Cuban import Aroldis Chapman has emerged as baseball's nastiest reliever in 2012.
There are baseball factories all over the globe. With players now even coming from places like Italy (Alex Liddi) and Spain (Rhiner Cruz), it surely won't be long before martians are standing at the plate and on the mound.
Some baseball factories are more prestigious than others. The United States obviously has baseball covered, and the Dominican Republic has a longstanding reputation for being a hot spot for baseball talent.
The most intriguing baseball factories, however, would probably be Cuba and Japan. Baseball is all the rage in both countries, but it's not easy for Major League Baseball teams to pluck players from Japan, and it's even harder for clubs to pluck players from Cuba.
The players who do arrive in the majors from Cuba and Japan tend to be hit or miss. For every Ichiro, there is a Tsuyoshi Shinjo. For every Aroldis Chapman, there is an Alberto Castillo.
The unpredictability of Cuban and Japanese players once they arrive in the majors makes it hard to determine which country has a better track record of producing major league talent.
One way to at least get a notion of said track records, however, would be to compare the last five Cuban players to the last five Japanese players.
But first, a few ground rules.
For Cuban players, only Cuban defectors will be counted. Players such as Yonder Alonso who were born in Cuba but raised in America are fodder for another article.
Second, we'll use debut dates to determine who the "last five" Cuban players were and the "last five" Japanese players were.
And away we go...
Note: All stats and salary figures come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Signed: January 11, 2010
Debuted: August 31, 2010
The Aroldis Chapman signing generated a lot of buzz when it went down in 2010, but it took a while for Chapman to break into the majors. He began the 2010 season with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate and went on to post a 3.57 ERA in 39 appearances (13 starts).
Chapman certainly had the velocity all the scouts said he had, but he had issues with his control while in the minors in 2010. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings in Triple-A, leading to a modest 2.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Chapman posted a decent enough 3.9 BB/9 in 15 major league appearances at the end of the 2010 season, but hitters had little trouble adjusting to Chapman's wildness in 2011.
He posted an impressive 12.8 K/9 in 54 major league appearances in 2011, but Chapman's 7.4 BB/9 stuck out like a sore thumb. Clearly, he still had work to do.
Not so much anymore. Though the Reds toyed with making him a starter during spring training, Chapman has found his calling as Cincinnati's closer in 2012. He has a razor-thin 1.31 ERA and 31 saves in 58 appearances, to go along with an absurd 16.3 K/9 and a respectable 2.2 BB/9.
According to FanGraphs, Chapman has a WAR of 3.4, tops among all major league relief pitchers.
The Reds are only paying him $2 million this season. Needless to say, he's worth every penny.
Signed: July 31, 2010
Debuted: September 7, 2010
Yunesky Maya enjoyed a decorated career in the Cuban National Series, and he was also a member of the Cuban national team in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics.
Since signing with the Nationals in 2010, Maya's career in the major leagues has yet to pan out. He went 0-3 with a 5.88 ERA in five starts at the end of the 2010 season, and he posted a 5.23 ERA in 10 appearances (five starts) in 2011.
Maya has shown decent control in the majors. His problem is that he's just too hittable, as he boasts an opponents' batting average of .310 for his career.
Maya has made some progress in Triple-A in 2012, going 11-9 with a 3.58 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP in 26 starts.
There's a good chance Maya will be seen again in the majors in September, but it's going to be hard for him to find a home in the Nationals' rotation going forward given how deep their starting pitching staff goes.
There may be a spot or two up for grabs when spring training rolls around in 2013. If so, Maya will officially enter the make-or-break portion of his major league career.
Signed: September 30, 2009
Debuted: May 8, 2011
If it feels like Jose Iglesias has been Boston's shortstop of the future for a long time, that's because it kinda has been a long time at this point.
The Red Sox know that Iglesias' glove is just fine. Scouts all rave about his defensive abilities, and certain employees of the Texas Rangers once went so far as to say that Iglesias is the best defensive shortstop they've ever seen, according to NESN.com.
The problem is that Iglesias isn't much of a hitter. He has a career average if .264 in the minor leagues, and that includes a career average of .251 at Triple-A. To boot, he has little power in his bat. He fits the old-school model of an all defense and no offense shortstop.
Nonetheless, Iglesias is in the majors once again nowadays thanks to a recent call-up, and he's probably going to be with the Red Sox for the rest of the season. He'll do what he can to prove that he has the goods to be an everyday player in The Show.
When spring training rolls around in 2013, there's a chance the Red Sox may have already decided to move forward with Iglesias as their starting shortstop. With the organization essentially entering a rebuilding phase after trading Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, there's no time like the present to take a few chances.
Signed: May 4, 2011
Debuted: September 2, 2011
Leonys Martin has enough talent to be an everyday center fielder in the major leagues. He holds his own defensively, and he's proved to be an effective contact hitter with power that's coming along.
There's just one problem. The Rangers have two very good players patrolling center field on a regular basis in Josh Hamilton and Craig Gentry, and David Murphy may be the best fourth outfielder in all of baseball.
For the time being, there's just no space for Martin in Texas.
This could change next season if the Rangers fail to re-sign Hamilton this winter, and the bright side is that Martin is giving the powers that be every excuse to be excited about his future. He only has 10 hits in 46 career major league at-bats, but Martin is a career .324/.389/.500 hitter in the minors. He has a 1.039 OPS in 51 games with Triple-A Round Rock this season.
Like Maya and Iglesias, look for Martin to prove himself worthy of regular major league action in spring training in 2013.
Signed: February 13, 2012
Debuted: March 28, 2012
The four-year, $36 million contract Yoenis Cespedes signed in February was at the time the largest contract ever given to a Cuban defector.
Fortunately for the eternally cash-strapped A's, Cespedes has proved to be a shrewd investment.
Injuries have limited Cespedes to 93 games this season, but he's done well for himself at the plate. He owns a triple-slash line of .296/.358/.501 with 16 homers, 62 RBI and 12 stolen bases. That translates to a 162-game average of 28 home runs, 108 RBI and 21 stolen bases.
Cespedes has been even hotter since the All-Star break, hitting .340/.401/.551 with seven home runs and 26 RBI in 39 games. That translates to a 162-game average of 30 homers and 109 RBI.
Cespedes has adjusted to major league pitching more quickly than most fans and experts figured he would. He's walking almost as frequently as Josh Hamilton, and he's actually striking out less frequently than Hamilton.
There are three more seasons left on Cespedes' contract after this season. If he manages to stay healthy, he could very well establish himself as one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league.
As it is, pitchers already have enough reason to fear him.
Signed: November 30, 2010
Debuted: May 4, 2011
There's not a lot of room for weakness in Texas' bullpen. With names like Joe Nathan, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Alexi Ogando taking up roster spaces, all would-be Rangers relievers need to put up numbers in order to earn their keep.
This is precisely why Yoshinori Tateyama is toiling away at Triple-A Round Rock at the moment. He's had multiple stints with the big club this season, failing to impress with an 11.37 ERA in 11 appearances.
Tateyama is perfectly capable of striking hitters out. He's posted a 9.9 K/9 in the majors in 2012, a figure that qualifies as being above-average for a reliever.
His problem is that he's prone to hard-hit balls. He's served up four home runs in just 12.2 major league innings this season and a total of 12 home runs in 56.2 major league innings for his career.
Tateyama is basically just waiting for an opportunity at this point, as he has little left to prove in the minors. He has a 1.19 ERA in 30 appearances for Round Rock in 2012, and a 1.53 ERA in the minors since the start of the 2011 season. He's only given up three home runs in 58.2 minor league innings.
Tateyama will probably get a chance to prove himself in 2013, as there's bound to be at least one bullpen spot up for grabs in spring training with Adams and Mark Lowe set to come off the books.
We shall see.
Signed: January 17, 2012
Debuted: April 6, 2012
Norichika Aoki hasn't gotten a lot of press this season, and that's a damn shame. He's having a solid year for the Brewers in his first season in the major leagues.
Through 116 games, Aoki is hitting .277/.344/.398 with six home runs, 31 RBI, 53 runs scored and 19 stolen bases. He was hitting a cool .301 at the All-Star break, with an impressive .819 OPS to boot.
Aoki has slowed down since the break, but he still checks out as one of the more productive outfielders in the majors. He has a .329 weighted on-base average, according to FanGraphs, and that puts him in the same company as notable outfielders like Denard Span and Justin Upton.
The Brewers are getting to enjoy this production at a dirt-cheap salary of $1 million, which basically makes Aoki one of their most valuable players (he's "very valuable" as far as BaseballPlayerSalaries.com is concerned).
He's signed through next season with an option for 2014. It wouldn't be at all surprising if the Brewers decided to sell high on him at the trade deadline in 2013 if Aoki improves on his solid rookie season.
Either way, he won't have any issues earning a job next spring.
Signed: January 11, 2012
Debuted: April 7, 2012
Munenori Kawasaki had some good offensive seasons in Japan, never more so than in 2007 when he hit .329 with an .809 OPS for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Japan's Pacific League.
He hasn't proved to be much of an offensive threat in limited action with the Mariners in 2012. Kawasaki is hitting just .202 with a .477 OPS in 50 games with the Mariners.
Where Kawasaki has impressed is in the field. Per FanGraphs, he bears a 6.7 UZR/150 at shortstop, which is on par with notable shortstops like Brandon Crawford and Jimmy Rollins.
The only problem is that everyday Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan rates as the best defensive shortstop in the major leagues. He leads all qualified major league shortstops in UZR, UZR/150 and DRS. He should win a Gold Glove this season.
Ryan will be around next season, too. Whether Kawasaki will also be back is anybody's guess.
Signed: January 18, 2012
Debuted: April 9, 2012
It cost the Rangers about $52 million just to earn the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish, and another $56 million to sign him to a six-year contract.
So far, the returns on their investment have been just so-so.
Darvish enjoyed a very good first half, going 10-5 with a 3.59 ERA and making the All-Star team. This despite the fact that he boasted a pedestrian 1.36 WHIP and was walking 4.7 batters per nine innings.
Darvish's season has taken a turn for the worse. He's 2-4 with a 6.60 ERA in seven starts since the break, in which he's posted a .246 opponents' batting average and a BB/9 of 5.4.
For the season, Darvish is 12-9 with a 4.51 ERA in 23 starts. His 4.9 BB/9 is the fourth-highest mark among qualified major league starters.
On the bright side, Darvish does have the highest WAR among AL rookie starting pitchers, according to FanGraphs. And though his posting fee isn't taken into account, the folks at BaseballPlayerSalaries.com crunched the numbers and determined that Darvish is worth the money the Rangers are paying him.
Regardless, it stands to reason that the Rangers are already hoping for better things from Darvish in 2013.
Signed: January 5, 2012
Debuted: April 20, 2012
Hisashi Iwakuma wasn't much use as a reliever for the Mariners this season, posting a 4.75 ERA and giving up six home runs in 14 appearances that spanned 30.1 innings.
He's been a lot better as a starting pitcher. Since being inserted into the Mariners' rotation in early July, Iwakuma has gone 3-2 with a 3.02 ERA in nine starts, striking out 46 in 53.2 innings pitched.
He's part of the reason the Mariners' pitching staff as a whole has a 3.23 ERA since the All-Star break, second only to the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League.
As far as BaseballPlayerSalaries.com is concerned, Iwakuma is "very valuable." Expect him to stick around in Seattle's rotation in 2013.
If he does, look out. The Mariners have had a good thing going since the All-Star break, and they have plenty of young talent waiting in the wings. The momentum they've established in the second half of this season may very well carry over into 2013.
The following breakdown of the 10 players we just discussed is crude, but it will serve as a means to get an idea of how these players are living up the dollar amounts that they're being paid.
Career WAR numbers are courtesy of FanGraphs.
Aroldis Chapman: 4.7 WAR, $25.25 million contract
Yunesky Maya: 0.1 WAR, $8 million contract
Jose Iglesias: -0.2 WAR, $14.24 million contract
Leonys Martin: -0.1 WAR, $15.5 million contract
Yoenis Cespedes: 1.7 WAR, $36 million contract
Yoshinori Tateyama: 0.0 WAR, $1 million salary
Norichika Aoki: 1.2 WAR, $2.5 million contract
Munenori Kawasaki: -0.2 WAR, $625,000 salary
Yu Darvish: 3.0 WAR, $56 million contract
Hisashi Iwakuma: 0.2 WAR, $1.5 million salary
On balance, the five Cuban players are being paid a lot of money for relatively little production. The five Japanese players are being paid significantly less money for production that's close to being on par with the production of the Cuban players.
Think we're comparing apples to oranges here?
If you do, you're not wrong.
The elephant in the room here is the fact that Darvish essentially cost the Rangers over $110 million to acquire, which is more than the collective worth of the contracts of the five Cuban players. That just goes to show how big of a difference the posting system can make. Japanese superstars like Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka don't come cheap.
By comparison, Cuban stars like Chapman and Cespedes are relatively cheap. No doubt they'd be just as expensive if there was a posting system for Cuban players, but there's not. Pursuing potential Cuban major league stars can thus be more cost effective than pursuing potential Japanese major league stars, as one Japanese star can be worth as much as five Cuban stars.
This is not to say that pursuing players out of Cuba is always more cost effective. Just look at what Aoki and Iwakuma are doing this season for mere pennies. To boot, neither of them required time in the minor leagues because they both came to America as accomplished veterans in Japan. The Brewers and Mariners are getting instant gratification.
This is the real apples-to-oranges comparison. Cuban players who defect and sign on with major league teams are signed because of their raw ability. Japanese players, on the other hand, have both ability and proven track records to stand on.
As such, we're basically talking about two baseball factories that are in completely different ballparks.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.