Japan's Masahiro Tanaka is regarded as the top pitcher in this year's class of international free agents.
With all the excitement this week surrounding the start of free agency in Major League Baseball, it's easy to forget about the wealth of international talent that is either already available or will be made available prior to the 2014 season.
However, with the implementation of signing bonus pools prior to the 2012 season as part of a new collective bargaining agreement, signing an impact international player has become as important as landing a knockout draft pick or key free agent.
Here's a look at the five highly touted international prospects who are expected to sign this offseason, as well as their respective big league comparisons.
Country: Cuba (defected)
In writing about Iglesias earlier in the day in the wake of news that he had successfully defected from Cuba, I turned to a scouting report from Baseball America's Ben Badler to help paint a picture of what the right-hander has to offer:
At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, Iglesias threw 92-95 mph, an increase from the 88-92 mph heater he had in March at the WBC. Igleisas also mixed in a sweepy breaking ball that ranged from 76-81 mph, varying the speed and shape on the pitch to generate a surprising number of swings and misses from Team USA hitters.
With easy arm action and athletic build, Iglesias should continue to add velocity as he gets stronger. Similarly, both the quality of his breaking ball and overall command stands to improve under the tutelage of a major league pitching coach.
And now that Iglesias has defected from Cuba and is free to sign with a major league club, it's only a matter of time until more information is made available regarding his arsenal and future potential in the major leagues.
MLB Player Comparison: Luke Gregerson
Based on a conservative projection that Iglesias will serve as a reliever once he ultimately reaches the major leagues, and considering his combination of low- to mid-90s fastball velocity and significant horizontal movement on his slider draws, the 25-year-old right-hander can be best compared to the Padres' Luke Gregerson.
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 toward 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.
MLB Player Comparison: Hiroki Kuroda
Like Kuroda, Tanaka's bread and butter is a splitter that grades off the charts and is likely to translate favorably in the major leagues. Furthermore, his above-average command profile and feel for both sequencing and changing hitters' eye levels with numerous pitches gives the right-hander the upside of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
Country: South Korea
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 toward 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 toward 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.
MLB Player Comparison: Kyuji Fujikawa
Fujikawa signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract with the Cubs prior to the 2013 season after a highly successful age-31 campaign, and I wouldn't be surprised if Oh receives something similar from a major league team. He doesn't project to be a closer as the Cubs envisioned when they inked Fujikawa last winter, but the right-hander has upside of a solid late-inning reliever in a big league bullpen.
Even though Kenta Maeda has been regarded as one of the top starting pitchers in Japan's NPB over the last several years, he doesn't have the sexy, front-of-the-rotation profile of Tanaka.
Although he's a 6'0", 160-pound right-hander with a fastball that rarely eclipses 90 mph, Maeda still is able to baffle opposing hitters thanks to deception in his delivery and plus command of a deep arsenal.
More specifically, the 25-year-old features both a two- and four-seam fastball that grade out as below-average offerings in terms of velocity, though the two-seamer does have some late run to the arm side.
In terms of secondary arsenal, Maeda throws a slider that registers in the upper-70s with significant movement, albeit of the sweeping variety, down and to his glove side. He also throws a second breaking ball, a curveball, that averages roughly 70 mph with a huge vertical break that rivals that of Barry Zito and Ted Lilly's, according to Clint Hulsey of I R Fast.
Maeda also mixes in a changeup that offers a nice change in pace in terms of velocity at about 82 mph, however, the pitch doesn't feature the amount of sink that one would expect from a crafty Japanese starter. Still, it's a very serviceable pitch and one that will presumably be vital toward his success against major league hitters.
MLB Player Comparison: Freddy Garcia
In the previously referenced article by Hulsey, he threw out a Freddy Garcia comp when projecting Maeda's future as a backend starter in the major leagues. And you what? I think he's dead-on.
Country: Cuba (defected/restricted)
Diaz is a 6’1”, 185-pound shortstop who has drawn favorable reviews from evaluators for his projectable bat and power potential, as well as solid range and a strong arm.
MLB Player Comparison: Jhonny Peralta
Peralta isn't a strong defender by any means, but he's a big league shortstop who makes the routine plays and offers offensive upside relative to the position. While Diaz is restricted from signing until February after originally falsifying his age and is therefore obviously unproven against quality pitching, I think we could be talking about a similar profile on both sides of the ball.