Rooting for Team USA in international sports can be a little… touchy. America’s great rivals vary from sport to sport and come from every corner of the globe. Ours is a nation of vast influence and combative people, so adversaries pop up everywhere. (At one point, the U.S. women’s national soccer team had a vicious rivalry with Norway. Norway! You must really want a fight if you have beef with Norway.)
But our most intense rivalries were forged in the Cold War, when American politicians and media painted Communist nations as an unknowable other against whom we were pitted in a battle for survival. Before glasnost, the internet, and the professionalization of Olympic sports, teams from Communist countries were so mysterious they could only be feared. We did not see Soviet stars in the NBA or NHL as we do now, nor Cuban baseball players and boxers in western competition. We only encountered them as they appeared every four years to pit their mettle against that of American college athletes at the Olympics. That’s how the Miracle on Ice became such a definitive part of American mythology; rare is the scenario in which an American team — much less an American men’s team in a relatively popular sport — can credibly claim to have faced and overcome an insurmountable opponent. But what the Soviets were to hockey, Cuba was to baseball.
That history makes Wednesday something of a momentous occasion. That night, Cuba’s 30-man roster for the upcoming World Baseball Classic was announced. And for the first time in the modern history of international baseball, Team Cuba will include major league players. The three biggest names on the list are White Sox teammates Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr. Also along for the ride: Yoenis Cespedes, three players from the affiliated American minor leagues, and two more from NPB. Read the rest of this entry »
The final installment of this week’s set of international player updates revolves around the amateur prospects who will begin to sign a month from now when the new international signing period begins on January 15. An overview of the rules that govern signing international amateurs can be found on MLB’s glossary here, while more thorough and detailed documentation can be found starting on page 287 of the CBA (forgive the 2017-21 version – the full text of the latest agreement isn’t publicly available yet), and page 38 of the Official Professional Baseball Rules Book. I pulled out portions of these documents for reference in the pieces published earlier this week and have done so again here, but I suggest readers familiarize themselves further. The international amateur arena is a procedural and ethical mess that has undergone wholesale structural changes several times during my time as a writer, most recently because of what the pandemic did to shift the timeline of each signing period.
Projected signing teams, scouting reports and tool grades on just over 30 players from the 2023 class can now be viewed over on The Board. Because the International Players tab has an apples and oranges mix of older pros from Asian leagues and soon-to-be first-year players, there is no explicit ranking on The Board, but I’ve stacked the class of anticipated 2023 signees in a table below with a ranking for reference should you need it. As has been the case with past classes, after these players sign, they will be pulled off the International Players section of The Board and warehoused in a ranking of their signing class for record-keeping purposes.
As always, the FV grade is a more important measure for readers to focus on than the ordinal rankings here. Because these players are so close in age to the younger prospects who participate in any given domestic draft, I like to use theoretical draft position as a barometer by which to grade the international amateurs. Scouting and comparing international players’ tools and athleticism to those of recent and upcoming domestic amateurs helps me to triangulate approximately where they’d go in a given draft, and assign them a FV based on that approximation. Players with a 40+ FV grade or above tend to be prospects who I think would go in the first two rounds of a draft, while the teenage 40 FV prospects are the sort I’d ballpark in the $700,000 to $1 million bonus range as draft prospects, basically the slot amounts just after the second round. Read the rest of this entry »
The International Players tab on The Board has once again enjoyed a sweeping update, the second such update since the pandemic shifted the international signing calendar back about six months. Rankings and reports for the current class of amateur players set to sign in January 2022 (though that date could be delayed due to the lockout) have been expanded on The Board with help from Kevin Goldstein, while updates and additions to the notable pro players in other markets have been completed with help from Tess Taruskin and Brendan Gawlowski.
There are a few factors that could potentially complicate the upcoming signing period. Remember that fallout from the pandemic has already pushed this signing period back six months. When most of the international amateur players on The Board agreed to their deals with teams, they assumed that they’d have put pen to paper by now and perhaps have spent the fall in Florida or Arizona for instructional league. Instead, they haven’t yet signed, and now a lockout may further delay or complicate their coronation. Read the rest of this entry »
“I was at dinner with our scout in Japan and he made a comment that even truck drivers throw 95 over here,” said Oakland’s Assistant General Manager Dan Feinstein. “That caught my attention. I said, ‘If that’s true, maybe we should be trying out some of these truck drivers.'”
Feinstein soon decided to run an experiment. Oakland advertised an open tryout for pitchers and invited players with a college pedigree to send video to the A’s scouting department. From there, the team invited 60 of them to throw in front of scouts. One of them, right-hander Shohei Tomioka, bumped 95 on the gun, which impressed Oakland enough to offer him a contract then and there. “We call it the truck driver tryout,” Feinstein said with a chuckle.
Tomioka’s story was only possible because of a brilliant combination of scouting and technology, with a dash of luck mixed in. His signing is also an indication that the international talent market is laden with players just waiting to be discovered. See, Tomioka wasn’t simply a truck driver with a live arm. He was an experienced pitcher, a graduate of one of Tokyo’s top baseball programs — he was just never seen at the right time by the right people. By the time Oakland discovered him, he was loitering in a small local league. “There’s a lot of independent ball over there,” Feinstein says, “and he had been pitching in one of these kind of obscure leagues. He was free to try out and was throwing 95 so we signed him.”
For anyone lamenting the rise of big tech in baseball or the demise of the scout, Tomioka is living proof that, for good and for ill, an element of the unpredictable remains in the game. His signing demonstrates the value of having a robust international department, while also highlighting how fertile the international market is today, and how teams that invest abroad now stand to reap a competitive advantage in the years to come. To get a better sense of how that might develop, let’s take a deeper dive into how teams scout internationally today. Read the rest of this entry »
Today’s prospect list and subsequent discussion surrounds international players, and like most things you’ve experienced this year, it’s going to be a little bit different than usual. Typically, the international prospect coverage at FanGraphs consists of a preliminary list of players during our February Prospects Week, with a longer, more thorough ranking published closer to July 2, historically the day foreign amateur players are allowed to start signing.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, MLB pushed this year’s signing day back by six months from July 2020 to January 2021. For the purposes of my workflow, previewing the signing festivities now lines up with nicely with the early free agency period when pro players from foreign leagues are being posted by their old clubs and courted by their new ones. And though not exclusively, it has also generally fallen to me to acquire basic scouting notes on these players, though there has never been a central location on the site, like The Board, to house those reports.
This change in timing, combined with the way the Future Value scale enables apples-to-oranges comparisons between very different baseball players, led me to decide to simply fold the foreign pros in with the fresh-faced youngsters whose big league dreams are still half a decade away. And so The Board’s International Players tab will now be a running pref list of players abroad regardless of their origin or experience level, subject to sweeping updates a couple times of year while also changing incrementally throughout as players sign and move to the pro side of The Board or become known through my sources and research.
This likely isn’t just a single-year, COVID-related change to the international amateur calendar (and therefore my work). All of the people in baseball I’ve spoken to for this list think that MLB will also push the next signing period back six months, and that a January start to the signing period will become the new normal, until and unless an international draft is instituted. Like many of the societal shifts we’re all dealing with during this difficult time, the changes to the international calendar and signing rules have had immediate consequences to those who had planned for a world without them. So before I talk more about what’s on The Board, let’s consider the changes to the international amateur market and what they’ve meant for this year’s class. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday, the Yankees traded utility lefty Nestor Cortes Jr. to the Mariners for international bonus pool money. A source indicated to Eric and me that the deal was for $30,000 of pool space (we’re told it’s all Seattle had left in their pool), while others characterized it as being in that range, if not that number exactly.
This move may seem insignificant, but it hints at the motivations and strategies of both clubs. Back in July, the Yankees were one of a couple teams we spotlighted as having a 40-man crunch on their hands (we had Cortes as the last guy to make the roster), so being able to get something in return for him rather than throwing him on waivers because they needed to clear roster spots makes for an easy decision. The price of claiming a player on waivers is $50,000, while we’ve found the return on investment of an international bonus dollar, including operational expenses, is about 300%. Most teams think of bonus pool money as being worth at least double its nominal value, but the Yankees — who consistently trade for extra pool money, with GM Brian Cashman emboldened by their quick returns on high-variance prospects in the international market — likely see it as much more valuable than that. Factor in that given Seattle’s interest, the odds of Cortes passing through waivers was zero, and this makes a ton of sense for New York.
Meanwhile, Seattle is ramping up to compete in 2021 and has open spots on its 40-man roster, so adding an accomplished depth piece with major league experience and remaining minor league options for just a bit over the waiver price, while shifting a little international money into their 40-man roster, fits their competitive posture. Cortes is a 5-foot-11 lefty who sits 88-91 mph and relies mostly on his fastball and slider, but also mixes in a changeup. He’s likely never going to be a role 5, 50 FV or a reliable bulk innings rotation piece, so the Yankees probably figured that one of the prospects recently added to the roster, or a veteran on a minor league deal who won’t need to be added to the 40-man until next season, can fill the same role. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve spent the past 10 days in Busan covering the WBSC U-18 World Cup. You can check out some of my write-ups here, here and here. I was going to write up on several prospects in this post, but I felt like Japanese right-handed pitcher Yasunobu Okugawa, who struck out 18 Canadian hitters in seven innings in his September 5 start, warranted his own article.
Yasunobu Okugawa (Japan), RHP
If I had to choose the best prospect of the tournament, there’s no doubt it would be Okugawa. The 18-year-old righty made headlines earlier this season by leading his high school to the Koshien finals and hitting 95.7 mph. Along with Roki Sasaki, Okugawa was one of the players most sought after by major league scouts on the Japan team. He pitched against Canada on the first day of the Super Rounds on September 5, and he delivered on the hype, and then some.
Okugawa has long legs and a slightly skinny frame that also has an athletic look. He is not maxed out yet, but I don’t see him adding too much to his frame. He has a high, three-quarter arm slot and does an excellent job repeating the same arm action on different pitches. His arm speed is basically identical on his fastballs and offspeed pitches. He has a long stride and keeps his body in line into landing. From leg kick to foot strike, Okugawa does not have much wasted movement – he lines his body well directly to the home plate. Unlike many young pitchers at the tournament, Okugawa was consistent in finding his release point and was not prone to opening his shoulders too early. There’s a bit of effort to his release, but it’s not much of a concern for me. He does not have much of a leg kick when pitching out of the stretch, but the rest of the delivery looked consistent with his usual windup. Read the rest of this entry »
I attended more games here in Busan, South Korea for Days Three and Four of the WBSC U-18 World Cup. These are my thoughts on some of the prospects I saw.
Theo Millas (Canada), RHP
Millas is an LSU commit. Listed at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he has a very good pitcher’s frame and he looks every inch of an intriguing projectable high school guy. He also recently participated in the 2019 Under Armour All-America game, along with some of the other top high school prospects who will enter the draft next year. Millas has an easy delivery with a fluid arm action. It’s not necessarily the best tempo I’ve seen, but he isn’t overly slow either. I would be interested to see if he’s willing to increase his stride length to take advantage of his height. There’s a little stiffness in his front leg when he lands, but it’s not a huge concern for me. Against Korea on September 1, however, Millas was not his best self. While his fastball was advertised to be in the low-90s, he sat mostly in the 86-88 mph range. The pitch showed some late life, but Korean hitters were able to square it up for hard line drives all over the field. His curveball also seemed loopy, and Korean IF Jang Jae-Young squared it up pretty well for a hard, 2-RBI single. Based on all the accounts I’ve read of Millas, it felt like an off day for the righty, as he allowed six runs without recording an out before exiting the game. Millas looks like an arm who could benefit a lot from few years more worth of development.
Austin Hendrick (United States), OF
Hendrick is already known as one of the top prep draft prospects for 2020. He is currently rated eighth on THE BOARD. As expected, Hendrick flashed some serious tools during practice before the United States’ night match versus Japan. During batting practice, he displayed a smooth yet powerful swing that produced strong line drives all over the field. He has a short stroke and he times it with a little hitch and bat tip during his load. Such traits might be a concern for many hitting coaches, but Hendrick seemed to time it well enough to make it work. His hands were impressively quick, as he showed a plus ability to turn the barrel into the zone. As an outfielder, Hendrick displayed an easily above-average arm, if not plus.
As Eric and Kiley have noted in their report on Hendrick, “Hendrick is old for the class but evokes Cody Bellinger in frame and swing. As you can imagine, with the ultra-athletic swing comes with some swing-and-miss to go with the power.” That swing-and-miss tendency showed during the game. In his first at-bat against Japanese LHP Yuki Hayashi, Hendrick struck out swinging on three offspeed pitches. He seemed to favor driving the ball hard instead of making square contact. Hendrick ended up going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Despite a poor game performance, his tools displayed in batting practice and his physical talents seem to justify his high draft stock status. It will be interesting to see how his hit tool progresses coming into next year’s draft and how teams may evaluate his ability to handle pro pitching. Read the rest of this entry »
I am currently in Busan, South Korea for the 2019 WBSC U-18 World Cup, where 12 countries have teams featuring some of their best young talents. Friday, August 30 was Opening Day and, besides an occasional breeze, it was quite sunny and humid. Below are notes on a few of the notable players I saw.
Chen Po-Yu (Taiwan), RHP
The 17-year-old Chen is far from an unknown at this point. According to the international prospect section of THE BOARD, he could be looking at a seven-figure signing bonus in 2020. A major league scout told me that, at this moment, Chen is the most “complete package” among the pitching prospects out of Taiwan. Needless to say, a large group of major league scouts swarmed behind home plate to see Chen pitch against Panama.
Even before his start, Chen’s delivery stood out to me during his bullpen. He has an easy, fast-tempo motion that was direct to home. He finished well towards the home plate, setting himself up for good fielding position in case of a batted ball. He also showed good tempo between his pitches and rarely seemed hesitant to throw any of his pitches.
Chen’s fastball sat at around 89-91 mph throughout the game. He maintained the velocity late in the game when he broke 80-pitch mark. In general, he showed a good feel for commanding the pitch in different parts of the zone. In the second inning, he left some pitches up, which led to some hard contact. When he located his heater well, however, he was able to get called strikes or set up his secondary pitches. Read the rest of this entry »
This is the second half of a two-part interview with four foreign-born players in the Korea Baseball Organization. Part 1 can be found here.
Any Korean food that grew on you?
Josh Lindblom: All of it. I love Korean food. The best soups I’ve had in my life are here in Korea. Maybe my favorite Korean cuisine is Chinese-Korean food: Jjajangmyeon [noodles in black bean sauce], jjajangbap [rice in black bean sauce], tangsuyuk [sweet and sour fried pork] – all that stuff. That was one of the things that new guys worry about but I’m really lucky to be here in Seoul. When I go to my apartment basement, I’ve got McDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, On The Border, Cinnabon, etc. There’s also a Taco Bell in a train stop away. If I start missing home, I just go down and get some Mexican food. I’m really lucky to be where I’m at.
Jamie Romak: I’m a huge barbecue guy. Sogogi [the Korean term for beef] for sure. Every now and then, I’ll order jjamppong [spicy mixed-up noodle soup] to the clubhouse. I like the seafood one. The guys make fun of me for how much kimchi [spicy fermented cabbage side dish] I have during our team dinners. I eat plates of kimchi. The food transition has been seamless. When I’m back home in Canada during the offseason, I seek Korean food. I wish I could have more of it there.
Tyler Wilson: I actually really like all the food. I would say that the LA Galbi [Korean BBQ beef short ribs] is my favorite. I like galbitang [short ribs soup] a lot. I like kimchijjigae [hot kimchi soup]. I don’t know if there’s one food I didn’t like and now that I like. Just in general I think I’m more comfortable knowing what to order and how to go into a Korean restaurant and know what to expect. I’ve always enjoyed it all. When we were in the States, Hyun-Soo and I would always go out do dinner. On road trips, we would go to Korean restaurants and he introduced them to me before I got here.
Chad Bell: Just your normal Korean barbecue stuff, I love it. Pork kimchi soup – pretty good. Most of the soups here, I’ve enjoyed them. Most of them are spicy and I like spicy stuff. Sometimes the coaching staff or players will walk by, see me eating something, they get surprised and ask me, ‘You like that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s good!’ There’s nothing that I really hate. I’m not really big on naengmyeon [Korean cold noodles in chilled broth]. I’ve only tried it once. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing with it, but I gotta get the thought of it being weird out of my head. That’s something I haven’t gotten into yet. Read the rest of this entry »