MLB Prospects Are Taking Full Advantage of the Global Stage

Every season, the trade deadline brings with it a fresh dose of jarring imagery. A clean shaven Joey Gallo and an orange-and-black clad Kris Bryant are just a few of the sights that will take some getting used to this year. But 2021 offers an additional element of strangeness, as the Tokyo Olympics and the trade deadline have conspired to leave some players in a unique state of suspended baseball animation. Last month, Joe Ryan and Shane Baz headed to Tokyo as Durham Bulls teammates. But a few days and one Nelson Cruz trade later, it became clear that only Baz would be returning to the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate after the Games. And unlike most of the players dealt in the most explosive trade deadline in recent memory, our first post-trade look at Ryan wasn’t in the uniform of his new minor league home team with the Twins, but rather adorned in red, white and blue as he took the hill for Team USA’s first game of the Olympic tournament against Israel.

Among the arms in Team USA’s rotation, Ryan isn’t really considered a Game One starter, but given that their first matchup in pool play was against the tournament’s decided underdog, it seemed like an obvious opportunity for the US to maximize Ryan’s effectiveness while also saving their more seasoned starters for the stiffer offensive competition to come. Ryan has a tendency to favor his low-90s fastball, an approach that has led him to a tremendous 34.9% K-rate at Triple-A so far this year, against a walk rate of just 4.7%. And while his fastball-heavy approach is less likely to keep the offense of teams like the Dominican Republic or Japan at bay – and by Eric Longenhagen’s estimation, may ultimately lead to a career as a major-league reliever – it was enough for Ryan to emerge victorious in his start against Israel (you can read more about Eric’s take on Ryan in Dan Szymborski’s analysis of the Cruz trade, linked above). Ryan gave up five hits and notched five strikeouts with no free passes over his six innings, as Team USA won 8-1. The only run he allowed was a solo home run off the bat of Danny Valencia, which added an extra dash of surreality for Twins fans: a clash of prospect past and future.

In fact, the Twins through-line in Team USA’s victory over Israel didn’t stop there. Tyler Austin, who played for Minnesota for part of the 2018 season and is raking in NPB this year, went 3-for-5 with two doubles and a two-run home run for what was the best offensive line of the night. And just a few hours after the game ended, Minnesota snatched up another prospect on the Team USA roster in Simeon Woods Richardson, who made up half of the prospect package dealt to the Twins in exchange for José Berríos (Woods Richardson has yet to make his Olympic debut).

In their next matchup, the US opted to forgo pitching prospects in favor of those with MLB and NPB experience to take on the more intimidating offense of their second opponent, South Korea. Team USA’s pitchers for Game Two included two current NPB top performers (former major league starter Nick Martínez, and closer Scott McGough), as well as just under three decades of collective MLB service time (Martínez, Edwin Jackson, Anthony Gose, and David Robertson). Mike Scioscia’s managerial strategy paid off as the US pitchers combined for 14 strikeouts, tying a US Olympic record.

Still, just because prospects weren’t pitching doesn’t mean their impact wasn’t felt on the field. Three of Team USA’s four runs came off of home runs from current Double-A prospects, each highly ranked within their respective organizations. Top-ranked Red Sox prospect Triston Casas adjusted nicely to Korean righty Young-pyo Ko’s extremely low arm slot to launch a two-run blast in the fourth, and Nick Allen, the fifth-best prospect in Oakland’s system, sent one out in the following inning. Casas has long been touted for his bat to ball skills, and looks the part of a power hitter, which has bolstered his prospect stock, while Allen, a 5-foot-8, glove-first infielder, has been dogged by doubts from evaluators regarding his ability to consistently hit at a big-league level. But this is just the latest in several recent looks at Allen in which he’s seemed determined to prove those doubts wrong. He is slashing .319/.374/.471 with just as many home runs as Casas at Double-A this season (six), and hit for power throughout the Olympic qualifying rounds; still, it’s difficult to gauge what that means for his ability to translate that production into sustainable pop against major-league pitching.

But Team USA’s next game offered Allen the opportunity to prove himself against as close an equivalent to a current MLB pitcher as the Olympic tournament has to offer. On the mound for Team Japan was ace Masahiro Tanaka, who may well have been listed on a 40-man roster this season (and therefore ineligible for Olympic competition) were it not for his decision to return to NPB this past winter. In their first matchup, Allen went down quickly, flailing at three consecutive off-speed pitches from the former All-Star (one of the six strikeouts issued by Tanaka in the game):

In his next plate appearance, Allen chased two more breakers before Tanaka left a 3-2 offering up in the zone, and Allen took full advantage of the opportunity to smack a double down the right-field line for a go-ahead RBI, ending Tanaka’s night. Casas tacked on another three runs in the following inning, when he sent one out against yet another righty with a funky arm slot:

Shane Baz was the starter for Team USA that game, tasked with facing a lineup of Japanese hitters who have accrued fewer strikeouts and more walks per game than any other team in the tournament. He blew his high-90s heater past several hitters, but his command of his secondaries faltered just enough for the Japanese batters to score two runs on five hits over the course of his 2.2 innings of work. In his Olympic debut, Baz walked three and struck out just one, an uncharacteristic line for a pitcher who has garnered significant buzz in 2021. In his 12 starts for Triple-A Durham this season, Baz has issued 82 strikeouts against only 10 walks, and has never lasted fewer than four innings. Only twice has he allowed five or more hits in a game.

The subsequent relievers who came in for Baz were not as lights-out as would have been necessary to shut down Japan’s hitting, but the US was loud enough offensively to have a one-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth. McGough was brought in in relief of Robertson, hoping to record the final three outs of the game. McGough has been one of the most effective closers in NPB this year, so bringing him in to close a game against hitters with whom he is more familiar than a majority of the US bullpen makes sense. But that familiarity is of course a two way street, and Team Japan’s batters were unfazed by his reputation, stringing together a series of singles to tie the game, and send it into extras. Jackson was brought in for the 10th and allowed only a sacrifice bunt and a single, but due to the Olympic ground rules that place runners on both first and second base to start each inning after the ninth, that was all it took for Japan to claim victory.

Their first loss of the tournament forced the US squad to face the Dominican Republic in a must-win game that represented both teams’ last chance at vying for gold. Casas wasted no time putting Team USA on the board in the bottom of the first, homering in his third consecutive Olympic game, and providing the two-run lead that would ultimately prove enough to send the US to the semifinals, and the DR to the bronze medal game. Casas is 5-for-16 in the tournament so far, with all of those hits coming against right-handed pitchers. Coming into their game against the DR, Casas was 0-for-2 against lefties in the tournament, having struck out against Israel’s Jeremy Bleich and Japan’s Yudai Ohno. When he faced his third southpaw of the tournament in the DR’s Junior García in the ninth inning, he quickly went down 0-2, but choked up on his bat and adjusted his stance into deeper squat than his normal upright posture. He managed to work the count full before popping out to left field, but the adjustment he made was a clear indication of what he’s working on at Double-A Portland this season.

With their victory over the US, Team Japan earned the distinction of being the only still-undefeated squad at the Olympics. It’s not that they’re making other teams look bad, per se – two of their three wins have been come-from-behind walk-offs – but their success is not much of a surprise, given that they were able to pull from perhaps the best pool of available players when creating their Olympic roster. While their squad may not include many names familiar to American viewers, some of Team Japan’s players could become MLB relevant in the next few years.

The starter for their first game against the Dominican Republic was Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the 22-year-old ace of the Orix Buffaloes, who is considered a likely candidate to be posted to MLB in the coming years. Yamamoto has by far the most strikeouts in NPB in 2021, with 121 Ks in 113.2 innings against only 24 walks (the second-most in the K-column is Hiroya Miyagi, with just 94). If there’s an equivalent to Hyun Jin Ryu’s star-making performance at the 2008 Olympics, Yamamoto seems the most likely candidate. In his start against the Dominican Republic – one of the most intimidating lineups in Tokyo – Yamamoto showcased his mid-90s four-seamer, along with his splitter and breaking balls to effectively keep Dominican hitters guessing, allowing only two hits and walking just one, while issuing nine strikeouts over his six scoreless innings. He ended his outing by striking out Emilio Bonifácio, Julio Rodríguez, and José Bautista in order.

In the video above, you can see Rodríguez nod and smile at Yamamoto after whiffing, in an endearing moment of game-recognizing-game appreciation. Rodríguez went 1-for-5 in the game, which is his worst line out of his three Olympic games so far. One of the intriguing things about watching prospects like Rodríguez in this particular setting is that we are offered the opportunity to see them face arms of drastically-varying quality, all within a few games, allowing us to better pinpoint exactly where they are in their development. After facing Yamamoto, a pitcher who seems poised for an MLB career of his own, Team DR faced off against Team Mexico, and Rodríguez went 3-for-4, with all three hits coming off Mexican pitcher Teddy Stankiewicz, a former Red Sox minor leaguer and current member of the Mexican League’s Toros de Tijuana.

It’s not often we get a chance to glimpse back-to-back games that illustrate exactly what a prospect looks like against both an elite NPB arm and one who spent several years kicking around in the minors. Viewing these two Rodríguez performances confirms that the 20-year-old phenom’s development lies somewhere between those two tentpoles. But the Dominican Republic’s game against Korea can help us to further refine that assessment. Rodríguez struck out in his first at-bat against Korea’s 19-year-old lefty, Eui Lee Lee (sometimes listed in English publications as Euilee Lee, or Eui-ri Lee), but adjusted by the time he faced him for a second time, roping a single into left field. His line was neither dazzling nor discouraging, going 2-for-4 with a walk and a strikeout. If we’re going by Goldilocks rules, it’s safe to say that Japan was a little too hot, and Mexico was a little too cold for Rodríguez. The level of challenge offered by Korea seems to be just right for the young outfielder, lending credence to a timeline that allows Rodríguez more time in the minors before he’s truly major league ready.

Team Japan defeated South Korea 5-2 in the first game of the semifinals earlier today, punching their ticket to the gold medal game, and sending the Korean squad to square off against the US on Thursday at 6 AM Eastern. A victory for the States will send them to the gold medal match, while a loss means they’ll battle the Dominican Republic once more, in hopes of securing bronze.

Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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2 years ago

This is just an amazing recap / analysis combo. Thank you for all of it!