6 International Prospects Who Will Make the Most Noise This Season
Major League Baseball's international free-agent market has changed drastically since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed two years ago.
Teams used to have the right to spend what they felt was a fair and appropriate price for a top player, but all that changed last July.
Jorge Soler with the Chicago Cubs and Yasiel Puig with the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to cash in last year just before the rules changed because they were able to get deals done prior to the July 2 deadline.
Even though the actual amount of money that teams can spend has been reduced, it does not take away from the talent that is out there. A lot of it is very young and will need at least five or six years in the minors before we start to see the fruits of the scouting labor.
Baseball America has released the spending caps for all 30 teams on the international market this summer. Like the draft, it goes in reverse order. So the Houston Astros have the most money to spend since they had the worst record in baseball last season, while Washington has the least amount by virtue of having the best record.
In anticipation of the wild ride teams and players will be on leading up to July 2, here are the top prospects to keep a close eye on.
Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cuba
Age (Listed): 23
Diaz has been on the international radar since last November when he defected from Cuba to Mexico, but he has yet to be declared a free agent due to issues surrounding his age.
Ben Badler of Baseball America reported on February 26 that Major League Baseball was still investigating Diaz's age. He is listed as 23 with a birth date of January 8, 1990. But the report cites multiple websites and Cuban media outlets saying he was born on August 1, 1990.
The problem with his age is how much he can be paid. Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com noted that "Cuban players who are at least 23 years old with three years of experience in a Cuban professional league" are exempt from the international signing regulations—meaning Diaz could sign for a lot more money if he is 23 instead of 22.
Until the issue with his age and free agency is resolved, Diaz is not going to have any kind of market.
Diaz boasts three above-average or better tools, as he can hit for average, power and has a good throwing arm at shortstop. He is polished and wouldn't need a lot of time in the minors, though there would be a period of adjustment as he makes his way up the ladder against better secondary stuff.
Dariel Alvarez, OF, Cuba
Age (Listed): 24
Alvarez has been declared a free agent and can sign with any team he likes, though the market has been slow to develop for him thus far. The most we know is that, according to Joe Frisario of MLB.com, the Marlins won't be pursuing him.
Prior to defecting, Alvarez spent five years playing in the Serie Nacional League in Cuba. He grew into a power hitter after signing as a 19-year-old, smashing 31 home runs in his last two seasons (2010 and 2011).
The 24-year-old recorded just 152 at-bats in Mexico during the 2012 season, putting up a .354/.371/.521 slash line. He is exempt from the international spending regulations since he is over 23 and spent five years playing with a Cuban professional league.
Alvarez brings versatility and above-average power potential with him. He is not a great athlete, but he's good enough to play center field or move to a corner, if necessary. Pitch recognition and discipline will be the two biggest question marks for him as he enters professional baseball in the United States.
Considering his age and required development time—likely a full season, at least—teams might be reluctant to give him a huge contract.
Eloy Jimenez, OF, Dominican Republic
Resides: Santo Domingo, DR
Age (Listed): 16
Jimenez took part in the Dominican Prospect League games in February. He is so young that there is a lot to dream on here, but he will flash three above-average or better tools right now with the potential to grow into more.
If you are looking for the ideal international free-agent prospect, Jimenez doesn't quite fit the mold because he doesn't have much physical projection left. Most players who sign will be 16 or 17 years old, boast tremendous upside, grow into their bodies and will not be seen in a full-season league for two or three years.
Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote on February 5, following two DPL showcase games, that some scouts had Jimenez as the top player on the field.
Right now the book on Jimenez is very impressive. He has a huge frame at 6'4" and 200 pounds, and it's likely that he will add more bulk as he ages. He is going to slow down, meaning his future is probably in a corner outfield spot.
Jimenez brings above-average bat speed, raw power and speed to the table. He also has a strong enough throwing arm to profile in right field. His speed will decrease as he gets bigger, but you can hope the bat speed and power develop as he gets experience against quality competition.
Joan Mauricio, SS, Dominican Republic
Resides: San Pedro de Macoris
Age (Listed): 16
If Jimenez brings immediate physical tools to the table, Joan Mauricio is everything that scouts love about the international free-agent market. He has the potential to be a starting shortstop in the big leagues, but he has so much maturing to do physically that no one knows what he will be.
As things stand right now, Mauricio projects as a shortstop. He is light years away from showing those skills on the field against quality competition, though it just makes him that much more appealing.
Teams fall in love with young up-the-middle talent with a chance to make an impact down the line. Don't be shocked to see a handful of clubs fighting over Mauricio when July 2 rolls around.
Mauricio is rail-thin right now, at 6'1", 140 pounds. The good news is that, at just 16 years old, he is likely to grow another couple of inches and his frame will eventually catch up to his height.
As far as tools go, Mauricio shows good range and a strong, accurate arm in the hole. He can swing a bat surprisingly well, showing a compact line drive stroke that allows him to hit the ball in the gap. There could eventually be average home-run power down the road.
Anytime you can find a shortstop with good offensive potential, he could be an All-Star for a long time.
Jefferson Mejia, SP, Dominican Republic
Resides: Dominican Republic
Age (Listed): 17
Being a tall pitcher can have its advantages and disadvantages. Jefferson Mejia stands at 6'7" and can get plenty of plane on his fastball, but being that height can also hurt your delivery because it is hard to control all the moving parts.
Of course, Mejia has bigger things to worry about right now. There is a dispute about his age—currently listed as 17—and he was suspended for one year by Major League Baseball last April because he lied about how old he is.
As long as teams are able to get to the bottom of his age issues, Mejia should be one of the most sought-after pitchers on the international market.
Mejia has a very clean, repeatable delivery, and that is critical for someone with his size and length. As long as he can keep his release point from pitch to pitch, he should have no problems remaining a starter.
As far as stuff goes, Mejia works with an average fastball in 90-93 range. He also shows a changeup and curveball that tend to flash above-average but will likely be average big league offerings.
Since there isn't physical projection for a pitcher who is 6'7" and 220 pounds, Mejia may not add more velocity as he ages. If this is as good as it gets, he has the ceiling of a No. 3 starter.
Jen-Ho Tseng, SP, Taiwan
Resides: Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
Age (Listed): 18
After leading Chinese Taipei to a bronze medal at the IBAF 18U World Championships last year, Jen-Ho Tseng made a splash in the 2013 World Baseball Classic as the top starting pitcher for Taiwan.
Even though he has yet to graduate from high school, Tseng is looking to secure a deal soon so that he can transition directly into Major League Baseball. It is unclear if that will happen, but at just 18 years old with a resume as impressive as his, he is doing all he can to make teams consider it.
Tseng is already filled out at 6'1" and 200 pounds, so any thoughts of projection are likely out the window. What you see is what you get, though that is hardly the worst thing in the world.
Employing a solid five-pitch mix that could be cut down in professional baseball, Tseng works with a fastball, sinker, knuckle-curve, slider and changeup.
Considering the degree of difficulty commanding the knuckle-curve, Tseng could scrap that offering and go with a four-seam and two-seam fastball, slider and changeup. His fastball is an above-average offering that sits in the low 90s.
Tseng also comes from a near three-quarters arm slot, preventing him from getting over the top on his fastball, leaving it flat and easy to elevate. That is where his sinker comes in handy—he needs that pitch to keep hitters driving the ball in the ground.
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