communicator and problem solver who will communicate closely with coaches and players to develop and productize new ideas on a regular basis. The candidate will also have a user-first mindset and will be able to put the team first in a demanding environment.

Responsibilities:

  • Assist in expansion of internal analysis and report generation system
  • Design and experiment with new ideas and analytical methods
  • Generate effective and easy-to-interpret output
  • Assist in guaranteeing the quality of data
  • Design database to integrate new data sources

Required Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in fields such as statistics, computer science, engineering or mathematics
  • 3-5 years experience working in a technology, analytical or product-oriented environment
  • Knowledge of Python/R/SQL
  • Strong communication skills (knowledge of Japanese language is preferred, but not required)
  • Experience living overseas is preferred
  • Having previously built, and be able to show, an end-to-end product or analytical output

Employment Status:
Annual renewable contract

To Apply:
Please send your resume and CV to eagles-jobs@mail.rakuten.com.


The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 3

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fifth piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the third installment of a three-part series exploring whether the Australian Baseball League is in the midst of their own juiced ball and bat controversy. In this installment, league officials and the equipment manufacturers respond. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The Response

Increasingly aware of the way the numbers were adding up throughout the season, the Australian Baseball League’s general manager, Ben Foster, understands the natural inclination for players, fans, and others to draw their own conclusions about what led to the spike in home runs and the offense on a whole.

“One of the great entitlements for sports fans is their right to speculate and to try and figure out why something as unpredictable as sport always surprises us,” Foster said. “As a fan myself, I love to speculate on things like, ‘Will this player or that player have a great year?’ Or, ‘Why did he go to the bullpen in that situation?’ So I do think it is natural for people to speculate about every aspect of the game when they see unexpected results.”

But the league’s GM does not believe that the numbers point to any one thing in particular. Acknowledging that equipment might have been a part of the equation, he does suspect that the standard of baseballs used during the recent season were of superior quality to those used previously.

“I cannot rule out that equipment played a part, too,” Foster said. “But I think it’s an oversimplification of just the baseballs. In conversations I had with players and coaches, many commented on the improved quality of the bats we supplied this season.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 2

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s fourth piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

This is also the second installment of a three-part series exploring whether the Australian Baseball League is in the midst of their own juiced-ball and bat controversy. In this installment, the pitchers respond. You can find Part 1 here.

The Pitchers

For some, the conversation started early.

In the opening weekend of the 2017/18 Australian Baseball League season, 111 runs were scored and 30 home runs were hit. In just 11 games. More than half of those home runs were hit at Melbourne Ballpark, home to the Aces, who hosted the Perth Heat for four contests.

“I noticed a difference in the league in Round 1,” said Josh Tols, a current Phillies farmhand and southpaw for the Aces with five seasons in the ABL under his belt. “There was an abnormal number of home runs hit at Altona in our opening series against Perth. Typically, with the wind at our field, the ball doesn’t get out all that much. Just looking at the home-run numbers after Round 1, you kind of had a feeling it was going to be a long year for the pitchers.”

Other hurlers didn’t begin to notice a difference until a little later.

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The Great Australian Home-Run Spike, Part 1

This is Alexis Brudnicki’s third piece as part of her March residency at FanGraphs. Alexis is the Director of Baseball Information for the Great Lake Canadians, an elite amateur baseball program in London, Ontario, Canada. She has written for various publications including Baseball America, Canadian Baseball Network, Sportsnet, The Hardball Times, and Prep Baseball report. She won a 2016 SABR Analytics Conference Research Award for Contemporary Baseball Commentary. She can also be found on Twitter (@baseballexis). She’ll be contributing here this month.

Juiced or not juiced?

While the question has become a persistent topic of conversation in Major League Baseball of late, similar rumblings about the state of the baseball have begun to pick up steam across the world.

After the six teams in the Australian Baseball League combined for 171 home runs over 119 total regular-season games during the 2016-2017 season, those same squads hit 379 long balls in the same number of matchups during the most recent winter.

A comparison of the offensive stats of the 2016-17 season to the 2017-18 season highlights the shift:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Batting Comparison
Season R/G R H 2B 3B HR K OBP SLG OPS
2016/17 4.78 1138 2053 394 34 171 1746 .339 .388 .727
2017/18 6.51 1550 2343 476 35 379 1999 .361 .495 .856
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

And the pitching stats diverge similarly:

ABL 2016-17 vs. 2017-18 Pitching Comparison
Season ERA R/9 IP R ER BB WHIP H/9 HR/9
2016-17 4.28 5.08 2016.1 1138 958 812 1.421 9.2 0.8
2017-18 5.93 6.97 2002.0 1550 1320 849 1.594 10.5 1.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Numbers represent league totals

Power numbers went way up, offensive numbers increased in every statistical category across the league, and pitching stats were abysmal, with more runs scored per game than ever before. It was a significant enough difference to inspire the players and fans to speculate on the causes.

The obvious answer in Australia was that the equipment was different. Though there has been speculation about modifications to the baseballs in MLB, the Aussie league’s transition to a new equipment provider — moving from Rawlings balls and SAM BAT sticks to bats and balls from Brett Sports — removes any need to speculate.

Or does it?

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An American Knuckleballer in Korea

This is Sung Min Kim’s fourth piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Knuckleballers are rare. Lefty knuckleballers, even more so. Consider: Wikipedia’s list of knuckleball pitchers features 29 names. Only four of them are left-handers.

Knuckleballers are even more rare in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In the 36-year history of the league, there’s only been one ever. This one happens to be a lefty, though.

Some MLB fans will recognize the name: LHP Ryan Feierabend. Selected in the third round by the Mariners out of an Ohio high school back in 2003, Feierabend made it to the majors as a 20-year-old in 2006 but had only 25 major-league appearances with Seattle in three seasons. From 2010 to 2013, he was a journeyman, making the rounds through the Mariners, Phillies, Reds, and Rangers systems, as well as the Atlantic League. In 2014, Feierabend resurfaced back in MLB for six appearances with Texas, but after that season, he signed a deal with Nexen Heroes of the KBO.

Feierabend told me that the Nexen Heroes showed interest in him about a year before the signing. “The time was summer 2013. I was in Triple-A Round Rock and was having a pretty good season,” Feierabend recalled. (He produced a 6-5 record and 3.66 ERA in 120.1 IP.) “As the season went on, more and more teams from Korea became intrigued with me. About four different scouts gave me their business cards, but only one of them — from Nexen Heroes — stayed in touch.” Later, in November 2015, the Heroes finally made an offer and told him that he had 72 hours to make a decision.

“Well, here I am four years later, so I definitely signed,” Feierabend said.

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How Korean Baseball Briefly Shortened Time of Game

This is Sung Min Kim’s third piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Pace of play has, without a doubt, become a hot-potato subject in MLB and for commissioner Rob Manfred. The league, of course, recently made some rule changes in order to quicken game flow, alterations that mostly concern things like mound visits, commercial breaks, instant replay, and the timing of pitching changes. We even had a league executive make some, uh, interesting propositions about the ninth inning.

While many of MLB’s proposals this offseason have focused on improving pace of play, other possible rule changes have sought to more explicitly shorten games. One such idea is to increase the size of the strike zone. The idea here is straightforward: more strikes means quicker at-bats, and quicker at-bats means quicker games.

With the new pace-of-play measures already announced, we won’t be seeing a bigger strike zone yet. However, another league already put that measure in practice in 2017. Last year, before the season’s start, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) announced that they were going to adopt a wider strike zone.

The KBO made the decision for different reasons than MLB would. First, it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to Team Korea’s poor showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. South Korea, the host of Group A in the first round of the tournament, was eliminated after the first two games, losing to Israel and the Kingdom of Netherlands (though they did beat Taiwan in their third and final contest). That early exit served as a wake-up call, inspiring league officials to think critically about the game.

But there was another reason for the change. KBO has been a high-offense environment for the past few seasons. From 2014 to 2016, the league enjoyed an average OPS of .807, .787, and .801 respectively. It was not always this way, though. As recently as 2012, KBO skewed more pitcher-friendly, believe it or not. That season, the league had a .698 OPS. Since then, hitter OPS has increased by about 100 points in just seasons, which is significant.

I could write a whole article on why that is. But for now, we’ll stick to the strike zone. After the offensive environment of the last few years, officials felt that the balance needed to shift back towards pitching after three consecutive years of inflated run-scoring. By increasing the strike-zone width and calling more strikes, pitchers would gain some advantage.

When announcing the change, the head KBO umpire official Kim Poong-Gi explained that the league would not explicitly re-define the strike zone. Rather, the intent was to maximize the size within the regulated measure. That meant, hypothetically, the pitch that touches any portion of zone boundary would be considered a strike.

And the new zone did inspire change.

Two pitches don’t conclusively prove the point, but as examples, here is Kim Gyeong-Un of the Hanwha Eagles, taking a pitch for a ball on May 18, 2016.

And here is Min Byung-Hun of the Doosan Bears taking a called strike three on a pitch in a very similar location on August 31, 2017.

The new mandate not only affected ball and strike calls but also average game length. In 2016, the average KBO game lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 2017? Just 3 hours and 17 minutes. It is perhaps noteworthy, as well, that for the first month of the season, the average game length was 3 hours and 12 minutes, a whole 11 minutes shaved off the previous mark. That seems even more significant! So, hypothetically, the strike-zone change could be a practical short-term solution to quicken games.

There is a nagging question, though — namely, what happened after that first month? If we compare April to the rest of the season, we do see differences in strikeout rate and called-strike rate

2017 KBO Ball-Strike Numbers
Month K% BB% Pitches/PA Strike% Called-Strike% Swinging-Strike%
April 18.5% 7.8% 3.83 64.2% 28.3% 14.4%
After 17.4% 8.0% 3.86 63.5% 27.3% 14.5%

The five-minute jump between April and everything after that seems significant enough to demand an explanation. Two theories are often invoked. The first is that hitters got acclimated to the change, decided to adapt a more aggressive approach, and produced. The second is that the umpires gradually went back to the previous strike zone.

The first theory is going to take some numbers to support. The wider strike zone bumped up the strikeout rate and reduced the walk rate throughout the league. As you see below, there were definitely more called strikes. As a result, hitters became a bit more aggressive.

Strike-Ball Numbers, KBO
Year K% BB% Pitch/PA Strike% Swing% Swing Ks Look Ks
2016 16.9% 9.3% 3.89 61.9% 45.3% 7427 2316
2017 17.6% 8.0% 3.86 63.7% 46.1% 7389 2620

Given the changes, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and more swings are to be expected. Hitters hit .272/.339/.400 in April and .289/.357/.447 from May till the end of the season. And most importantly, for the league’s purposes, here are the overall league slash lines:

2016: .290/.364/.437
2017: .286/.353/.438

The new strike-zone measure, while initially helping with the pace of play, did little to address the run-scoring environment. You could argue that the new strike zone encouraged hitters to be more aggressive and resulted in more balls put in play. The league 2017 BABIP of .327 is not much of a change from .326 and .331 from the previous two seasons. As the slugging percentage would indicate, the power did not die down either. In fact, the home-run total increased from 1,483 to 1,547. All in all, after a blip in the first month, the hitters simply continued to rake, and the game length regressed back to the norm.

The second point however, is partially confirmed. As the new rule was implemented, it became clear that pitches that did not touch the strike zone boundaries were often called strikes. In a mid-July interview, Kim Poong-Gi admitted that they “tweaked” the strike zone to make it smaller than it was in April. “Because the strike zone was overly wide in April, we adjusted it a bit smaller,” Kim said, “but we are still enforcing the wider strike zone width.” If that is true, then the numbers may back up the correlation. In April, the league ERA was at 4.46. It increased to 4.63 in May and saw a dramatic rise in June to 5.64.

That brought attention to a new problem: consistency. It can be hard enough to enforce a new measure. It gets harder when every umpire has a different zone.

The wide-strike-zone experiment, for now, is still an experiment in the KBO. Kim Poong-Gi announced in December that the league will continue to use wider strike zone in 2018. It’s very doubtful that it will solve the run-scoring issue in 2018 with the current pool of hitting and pitching talent in the KBO. Regarding pace of play, it would be easier to conclude something meaningful if there wasn’t such a disparity between the first month of game and the rest of the season’s. Other factors might account for some of the change in game length. Given the fluctuating game length trend and the overall inconsistencies, one could say that the strike-zone change created more problems that it solved. Does that mean that MLB should ditch the idea completely? Not necessarily. If the umpires can enforce a consistently sized zone throughout the season and give the players a good idea what to expect, then it could be executed decently.

Of course, another thing to note is that, throughout the baseball history, the strike-zone rules have changed multiple times. The regulation was not passed on a stone tablet like the Ten Commandments. It has been a product of adjustments according to the environment. For instance, in 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, MLB experienced an all-time pitcher-friendly season during which hitters slashed a mere .237/.299/.340 overall, with pitchers thriving to the tune of a 2.98 ERA. In 1969, the league responded by reducing the strike-zone size. In 1987, the league saw a then-record 4,458 home runs in a season. MLB adjusted the strike zone before the 1988 season by increasing the size. So it goes. The odds are that we will see another strike-zone change in future. Whether it will be for the pace of play remains to be seen.

All stats from Statiz unless otherwise specified.


Asia Is No Longer a Last Stop for Major Leaguers

This is Sung Min Kim’s second piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

For the first post of my residency, I examined the biggest names in Asia who could soon come over to U.S. Because of the massive amount of attention MLB gets from local media and fans, people keep their eyes peeled on potential Asia-to-MLB transactions.

What does not get as much attention, however, is the reverse. Teams in Asia (for the purposes of this article, I’m specifically referring to teams in Japan and South Korea) diligently scout players Stateside, mainly scouring the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and sometimes even Mexico or independent ball to fill out their foreign-player roster. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league, has a cap of three foreign players per team, while the Nippon Professional League (NPB), a 12-team league, has a cap of four foreign players on its major-league rosters, and no cap on its minor-league rosters.

Sure, it may not be as newsworthy as an MLB team signing an exciting talent from Asia (remember the buzz Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani generated this offseason?), but there are reasons to keep track of players crossing the Pacific to the Far East. In recent years, the players traveling to Asia are likely quite familiar to everyday baseball fans in the U.S. That hasn’t always been the case. For some time, playing baseball in Asia was seen more as a destination of last resort for players who could not find their way in the majors or were past their prime. Rather than signing ex-big leaguers looking to “collect their last paychecks,” however, Asian clubs are now signing younger players on the fringes of the big leagues — the so-called “Quad-A” player — and even, in some instances, players who are on a major-league 40-man roster.

Players are also now realizing that their careers don’t “go to die” in Asia. Rather, it is sometimes an opportunity for them to play well, get better, and return to Major League Baseball. With MLB teams having increased their scouting presence in the NPB and KBO, we have seen notable recent cases of American players thriving there and securing a guaranteed MLB contract.

One such player is, of course, Milwaukee 1B/OF Eric Thames. After recording a .799 OPS in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems in 2013, Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO, where he proceeded to record video-game numbers, slashing .349/.451/.721 with 124 home runs and a 188 wRC+ from 2014 to 2016. Following the third of those season, the Brewers signed Thames to a $16-million contract with a $7.5 million club option for 2020. In his first season back in the MLB, Thames produced a 124 wRC+ with a 2.1 WAR while hitting 31 home runs for the Brewers. Not bad.

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What Do You Get for Your International Bonuses?

With the likely winner of the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes becoming a bit more clear, 23 teams now find themselves in an interesting situation. Before Ohtani had narrowed his list, many of those clubs had hoarded their international bonus money for the big moment. Following the announcement of Ohtani’s seven finalists, however, they were left with the capacity to offer free-agent bonuses, but few actual players in whom to invest that money.

Fortunately for them, a fresh set of prospects emerged thanks to the Braves’ indiscretions on the international market. Some teams — including the Angels, Phillies, and Royals — pounced quickly, using funds from the 2018-2019 pool to sign some of the top ex-Braves. Other teams will assuredly put their remaining bonuses to use in this way, taking a chance that these players will thrive in a new system.

There is, of course, one other way in which teams can put their bonus dollars to work, and it’s one that seems to have increased in popularity during this year — namely, by trading the bonus money. The rules for this have changed a few times. Under the terms of the most recent CBA, however, a team can trade away its entire international bonus pool or acquire additional funds up to 75% of their initial pool through trades.

Some teams have taken advantage of this rule to trade substantial portions of their bonus pools, to varying levels of public approval. The last few days, specifically, have seen the remaining teams in the Ohtani sweepstakes make trades to augment their pools.

Is this a smart strategy? Before we disparage or praise teams for using their bonus pools in this fashion, it’s worthwhile to look at what teams are getting with this particular kind of asset.

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Will Otani Change the Game?

TAMPA, Fla. — Even if Shohei Otani is not the next Babe Ruth, even if baseball has to settle for welcoming the next Madison Bumgarner some time in the not-too-distant future, some team will be quite happy.

You’re probably familiar with Otani. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Japanese star, however, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the resume.

As a 21-year-old last season, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA over 20 starts in the NPB. He struck out 174 and walked 45 in 140 innings. Oh, he also OPS’d 1.004 with 22 home runs over 323 at-bats in 104 games. He was named the league’s best pitcher and best DH.

The following exhibits from 2016 are visual evidence of this player’s existence.

Let’s start with the fastball that sits in the mid- to upper 90s and that has touched 102 mph…

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Nelson Cruz Wasn’t Out by a Mile

The Dominican Republic hadn’t lost a game in the World Baseball Classic since 2009. They’ve been a juggernaut, an unstoppable force barreling through immovable objects. That ended last night when Puerto Rico beat them 3-1 in a game that was much wilder than its score would indicate. One of the more dazzling plays was Javier Baez putting a no-look tag on Nelson Cruz on an ill-advised steal attempt.

When we say ill-advised, we really mean it. For one, Yadier Molina was behind the plate, and Yadi has been of the best in the business at throwing out baserunners. Cruz can only really be called a baserunner because of the fact that he does, in fact, technically run between the bases, even if “lumbering” may be a better verb for this scenario. Cruz is a large, 36-year-old adult human being. He hasn’t recorded a positive baserunning figure since 2010. Whatever speed he once possessed (24 steals in Triple-A in 2008!) is almost entirely gone.

There’s also the factor of Baez, who has revealed to the surprise of many that tagging is a real skill. So, yeah, we’re not sure why Cruz was running here, especially with two outs and an 0-0 count on Adrian Beltre. But run he did, and well, this happened.

Baez didn’t even look at Cruz. He was pointing to Molina and grinning like a kid on Christmas before he even caught the ball. You silly, silly man, he’s probably thinking to himself. Thanks for the free out. Cruz is out by a mile, and Peurto Rico gallops off to the dugout. Goddamn, Javy Baez. Goddamn, Yadi. Jeez, Nelson Cruz.

But hold on a second, here. Slow-motion video affords us the chance to take a closer look at plays like this. It also affords us the chance to make complete and utter fools of ourselves, as I may be about to do here. But I’ve been writing here long enough for all of you to get used to that by now, so hang with me here for a second. Let’s roll the film again.

Molina’s throw beats Cruz to Baez. The ball is in Javy’s glove right as Cruz is starting to slide. Nine times out of ten that’s game over, man. But was it? It initially looked like Baez got the tag down on Cruz’s knee, and Cruz was dead on arrival at second base.

This isn’t an episode of CSI, so I can’t tell the lab tech to enhance the video and clean up the pixels. I can, however, tell you that the umpire was on the shortstop side of second base, and that his view of Baez’s glove was obstructed by Cruz’s legs and tookus. And here’s a warning, because this is about to turn into a bad knock-off episode of CSI.

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Why Team Israel Isn’t a Surprise

If nothing else, Team Israel looked like a nice little story for the World Baseball Classic. It was their first time qualifying for the event, but they lacked the name recognition on their roster to be considered a serious threat. Being thrown into a pool with Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, and South Korea — teams that feature players from high-level professional leagues — felt nearly insurmountable. But here we are, with Israel already having qualified for the next round following wins over Korea and Taipei. Their showdown tonight with the Dutch team’s loaded infield may be something of a reality check. Nevertheless, Team Israel’s success shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re legit.

There isn’t a prototypical star on Israel’s roster. They weren’t able to bring in a top-tier Jewish talent like Ryan Braun. But what Team Israel does boast is the benefit of having more than a few big-league players in the lineup — and some of the best players in the minors, as well. Ike Davis isn’t hitting 30 homers in the big leagues anymore, but he’s still better than most of the professional players in the world. Cody Decker, Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, and Josh Zeid are better than most of the professional players in the world. They’ve reached higher highs than most of their competition.

It’s important to remember this one, all-important thing: baseball is hard. Being good enough to play in the leagues in Korea and Taipei is really hard. Being good enough to get even a single plate appearance in Major League Baseball is probably even harder. The teams from Korea and Taipei are largely All-Star teams, the best of the best of highly competitive leagues. But they’re not fully stocked, either.

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The New Brazilian Flamethrower

This is Kate Preusser’s first piece as part of her month-long residency.

In Molloy, Samuel Beckett tells us: “There is a little of everything, apparently, in nature, and freaks are common.”

Thyago Vieira is a freak. I mean this in the nicest, but also the meanest, way. The Mariners prospect and Brazilian native has been turning heads across the league after blazing through the California League and the AFL this past year, victimizing hitters with his triple-digit fastball and newfound slider and just generally looking like a Brazilian golem looming atop the mound with his cold stare and imposing stature. And that’s before he throws 104 at you. Vieira is officially listed at 6-foot-2, but his height is often given offhand by manager Scott Servais or GM Jerry Dipoto as 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. The average Brazilian male, meanwhile, is 5-foot-7. There is a little of everything in nature but, as the fifth-most populous nation in the world, a lot of everything in Brazil.

Perhaps part of the height inflation is Vieira’s frame. He’s listed at 220 pounds but looks bigger than that in person, with a Bunyan-esque lower half fueled by daily workouts and a newfound love of American food like the Cheesecake Factory. Having grown up with a single mother who often gave up her own meals so Thyago and his brother could eat, his love of Instagramming his food with heart and praise hands and cake emojis comes into clearer focus.

I first became interested in Vieira last year, when he moved into a closer role with the Bakersfield Blaze, the Mariners’ Low-A team. His picture showed a kid with a big, easy smile and thick black-framed glasses, a la Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Unfortunately, his command had also emulated Charlie Sheen’s character, leading Vieira to have been stuck in the Mariners’ system since he was drafted in 2011, never making it past A-ball. Brazilian prospects, maybe more so than any other group, are raw, lacking the kind of resources teams pour into talent powerhouses like Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.

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So Much Talent in the WBC

The World Baseball Classic is scheduled to begin early next month. This will represent the fourth such tournament, Japan having won the first two, followed by a victory by the Dominican Republic the last time around. While the United States has yet to win, they bring more talent than the rest of the countries represented.

The 16 participating countries officially named their rosters last week, accounting for a total of 226 position players and 321 pitchers from 16 countries. Not all the players will necessarily play, of course. With a view to limiting workload, teams have been permitted to name pitchers who might appear in later rounds of the tournament, even if they’re absent from the first — the idea being to protect players who haven’t benefited from spring training before the start of their respective professional league. There are four Asian countries participating in the tournament, for example — China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — and a number of their players play at a fairly high professional level. Other teams like Australia, Israel, and Italy feature fewer MLB-type players on their rosters, naturally. Even so, there’s still a great deal of talent in the tournament — something which we can identify in the projections.

Of the 226 position players in the tournament, a Steamer projection is available for 133. Of those 133 players, 86 earn a forecast for replacement-level production or better in 2017. Nor does that account for the talent in the various Asian leagues. In other words: despite the presence of countries in which baseball is less popular, it’s still probably fair to estimate that close to half of the position players participating in the WBC will be of MLB caliber. In terms of the talent level for which we have available projections, the U.S. has a decent advantage.

The U.S. has a 50% advantage over the second-place Dominican Republic, with Venezuela and Puerto Rico placing not too far behind. The Netherlands — thanks to a combination of Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop, and Andrelton Simmons — also figure to bring up a decent amount of MLB value. When we account for the number of players, and factor in the likelihood that starters will receive the bulk of the playing time, the gap between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. shrinks.

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July 2 Scouting Reports, Prospects 1-10

Yesterday, I published the scouting reports for the 11th- to 25th-best prospects available in the upcoming 2016-2017 International Free Agent Signing Period. Below are my reports for prospects 1 through 10. The full board, with tool grades, future value grades, velo ranges and more is here while my primer on the process is here.

1. Kevin Maitan, SS/3B, Venezuela (Video 1, 2, 3, 4)

Where to begin? How about at age 12? That’s when scouts started to identify Maitan as this class’s top overall player. By age 14, Maitan already had everything scouts are looking for in a baseball prospect. A picturesque build, good defensive actions at shortstop with plenty of arm for the position and not just usable but potentially impactful swings from both sides of the plate — as well as power projection to accompany it. The Braves have been all over Maitan for a few years and are expected to sign him for about $4 million.

I have a 55 FV on Maitan, the same future-value grade as Kiley McDaniel placed on Yadier Alvarez last year. But Alvarez was three years older than Maitan is now and risk/proximity to the majors factors in to future value. There’s a chance that Maitan develops a plus hit tool and plus raw power from both sides of the plate. His left-handed swing is of the traditional, low-ball variety and has a beautiful high finish. The bat is quick into the zone and long through it, producing gap-to-gap contact right now that should move toward and over outfield fences as Maitan matures.

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How Many GMs See Their Amateur Free Agents to the Bigs?

Last week at Grantland, two friends of the show in Jonah Keri and Nick Piecoro had a wonderful discussion about all things Arizona Diamondbacks, including the Touki Toussaint trade that caused many a skeptical eyebrow to be raised in the Diamondbacks’ direction. While Keri and Piecoro by no means endorsed the Diamondbacks’ recent moves, they brought up an interesting perspective on Arizona’s willingness to spend big on Cuban players Yasmany Tomas and Yoan Lopez — and thus easily eclipsing their allotted international bonuses — without spending much on international free agents from other countries. The idea: there’s a relatively slim chance that Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart — or any other general manager for any other team — would still be working in their current position when today’s 16-year-old reaches the majors. While the fan no doubt cringes at the thought of a general manager romping around the front office with nary a concern for the franchise’s sustained success, one can definitely empathize with the human instinct for self-preservation.

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The July 2 Sortable Board

Kiley initially rolled this feature out a few weeks ago, but with signing day’s arrival, we wanted to make this more prominent on the site today, so we’re re-running the initial post. The board has since been updated many times and is current with the latest information.

Board
The July 2 Board is both sortable and able to be sorted.

Today we’re unveiling the sortable board for the July 2nd international signing period. This works mostly like the sortable draft board (which is also still accessible by means of a tab at the top of the page) with some different columns, for obvious reasons. The top-41 players are ranked based on my preference from seeing these players and talking to scouts about them, not in order of industry consensus or projected bonus, though you can sort by bonus if that’s what you’re looking for. The other players listed are not ranked, just sorted based on expected bonus, so long as I think they’ll get $300,000 (the most that the teams in the penalty can offer) or more. You can also check the international article archives for more info on many of the players listed here.

The projected bonus represents what I think the player will get, not what I think they’re worth, and the projected team is listed if I’m over 50% sure that will be where the player lands (with many of the projected teams having been certain for months or even a year). Many of the higher-profile players without a team listed are still working out for teams in the last month and are far from signing. I’ll add tool grades and reports for more players next week, but these 69 players should quench your thirst for July 2 knowledge, though I’m sure a couple guys omitted from the board will get bigger bonuses than expected.

These are the top players that are currently subject to the international bonus pools, which reset next Thursday on July 2, so older Cuban free agents (there aren’t any notable ones eligible to sign at this time) won’t appear here. Five other notable Cuban players absent here are one status email from MLB away from being added to the list. RHP Vladimir Gutierrez, CF Yusnier Diaz and RHP Norge Ruiz are the best of that group and all project to get multiple millions in a signing bonus, but are all expected to fall under $10 million, at least right now. CF Randy Arozarena and SS Alfredo Rodriguez are also in this group and are more six figure to low seven figure type prospects.

Team-Focused Update

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Signing July 2nd Players Has Gotten Even More Complicated

The 2015 international signing class is seen as above average, both at the top end and in depth. Check out the sortable board, introduction to the board and international article archives for more details. Even with multiple teams blowing past their pools, there appear to be more seven figure talents than they are seven-figure bonuses to hand out, which makes for an interesting game of musical chairs among the international prospects.

Early Deals Muddy the Waters

Some seven-figure-caliber players like Venezuelans RHP Alvaro Seijas and CF Miguel Aparicio allegedly turned down low seven-figure offers early in the process but then held out too long, looking for even more money, and were forced to settle for a six-figure bonus.  In talking to international scouting directors in the past weeks, there seems to be a consensus that the best strategy this year for a team staying under its bonus pool was to wait until late and scoop up multiple middle-tier prospects at lower prices than to lock up one middle-tier player early in the process for seven figures, even if this means the market dictates which players you’ll end up signing.

I’ve written about this a few times but MLB’s effort to control international bonuses has caused a number of unintended consequences. By putting in bonus pools that the majority of teams treat like hard caps, you put a limit on what a team can spend and the main way they can get better than average value is to lock players up earlier and earlier, often over a year before a player can even sign the contract, commonly when he’s 14 years old. That’s now been happening for years and the culture of July 2nd is that of early deals. Now that it’s the norm, the majority of the big bonuses are handed out before the spring rolls around, so if a prospect improves late in the process or held out for a bigger bonus, all your suitors could be out of money when it’s the optimum time for you to strike your deal.

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Lucius Fox Throws A Wrench Into July 2nd Signings

As I tweeted yesterday, Bahamas-born and recently but shortly American-educated shortstop Lucius Fox was declared an international free agent by Major League Baseball. He won’t be eligible to sign until July 2nd when the 2015-16 signing period opens and the team bonus pools reset, but he would’ve waited until then to sign anyway, since most of the 2014-15 signing pool money had been spent.

Fox was always seen as likely to land as an international prospect since he was born in the Bahamas and moved back home, but it wasn’t a slam dunk because MLB is very aware of player moving out of the U.S. to potentially get more money by ducking the draft. Many elite domestic prospects have investigated this process and found the red tape to make it nearly impossible to work through.

As I wrote last week, the 2015 international signing markets, which opens on July 2nd, is already mostly shaken out at this point. I currently project 25 players to get $1.2 million or more and it appears that 22 of them have deals already. Of those three, the highest bonus should be about $1.5 to $1.7 million while the five top bonuses in the class range from $3.0 million to $4.4 million.

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The International Signing Market: Part 2

Yesterday I shared notes about the 33 players that should sign on or just after July 2nd and project for seven figures. A common question from readers was if their team had other deals I knew of or if they were planning to go over their bonus pool. I saved part two of this series to break down that question with the information I have currently.

First, a note about this year’s class. As I mentioned in my previous July 2nd piece, that this year’s class is above average, especially the depth of seven figure prospects, but the higher top bonuses this year (detailed here) relative to last year (listed here) doesn’t tell the whole story. Most scouts (myself included) would take last year’s top player, Brewers SS Gilbert Lara (Report & Video), who got about $3.1 million (the highest bonus last year) and probably would take last year’s second best player, Rays SS Adrian Rondon (Report & Video) over anyone in the 2015 class.

The difference in bonuses despite slightly lesser talent up top is due to a numbers of factors: this year, more teams are spending their full pools, some teams are still going well over their bonus pools and the deals started very early. Also hurting Lara’s bonus was that the drunken sailor of last year’s period, the Yankees, weren’t on him, so his price didn’t get bid up by them, while the Rays locked up Rondon so early that some teams didn’t get good looks at him. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.(Report & Video) was among the earliest deals in this year’s period, but it looks like he’s getting a retail price for his bonus.

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