World Baseball Classic, Round 1: Any Prospects for the Major Leagues?
After round one, teams from eight countries were eliminated from the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Many previously unknown players on these teams performed at high levels. But are any good enough for the major leagues?
Group A—China and Taiwan
The Chinese have been playing competitive baseball for less than a decade. They are making progress and they play fundamentally decent baseball. But they simply don’t play often enough to develop the arm strength and bat speed to compete with more mature national teams.
The one player on their roster who has a chance to play in the big leagues is shortstop Ray Chang. The 25-year-old played high school and college ball in Kansas City. Chang has played four years already in the minors, with a .258 average and just 62 RBI in 608 at bats.
In the WBC, Chang hit .455 and played outstanding defense. He is likely to be placed in the Double-A Eastern League this season. If he can make contact and get on base, Chang has a chance to be a utility player in the majors.
Two other players on the Chinese roster—pitcher Liu Kai and catcher Zhang Zhenwang—have signed minor league contracts with the New York Yankees. While it will be interesting to watch their progress, I seriously doubt they can move past Single-A.
Conversely, Team Taiwan had seven players on their roster with minor league experience, and three others have signed contracts. The two best position players belong to the Boston Red Sox.
Second baseman Chih-Hsien Chiang hit .303 in the Advanced-A California League last season. At only 21 years old, Chiang looks like a limited contact hitter at best. In his two games in the WBC, Chiang went 2-for-7 and played adequate defense.
The Sox’ prize prospect, however, is Che-Hsuan Lin, a center fielder with excellent speed. The 20-year-old Lin has played two seasons in the minors and was the MVP at last year’s Futures Game.
Last season, Lin hit just .249 at Single-A Greenville, but he stole 33 bases. He showed well in the WBC, going 3-for-7. He tracks balls well in the outfield and has a good arm.
All of the seven pitchers signed for the minors are under 25, except Fu-Te Ni, who was recently signed by the Tigers.
Sung-Wei Tseng was Taiwan’s most effective pitcher in the WBC, striking out four in two innings without giving up any runs. He is 24 years old and split last season between Advanced-A and Double-A for the Indians. He has good command of three pitches and will likely start the season at Akron in the Eastern League, pitching out of the bullpen.
Others from Taiwan playing in North America this summer:
Hung-Wen Chen, starting pitcher, Cubs, possibly AA.
Chi-Hung Cheng, lefty pitcher, Pirates, possibly Advanced-A.
Chen-Chang Lee, starting pitcher, Cleveland, rookie or Single-A.
Po-Yu Lin, righty pitcher, White Sox, Single-A.
Chia-Jen Lo, righty pitcher, Astros, likely rookie level.
Yen-Wen Kuo, infielder, Reds, likely rookie level.
Group B—Australia and South Africa
Team Australia played well in the WBC, but ultimately, their lack of team depth caught up with them. The roster was a combination of a few older players whose opportunities for MLB may have passed, and some younger players on the rise.
First basemen Brett Roneberg and Ben Risinger were a combined 9-for-17, with two home runs and five RBI. Roneberg is 30 years old and Risinger, 31. Neither is likely attract attention from major league teams.
Justin Huber—at one time considered a good prospect with the Mets and Royals—had another poor showing, managing only one hit in eleven at bats and only one RBI as the team’s cleanup hitter.
Shortstop Brad Harman primarily played last season at Double-A for the Phillies, although he did get called up for a couple of weeks with the world champions. His defense is good at all infield positions and he does get the bat on the ball. He has a good chance to be a major league utility player.
Luke Hughes—who has played both third base and second in the minors for the Twins—looked good both in the field and at the plate. He hit .309, with 18 homers and 61 RBI, splitting last season between AA and AAA. I think we may see him in Minnesota sometime this year.
Center fielder Trent Oeltjen had been Twins’ property, but he's now is with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Aussies’ leadoff hitter went 6-for-12 and had two stolen bases.
Oeltjen hit .317 last season at AAA with 15 steals. Although he has little pop in his bat, he can play all outfield positions decently and could earn some major league time.
A young infielder to watch is James Beresford. Just 20 years old and likely to play this year at Single-A for the TwinS, his four hits in nine at bats yielded four runs at key moments. He is a switch-hitter who can play both second and short well.
Another 20-year-old, outfielder Mitch Dening, played last season for the Lowell Spinners, the Short Season Single-A club of the Red Sox. He batted .321 and played excellent defense. I saw him play a couple of times and was impressed with his athleticism.
A couple of pitchers bouncing back from injuries are Travis Blackley and Rich Thompson. Thompson is a hard-throwing righty who has a good chance to see some time with the Angels this season.
Blackley has had a difficult time staying healthy. But he is left-handed and throws hard with good command. The Diamondbacks must be happy with his 1.59 ERA with four strikeouts in his 5 2/3 innings in this WBC.
South Africa, like China, is still breaking its eyeteeth as a baseball nation. Currently, only six players on the WBC roster have minor league contracts.
The best prospect of these is Gift Ngoepe—a speedy, switch-hitting second baseman. In South Africa’s two games in the WBC, Ngoepe went 2-for-5 and played good defense.
If he can add some versatility to his game and play multiple positions adequately, he has a chance to be another Chone Figgins. He is only 19 years old and likely heading to the Pirates' Gulf Coast League team at the rookie level.
The four South African pitchers headed for the minors this year are very young. Alessio Angelucci for the Padres is the oldest of these at 20. Justin Erasmus (Red Sox) is 19, Dylan Lindsay (Royals) is 17. Hein Robb, a lefty for the Twins, is just 16 years old!
Most likely, all four pitchers will play at the rookie level this year.
Group C—Canada and Italy
Team Canada had quite a few established major leaguers on their roster. In addition to some aging national team veterans, a few young players will probably find their way to the Show within a few years.
Pitcher Phillippe Aumont was a first-round draft pick by the Seattle Mariners. He pitched well in his first professional season last year at Single-A, with a 2.27 ERA in 55 2/3 innings.
Aumont is very tall, and although just 20, he displays great poise. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning against Team USA. He allowed a double, a single, a wild pitch, and walk—bases loaded, no outs.
Aumont settled down and got David Wright to pop up. He then struck out Kevin Youkilis and Curtis Granderson to escape damage. He will likely start the season at Advanced-A.
Another first-round pick on the Canadian roster is Brett Lawrie of the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Lawrie didn’t get any at bats in the WBC, but it will be his offense that may land him in the bigs some day.
The Brewers, like the Canadian National Team, are unsure what position he might play. Lawrie has caught, played outfield, and some infield, but has not impressed at any of those yet.
Scott Richmond was arguably the best starting pitcher that Canada had for the WBC. Manager Ernie Whitt must have been trying to save him for their third game. When Italy spoiled that plan by eliminating Canada after two losses, Richmond didn’t get to pitch.
Richmond threw 27 innings for the Blue Jays last year, with a 4.00 ERA. He might win a job in Toronto, or he might be just a call away at AAA.
Other young Canadians in the minors this summer:
Left-handed pitcher Dave Davidson, Pirates, probably AAA.
Righty Brooks McNiven, Giants, AAA.
Lefty reliever Bryan Dumesnil, Braves, AA.
Righty reliever T.J. Burton, Astros, AA or AAA.
Left-handed starter Scott Diamond, Braves, possibly AA.
Right-handed reliever Christopher Leroux, Marlins, AA.
Catcher Luke Carlin, Diamondbacks, AAA.
Shortstop Chris Barnwell, Astros, AAA.
Outfielder Nick Weglarz, Indians, AA.
Team Italy played very well in this tournament. They had an interesting roster mixed with a few major league players who are Italian-American, like Nick Punto and Frank Catalanotto.
Other Italian-Americans—like catcher Vinny Rottino, third baseman Mike Costanzo and outfielder Chris Denorfia—have AAA experience and played well enough to possibly get chances to join the Brewers, Orioles, and Athletics, respectively.
One American minor league pitcher really impressed for Team Italy. Adam Ottavino is highly thought of by the Cardinals. After two excellent seasons at Single-A, Ottavino struggled last year at AA. But in the WBC, he pitched three innings, giving up only a hit and a walk, while striking out three.
There were a few native Italians who played or pitched pretty well. The best was first baseman Giuseppe Mazzanti, who has good size and was not intimidated even against major league pitchers.
Mazzanti is just 25 and may have impressed some team enough to get signed. But that's assuming he would want to play in North America.
Mario Chiarini played well in the outfield, providing one of the highlight catches of the tournament. But he's already 28, so it’s likely back to Rimini, Italy for him.
Two Italians already have minor league experience and are likely to move up levels this year.
Pitcher Alessandro—they are already calling him Alex—Maestri, pitched fairly well for the Cubs in Advanced-A and AA. He was 5-4 with a 4.04 ERA in 89 innings. He has decent command of two pitches and tops out around 90 miles per hour.
To me, the hottest prospect for Italy is third baseman Alex Liddi. He has good size and speed, some pop in his bat, and plays great defense. In three league minor seasons for the Mariners, Liddi has batted .252 with 17 home runs and 132 RBI in 1067 at bats.
Group D—Dominican Republic and Panama
The elimination of the Dominican Republic in the first round at the hands of the Netherlands was shocking, to say the least.
There are more Dominicans in Major League Baseball than from any country other than the US—by far. Their WBC roster was a mixture of veteran all-stars and rising young stars. All of these players are well-known to North American fans.
Only one player—pitcher Pedro Viola—has no major league experience. Viola is a left-handed reliever in the Cincinnati Reds organization. Viola struggled last year at AA with a 4.48 ERA and 36 walks in 82 1/3 innings.
Viola is 25, but last year was only his second professional season. In his first year, he was phenomenal. Starting in the Midwest League, moving up to Advanced-A, then again to AA, Viola was 3-2 with six saves, a combined ERA of 1.42 and averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
In the WBC, Viola pitched only one inning, allowing no base runners and striking out two. Look for him to begin this season again at AA, but he may move up quickly.
Team Panama did not enjoy any success in the 2009 WBC. Eliminated quickly in two games against Puerto Rico and the Dominicans, they were overmatched.
Panama had quite a few older veterans—like Bruce Chen and Ruben Rivera—who are no longer viable major leaguers. There are just two young pitchers with major league roles—Manny Acosta and Manuel Corpas. Four more pitchers are 22 or younger, trying to rise through the minors.
None of them pitched well in this tournament. But the Braves have a track record of bringing Panamanian pitchers along. Yeliar Castro’s time is running out, however.
Still only 21, Castro has already pitched four years in North America. His combined ERA is over 5.00 and he has averaged almost five walks per nine innings. Even the Braves may not be able to salvage this guy.
Two position players bear watching, however. Shortstop Ruben Tejada had a rough tournament, going 0-4 and making a couple of errors. But the Mets think highly of the 19-year-old, who should develop as he gets older.
Luis Durango is a speedy slap-hitting outfielder in the Padres organization. He was their only effective offensive player, with a .750 on-base percentage. In three minor league seasons, he has risen to Advanced-A, hitting .350 with 49 steals. His defense appears to be fine, although he has a weak throwing arm.
Next week, I will provide assessments of the prospects for the eight other countries in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
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