International free agent signings have run the gamut from bust to superstar. The hot stove is cooking, and a handful of players, mainly from Japan and Cuba, have found their names in the rumor mill. Gauging their fantasy value is a difficult task, but this article aims to do so using the information available on the wonderful World Wide Web.
Wei-Yin Chen| SP| Left-handed| Born July 21, 1985
Chen is a starting pitcher who pounds the strike-zone. Unfortunately, his approach doesn’t yield many strikeouts (7.3 K/9 in 2010, 5.1 K/9 in 2011). He isn’t a soft tossing lefty—he actually sits in the low 90s (occasionally dipping into the high-80s) with the ability to reach back and touch 95-96 mph when he needs a little something extra. When he’s not pouring in fastballs, he often turns to his slider, making him primarily a two-pitch pitcher. According to PITCHf/x data at NPB Tracker he also throws a forkball (which is more commonly referred to as a splitter here), shuuto and curveball. Chen’s batted ball data slant toward a flyball approach. The total package doesn’t profile well to fantasy games.
Hisashi Iwakuma| SP| Right-handed| Born April 12, 1981
Last year the A’s agreed to a $19.1 million posting fee, but had it returned after they were unable to iron out a deal. Iwakuma’s stock has dropped due to a shoulder injury that limited him to 119 innings this past season. Durability is a question that dogs Iwakuma, and rightfully so. He had surgery on his elbow in October 2007, and shoulder tenderness prior to the injury sidelined him this year. He is a finesse pitcher who throws his four-seam fastball in the upper 80s to low 90s. He also throws a splitter, slider, shuuto, and curveball. His splitter is his bread and butter pitch, generating plenty of empty swings and ground balls. If he hopes to succeed in the majors, he’ll need that pitch to continue to be a plus offering. Changing baseballs from the smaller one used in the NPB to the larger ball used here prevents that transition from being a sure thing. His strikeout rate is less than desirable for fantasy purposes (6.86 K/9 in his career, 6.81 K/9 in 2011), but not embarrassingly low. He could be an only league or deep mixed league option depending on where he lands.
Tsuyoshi Wada| SP| Left-handed| Born Feb. 21, 1981
Wada is a three-pitch pitcher. He throws a mid-to-high-80s fastball that can scrape the low 90s, a slider and a change-up. He has used a deceptive delivery and his repertoire effectively to strike out batters at an 8.28 K/9 rate for his career, and 8.19 K/9 in 2011. Wada will need major league hitters to struggle with the deception in his delivery like their NPB counterparts, or he’ll have a hard time piling up strikeouts in the U.S. His excellent strikeout totals are paired with pristine control— 1.95 BB/9 in 2011—and he has a lengthy record of success. Taking everything into account, he makes for an interesting gamble in deep mixed leagues or only leagues.
Hiroyuki Nakajima| SS| Born July 31, 1982
Listed as a shortstop, Nakajima is better suited for second base according to most scouting reports I’ve read. He offers above-average pop from the middle infield, and has hit 20 or more home runs in three of the last four years. Power, at least in the form of home runs, has rarely translated from Japan to the U.S. Projecting him to crack the low teens in home runs isn’t out of the question. Nakajima is an efficient base stealer with a 77.5 percent career success rate, and that rate has come on a healthy volume with him averaging approximately 20 stolen bases a year over the last four. In addition to his power and speed, he offers batting average with a .302 career mark, and is adept at taking walks. Even projecting across the board regression with the step up in competition would leave a potentially productive fantasy baseball middle infielder.
Munenori Kawasaki| SS| June 3, 1981
A non-power threat, Kawasaki is a slap singles hitter. His fantasy value is tied to his legs and his ability to stick at shortstop. His defense grades out as above average, so sticking at shortstop is likely. His stolen base ceiling is much more questionable. Kawasaki’s success rate in his career is 71.6 percent, but he has been more efficient the last two years at 74.4 percent. The volume has been there in stolen bases (105 in the last three years), but he’ll need to be successful with regularity or he’ll get the red light on the base paths. A utility role might suit him best in the majors, and as it stands, his value is pretty low in fantasy games anyway.
Yu Darvish| SP| Right-handed| Born August 16, 1986
Darvish has yet to be posted, but Jon Heyman says it’s still more likely than not he will be. If he is posted and signs this offseason, he’ll be a must-grab in keeper and dynasty leagues in which he’s not already owned. He also has a chance to be useful in re-draft leagues. Darvish has dominated Japanese hitters in 167 games. His career ERA is a drool-inducing 1.99 and is fully supported by an 8.87 K/9 and 2.36 BB/9. The scary thing is, he has been even more dominant in recent years with 2011 being especially impressive. He pitched to a 1.44 ERA this year with a 10.71 K/9 and 1.40 BB/9.
Beyond the numbers, Darvish is impressive from a scouting point of view. He stands tall at 6-foot-5, and throws an impressive mix of pitches. According to Lincoln Hamilton of Project Prospect, that pitch mix includes a four-seam, two-seam, and cut fastball, three breaking balls, a change-up, and a shuuto. Rather than re-hashing what Hamilton has written, I’ll suggest reading it here.
Darvish will command a hefty price tag when factoring in his posting fee. A number of teams will certainly be interested in his services upon posting, but it won’t matter where he signs, he’ll be a hot commodity in fantasy leagues as soon as the ink dries on contract. Expecting a seamless transition to the majors is too optimistic, but drafting him as a fourth or fifth starter with upside in standard leagues would be reasonable. It’s possible he could fail to live up to even that draft cost if his organization chooses to let him get his feet wet in the minors, but the upside becomes too tantalizing to pass up at a certain point even in re-draft leagues.
Armando Rivera| RP| Right-handed| 23 years old
Rivero is a Cuban defector who is expected to gain free agency along with countrymen Yoennis Cespedes, and Jorge Soler soon. Little is available in the way of scouting reports, but Jesse Sanchez of mlb.com says he throws a fastball that reached 98 mph in a showcase, a slider, splitter, sinker and change-up. The effectiveness of his secondary offerings is unknown, and unless he’s closing, it will take a lot for him to have value in fantasy games as a reliever.
Jorge Soler| OF| 19 years old
Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 225 pounds, Soler isn’t your average-build 19-year-old. Soler is described as a potential five-tool player, the dream of fantasy baseball gamers and real life general managers alike. He has plus speed and power potential, and plenty of time to develop those tools. The Cubs, Marlins, Nationals, Phillies, Rangers and Yankees have all reportedly expressed interest. He’ll need minor league seasoning, but the wait could be worth it for dynasty league owners who invest.
Yoennis Cespedes| OF| 26 years old
Cespedes is more than a viral video star. Like Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin, who signed with the Rangers last offseason, Cespedes is near major league ready, but will probably require some time in the minors. He is strong as an ox and has plus speed to boot. The biggest question is if he’ll hit for enough average to take advantage of either tool. In a perfect world, he is a slightly below average to average hitter with elite power (think 70 grade on the 20-to-80 scouting scale). A .250-.265 average is palatable when it comes with 30 home runs, above-average stolen base contributions, and strong walk skills that will help his on-base percentage. It’s possible he could be an asset come the summer of 2012, but more likely his impact isn’t truly felt until the following season.