Decade's Best MLB Players to Come out of International Free-Agent Window
With international free agency fresh on our minds, it's a good time to consider the best MLB players of the past decade to come out of the international free-agent window.
That's right, the past decade. Starting from those players who signed as amateur free agents in 2004, I've compiled a list of the best players. Now, of course, there were some criteria I considered.
For starters, I thought it fair to only consider players with over one full year of service time. This eliminated players like Gregory Polanco, Oscar Tavares and others from making the final list, though I did give them proper credit (you'll see).
Next, I took into account both their to-date production over their careers, as well as their potential for more in the future. While overall numbers certainly helped a player to crack the list, it was his ceiling that ultimately determined his standing.
Finally, I eliminated players who don't play major roles on their teams. This eliminated multiple specialty bullpen arms and versatile reserves.
Now, remember that guys like Jorge Soler, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu won't be on this list. They weren't a part of international free agency, as bonus restrictions and other things of that nature didn't apply to their signings.
Let's get down to business.
*Note: All statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com prior to play on July 6.
On the Rise
Below you will read about players that either don't have enough service time to qualify for the final cut or will certainly crack this list in the near future.
Pittsburgh Pirates uber-prospect Gregory Polanco only made his big league debut this season after being signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. The outfielder is considered a five-tool prospect, and he's already showing the rest of the National League Central what he's made of.
On the year, he owns a slash line of .299/.387/.412 with three homers, 13 RBI and four stolen bases. He's a candidate to climb this list quickly.
Another rookie who made his debut this season, St. Louis Cardinals stud prospect Oscar Tavares signed in 2008 out of the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, he hasn't seen as much success out of the gate as Polanco.
He owns a slash line of .196/.236/.314 with one home run and four RBI. The outfielder has bounced up and down after making his debut on May 31, a game in which he smacked a homer for his first career hit.
Yordano Ventura throws extraordinarily hard, and that's probably why the Kansas City Royals signed him back in 2008 out of the Dominican Republic. He didn't make his debut until last season, but he hasn't disappointed.
He owns a career ERA of 3.13 with 91 strikeouts in 112 innings pitched. He has impressed this year in particular, making 16 starts and owning a 3.07 ERA and 3.40 FIP. He's a future ace.
Carlos Martinez should be a familiar name to baseball fans, as he really came on the scene during the 2013 postseason. He posted a 3.55 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals in October.
Overall, Martinez owns a pedestrian 4.32 ERA with 70 strikeouts over 81.1 innings pitched. He has flashed potential ever since signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, however, and it shouldn't be long before he reaches his ceiling.
Honorable Mention: Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee Brewers
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: .272/.309/.379, 16 HR, 86 RBI, 66 SB
Jean Segura was considered one of the top prospects in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's system prior to making his debut in 2012, but the Angels dealt the young shortstop during that same year to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Zack Greinke.
He flashed some potential in 44 games with the Crew in 2012 before receiving the starter's job out of camp in 2013. From that point on, he hasn't disappointed.
A slash line of .294/.329/.423 with 44 stolen bases was the result in his first full year, and he even earned national recognition by making the NL All-Star team.
The future is bright for Segura, despite slumping this year to the tune of a .592 OPS. He is a good fielder with speed and the potential to hit around .280 annually.
The Brewers didn't make this signing themselves, but I'm sure they're happy they got Segura in return for what turned out to be a rental player in Greinke.
10. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: .269/.330/.422, 22 HR, 83 RBI, 19 3B, 74 SB
The Pirates have quite the young outfield in place. Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte form one of the best young trios in all of baseball, and the scary thing is that both Polanco and Marte still have a lot more growing to do.
Marte has already been very good since making his debut in 2012. Last season was big for the 25-year-old, as he showed big-time improvement after stepping into a full-time role. He posted a .784 OPS with 12 HR, 35 RBI and 41 steals in 510 at-bats.
He was caught stealing a league-high 15 times, so his instincts on the basepaths need a little work. He has already shown some improvement in that regard. He's only been nabbed six times more than halfway through the 2014 campaign.
Much of Marte's worth is in his legs, so he's a player that will likely reach his peak between 30 and 32 before we see him drop off. By then he'll be a much more polished hitter, however, so he'll still be supremely valuable.
This kid is going places.
9. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado Rockies
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: .272/.304/.489, 60 HR, 190 RBI
Defense isn't his specialty, and neither is hitting for anything but power.
Wilin Rosario can hit a baseball a long way, and that's aided by the fact that he plays for the Colorado Rockies. The thin air certainly helps his moonshots fly out of the yard. If he weren't a member of the Rockies, he might rank a spot or two down on this ranking.
That said, Rosario fills a need.
Offensive catchers are at a premium in today's game, and Rosario is certainly one of the only ones capable of jacking out 30 big flies in a season. He came close in 2012, as his 28 home runs were good enough for a fourth-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.
Injuries have slowed him down a bit in 2014, as he has just eight homers in 219 at-bats.
Rosario might not have a future at catcher given his size (5'11", 220 pounds), bat and propensity to miss balls in the dirt. He has allowed 38 passed balls since the start of the 2012 season, by far the most in the NL.
8. Salvador Perez, C, Kansas City Royals
Notable Career Stats: .298/.332/.451, 37 HR, 168 RBI
Salvador Perez is one of the best young catchers in all of baseball, and he finally received some recognition when he was named the starter for the American League All-Star team. He made the team last year as a reserve.
As you can tell from the above slash line, Perez is a natural at the plate. He can spray the ball to all fields, and he rarely hits the ball poorly. When he makes contact, it's solid.
Perez isn't just an offensive guy, though, as he won his first Gold Glove of what's sure to be many last season. He threw out 32 percent of potential base-stealers, four percent above the league average, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
As one of the game's best young stars, expect Perez to rise up this list in the near future.
7. Kenley Jansen, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Notable Career Stats: 12-10, 2.34 ERA, 88 S, 0.965 WHIP
It took some time for Kenley Jansen to work his way up through the Los Angeles Dodgers' system, but all the time he took to develop certainly didn't go to waste.
Jansen is now hands down one of the most dominant closers in baseball. He possesses a devastating cutter that's as close to Mariano Rivera's as you can get. That's high praise in itself.
This cutter is so dominating (along with his other pitches), that he has struck out 404 batters in just 258 career innings. What's even more impressive is that his career FIP of 2.02 suggests that his numbers should actually be even better.
The only reason he doesn't rank higher on this list is because of his potential. At this point, what you see is what you get with Jansen. And that's not a bad thing. The Dodgers should be more than pleased with his career path to this point.
If he keeps this production up for another eight years or so, he'll go down as one of the top closers in team history.
6. Carlos Santana, C/1B/3B, Cleveland Indians
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: .248/.366/.438, 83 HR, 283 RBI
Carlos Santana isn't particularly reliable in the batting average department—evidenced by his .248 career mark and .209 clip this season—but he makes up for it in on-base percentage and power.
The 28-year-old is one of the most powerful backstops in baseball, and that is one reason why the Cleveland Indians have experimented with him at first base and third base. They simply can't afford to have his bat on the bench.
Even when he's not hitting bombs or hitting for average (he hit just .160 with six homers through May), Santana's great eye allows him to get on base (.328 OBP over that same span).
Now that he's hitting again (.297 since June 1), his OBP is climbing. When he's hitting like this, Santana is virtually impossible to sit. Any catcher who can hit near .300 with his kind of power needs to be given everyday at-bats.
His ceiling is likely reached at this point, however, making it impossible to place him higher.
5. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: .283/.324/.412, 48 HR, 279 RBI, 790 H, 69 SB
Starlin Castro is still just 24 years old, but the young shortstop has already had a very good career for the Chicago Cubs. He took the league by storm in his first two seasons, hitting at least .300 and posting an OBP of at least .341 during each campaign. He also led the NL in hits in 2011 with 207.
His 2013 season was one to forget, however.
He hit just .245/.284/.347 with a career-high 129 strikeouts in 666 at-bats. Castro is back now, however, as his current line of .290/.337/.470 suggests that he has figured it out again. In fact, he was named to the 2014 NL All-Star team.
On his rebound, this is what Castro told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune: "I think I was more excited this year. After a really bad year last year and a lot of things that happened, that’s going to be great for me to make it [to the All-Star game], and I feel very excited."
Castro has a long, successful career ahead of him if he can stay focused.
4. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas Rangers
Notable Career Stats: .274/.337/.348, 20 HR, 283 RBI, 184 SB
Elvis Andrus is your ideal shortstop.
The Venezuelan gets on base at a decent clip, hits pretty well, steals bases and plays a very good shortstop. The 25-year-old is a two-time All-Star (2010 and 2012), and the Texas Rangers have him under contract all the way through 2022. Oh yeah, he also has a vesting option for 2023.
A great thing about Andrus is that he also does all the little things manager Ron Washington asks of him. He led the league in sacrifices in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and came close to doing so in 2011.
Acquired by the Rangers back in 2007 from the Atlanta Braves in the famous Mark Teixeira deal, Andrus probably isn't going anywhere else.
Andrus is a cornerstone of the Rangers, and even if they go through a rebuild in the future, it would take quite the haul to pry him away.
3. Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Notable Career Stats: 23-14, 3.01 ERA, 293 K, 337.2 IP, 1.105 WHIP
Julio Teheran is a first-time All-Star this year, and that's because of his sparkling 2.29 ERA and 0.952 WHIP. MLB.com's Mark Bowman broke down his case for the All-Star game more in-depth:
Teheran has done anything but experience a sophomore slump. He has ranked among the NL's ERA leaders throughout the season and fully embraced the opportunity to establish himself as the ace of Atlanta's starting rotation. ...
Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Zack Greinke are the only NL pitchers who have made at least 40 starts and compiled a lower ERA than Teheran since the start of 2013.
Yep, in the last two seasons, only three of the game's elite starting pitchers have reached 40 starts and had a lower ERA in the NL. That's impressive for a 23-year-old with just 52 career starts under his belt.
The scary thing for opposing hitters is that Teheran is still figuring things out. There's a chance that he'll get even better with time.
His biggest improvements can be made in the postseason. In his lone career start in the playoffs, which came in 2013, Teheran yielded six runs on eight hits to the Dodgers in 2.2 innings. If he truly wants to be deemed an ace, then he'll have to perform on the biggest stage.
Luckily, the Braves should give him plenty of chances to do so over the next decade.
2. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros
Notable Career Stats: .295/.334/.389, 16 HR, 127 RBI, 112 SB, 526 H
Prior to this season, Jose Altuve likely only would have placed No. 7 or No. 8 on this list. That's how great his 2014 campaign has been.
He currently owns an OPS of .817. He leads the league with a .338 batting average, 37 stolen bases and 121 hits. He already has 26 doubles, and he has only struck out 26 times in 386 plate appearances.
Altuve was snubbed as the starter at second base for the All-Star Game, as Robinson Cano's first year in Seattle was apparently good enough for the fans. He still made it to the Midsummer Classic for the second time in his career, and he's a perennial candidate for the roster in the future.
The diminutive infielder hustles every play and isn't afraid to do what it takes to win games. He's a big reason for the turnaround of the Houston Astros, and he'll be at the heart of the next winning team in Houston.
1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Born: Dominican Republic
Notable Career Stats: 73-54, 9 CG, 4 SO, 3.34 ERA, 883 K, 1,096 IP
Johnny Cueto is the best amateur international signing of the past decade.
A true ace, Cueto has been a dominant starter ever since the 2011 season. Injuries have prevented Cueto from really stepping onto the scene, but literally everything is working for him in 2014.
He leads the league in starts (18), innings (131.1), complete games (three), batters faced (508), WHIP (0.868) and hits per nine innings (5.6). His 1.99 ERA is dazzling, even if his 2.89 FIP suggests that he has outperformed his numbers just a bit.
When healthy, Cueto is clearly one of the top arms in baseball. At 28 years old, the right-hander is completely developed. We know the type of pitcher stepping on the rubber when it's his turn in the rotation.
In all likelihood, the Cincinnati Reds are getting a quality start from him once every five days. That's all you can ask for from a starter, and that's what makes him an ace.
Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @KennyDeJohn_BR