Masahiro Tanaka was 24-0 with a 1.24 ERA this past season in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
With the 2013 Major League Baseball season now complete, all 30 teams will now direct their focus toward the free-agent market.
Beginning Tuesday, Nov. 5, players entering free agency will be allowed to negotiate and sign with new teams.
While this year’s class features top-tier players such as Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann—each of whom is expected to land a highly lucrative deal—some organizations may be more interested in what the international market has to offer.
As of now, Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is likely to be the most sought after player. However, he is only one of numerous international players who are capable of making an impact in the major leagues as early as the 2014 season.
Here’s a look at this year’s top international free agents along with their potential suitors.
Masahiro Tanaka is, without question, the premier talent among international free agents.
Only 25 years old, Tanaka had a historic season pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, registering a 24-0 record and 1.24 ERA during the regular season. The right-hander also carried a 30-game unbeaten streak, dating back to his final start of last year in the postseason.
Tanaka’s ridiculous streak came to an end on Saturday, as the Golden Eagles’ ace was saddled with his first loss in over a year. Starting Game 6 of the NPB title series, he threw 160 pitches in a 4-2 complete-game loss to the Yomiuri Giants. However, he did return to the mound on Sunday to pick up the save in the series-deciding Game 7.
At 6’2”, 200 pounds, Tanaka typically throws his fastball in the low 90s but can reach back for 95-96 mph when necessary. That being said, there is some concern as to how the pitch will translate in the major leagues given his lack of natural downhill plane towards the plate.
His primary secondary offering is a splitter that is flat-out nasty and features a devastating late tumbling action that causes it to drop off the table and draw ugly swings from opposing hitters. Tanaka’s slider represents a second plus offering that is thrown in the mid-80s with tight spin and sharp break. The right-hander also throws a decent curveball, though it pales in comparison to both the slider and splitter.
Now that his season is over, Tanaka is expected to be posted by the NPB and, according to Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, could command upwards of $75 million just for negotiation rights. Whichever team ultimately signs the 25-year-old would be getting him for his prime years—assuming he’s able to make the jump directly to the major leagues—so expect there to be interest from a wide range of clubs.
According to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors, the Dodgers, Yankees and Angels, as well as the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Twins, Royals, Mariners, Astros, Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Padres and Rockies could be major players in the Tanaka sweepstakes this offseason.
Norge Ruiz put himself on scout’s radars in July, when Cuba traveled to the United States for a five-game showcase series against the U.S. college national team.
The 19-year-old right-hander was impressive in his start, allowing one run on three hits and two walks while striking out 11 batters in 7.1 innings. Making his Serie Nacional debut this past summer, Ruiz registered an impressive 2.35 ERA and 39/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 65 innings.
Despite being only 5’10”, 170 pounds, Ruiz boasts a fastball that ranges from 89-94 mph and commands it well throughout the strike zone. However, it’s his advanced secondary pitches and feel for sequencing that makes the young right-hander stand out.
Ruiz does an outstanding job at commanding his breaking ball and changeup for a player his age, demonstrating a present ability to throw both pitches for a strike in any count and then locate them outside of the zone to induce whiffs. And although his arsenal is technically comprised of three pitches, the right-hander will often drop down to a lower arm angle with his secondaries to give opposing hitters a different and unexpected look.
Because he’s only 19 and already demonstrates an advanced feel for pitching, Ruiz stands to command a lucrative contract from a major-league team. While he’s not a candidate to make the jump directly to The Show and will likely require some time in the minor leagues, that shouldn’t deter teams from taking a run at him.
Due to his huge upside (and therefore high price tag), expect large-market organizations such as the Rangers, Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers and possibly even the Yankees to show interest in the right-hander.
Although he has a thicker build and lacks physical projection at 5’10”, 200 pounds, Oh has impressed with his ability to work on a consistent downhill plane towards the plate and pound the strike zone.
In terms of his arsenal, the 31-year-old right-hander throws his fastball in the 90-97 mph range with late life. When he’s working towards the low end of the velocity range, Oh generates decent sinking action on the pitch and is capable of inducing ground balls at any level. At the same time, the offering tends to flatten out and plays straight when thrown up in the zone at higher velocities.
Oh’s top secondary offering is a slider that registers anywhere from 80-89 mph, and he demonstrates a feel for adding and subtracting depending on the situation and hitter. It’s not a tight, wipeout pitch, but it does generate consistent glove-side slice with some late downer action. The right-hander will mix in a curveball at times that can range from 71-79 mph with a variant shape, though it’s less developed and effective than the slider.
As I wrote about last week, the Yankees have already expressed interest in Oh and even sent scouts to watch him pitch in the Korean Baseball Organization. Considering that the team will need to revamp their bullpen this offseason in the wake of Mariano Rivera’s retirement, expect them to make a strong push at signing the right-hander.
Aledyms Diaz was playing with the Cuban National team when he defected in the summer of 2012, and he had played in Cuba’s premier league, Serie Nacional, since 2007.
Set to turn 23 in January, Diaz is a 6’1”, 185-pound shortstop that has drawn favorable reviews from evaluators for his projectable bat and power potential, as well as solid range and a strong arm.
Although it’s currently unknown which organizations might be interested in Diaz, teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Minnesota Twins or San Diego Padres, who each lack a legitimate shortstop prospect, could be interested. However, Diaz will not be allowed to sign with a major league team until Feb. 14, 2014 after lying about his date of birth.