10 Most Disastrous International Free-Agent Signings in MLB History
MLB teams have been constantly fine-tuning their player-evaluation methods, but there will always be a crapshoot element to scouting.
With international players in particular, it's difficult to project major league success with any certainty. The experiences of these 10 free agents attest to that.
They all failed to validate multimillion-dollar contracts due to a combination of injuries and poor performance. Their excellence in Cuban and Japanese professional leagues gave false hope to U.S. franchises.
We can point to Yasiel Puig, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes as examples of foreigners who have been enormous assets to their MLB teams on the field while providing promotional value. Norichika Aoki and Hisashi Iwakuma have provided even better bang for the buck.
In reality, though, they're atypical of a process that's been a source of front-office frustration in recent decades.
The Toronto Blue Jays inked Adeiny Hechavarria to a $10 million deal shortly before his 21st birthday with the expectation that he would progress through their farm system quickly.
Instead, it took him nearly three full seasons.
Hechavarria reached the majors in 2012 because the Blue Jays were overwhelmed with injuries, not necessarily on his own merits.
Even in the hitter-friendly conditions of the Rogers Centre, he only managed a .245/.280/.365 batting line. Moreover, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating suggest that his fielding is more flash than substance; he doesn't actually make a positive impact.
Thankfully, the Miami Marlins bailed out Toronto. Believing that he could be effective in an everyday role, they accepted him as part of the compensation package in last winter's notorious salary dump.
Leslie Anderson also signed a major league contract in the spring of 2010. His $1.725 million guarantee was modest by most teams' standards, but the cash-strapped Tampa Bay Rays take each of their free-agent acquisitions very seriously.
Although Anderson reached Triple-A during his first season in the U.S., he never earned a promotion to Tampa Bay's active roster.
The Cuban slugger was hyped as an excellent athlete who could handle all three outfield positions, but that wasn't evident from his actual performance. Otherwise, we would have seen him in The Show by now.
10. Kosuke Fukudome
Team: Chicago Cubs
Total Cost: $48 million
Date of Signing: Dec. 11, 2007
The Cubs were coming off an NL Central title in 2007 but figured that another quality hitter was needed to bolster their middle-of-the-pack offense.
Kosuke Fukudome seemed like an excellent fit. He batted .305 in nine seasons as a professional in Japan, and the outfielder shined on the international stage during the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
One red flag the Cubs may have overlooked, however, was Fukudome's midsummer elbow surgery. That's one possible explanation for why he never hit for much power in the U.S.
Fukudome played in the Windy City from ages 31 to 34 and slugged a pedestrian .403. He was a liability on the basepaths and an unimpressive defender (used primarily in right field).
Chicago shopped him at the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline to expedite its rebuilding process but received a weak package from the Cleveland Indians comprised of two unheralded prospects, Abner Abreu and Carlton Smith.
Neither has reached the major leagues.
On the bright side, the 2008 NL All-Star ranked second on the Cubs in on-base percentage during his tenure. Fukudome was also durable enough to play in more than 87 percent of the team's games prior to the trade.
9. Kyuji Fujikawa
Team: Chicago Cubs
Total Cost: $9.5 million
Date of Signing: Dec. 7, 2012
We've only reached the midway point of Kyuji Fujikawa's two-year contract, but it's almost impossible to imagine him contributing enough in 2014 to compensate for a miserable debut season.
The Cubs expected him to be a steady late-inning weapon. Fujikawa owned a 1.77 career earned run average in Japan and had spent the previous seven years as closer for the Hanshin Tigers.
However, his right arm hasn't cooperated.
Fujikawa imploded a couple of times last April before landing on the disabled list with a forearm strain. His numbers were much more impressive upon returning—1.17 ERA, 10 K in 7.2 IP—but the discovery of a torn ulnar collateral ligament forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery in June. His summer was over after only 12 innings.
According to MLB.com's Carrie Muskat, the 33-year-old began playing catch again in October.
Unfortunately, time is working against him.
John Lackey and Brian Wilson recently made successful comebacks from the procedure. Then again, they waited 18 and 16 months, respectively, before returning to a major league mound. Fujikawa won't pitch next season if he follows their examples to ensure a full recovery.
Joe Nathan and Adam Wainwright have found their dominant, pre-injury forms, but both were uncharacteristically inconsistent in the seasons following their surgeries.
History says that the Cubs shouldn't expect to get much value from Fujikawa, regardless of which rehab strategy he chooses.
8. Yunesky Maya
Team: Washington Nationals
Total Cost: $6 million
Date of Signing: July 31, 2010
Yunesky Maya debuted for the noncompetitive Nationals barely one month after signing his name to a four-year contract.
After all, he had been dominant in the Cuban National Series. Maya earned the league's equivalent of the Cy Young Award while pitching for the Pinar Del Rio Vegueros, tossing seven complete games and maintaining a 2.22 earned run average.
He spent the final month of the 2010 season in Washington's rotation, but it wasn't pretty.
The team went winless in five games started by 29-year-old right-hander. Maya never lasted beyond six innings, and he recorded only 12 strikeouts in 26 total innings. He posted a 5.88 earned run average during this stint and allowed his opposition to bat .294/.371/.461 (roughly Hideki Matsui's career averages).
Maya spent 2011 bouncing back and forth between Triple-A Syracuse and the big leagues. His command improved, but the results were still too inconsistent to validate a stable rotation spot, even on a sub-.500 team. He spent September as a mop-up man in the Nationals bullpen.
Washington's front office was aggressive during the ensuing offseason in adding pitching around its talented core. General manager Mike Rizzo traded for Gio Gonzalez and signed Edwin Jackson, which gave the Nats ample depth to demote Maya back to the minors. He pitched 167 innings at Triple-A as the team ran away with an NL East title.
Stumbling early in the 2013 season—7.20 earned run average through five minor league starts—put an end to the illusion that Maya would get to pitch in any meaningful situations. He made only one forgettable appearance with the Nationals all summer. They even designated him for assignment at midseason, but no team was willing to take him.
Unsurprisingly, Baseball America's Matt Eddy tweets that he has been mercifully released.
7. Tsuyoshi Wada
Team: Baltimore Orioles
Total Cost: $8.15 million
Date of Signing: Dec. 14, 2011
Tsuyoshi Wada's lack of velocity and history of elbow issues invited many to criticize his signing from the beginning. Even so, nobody thought he'd provide zero major league innings in a two-year span.
But that's precisely how this contract played out for the Orioles.
In February 2012, mere days after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, Wada mentioned that there was soreness in his elbow. He reassured the media, however, that "getting used to the flow of practice" would solve everything.
"You know this is a 31-year-old guy who knows his elbow," manager Buck Showalter said at the time, "knows his arm. We are going to trust him."
Big mistake. Wada's first start of the spring was shaky (3.0 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 2 BB), his minor league debut was worse (2.2 IP, 6 H, 6 ER, 4 BB), and then it was discovered that he'd need Tommy John surgery.
He rejoined the Triple-A Norfolk Tides the following May, but he didn't show much promise until August. By then, Baltimore had already completed trades for Scott Feldman and Bud Norris to bolster the starting rotation.
Wada became a free agent when the O's declined his 2014 club option (rather than exercising it for $5 million).
Despite a lighter contract than Kyuji Fujikawa, the failure to throw a single pitch at the MLB level elevates Wada above him on this list.
6. Kazuhisa Ishii
Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Total Cost: $23.56 million ($11.26 million posting fee, $12.3 million contract)
Date of Signing: Feb. 28, 2002
Kazuhisa Ishii's MLB career got off to an extremely encouraging start.
The 28-year-old southpaw held his opponents scoreless through two performances—11.2 IP, 4 H, 15 K—and went a perfect 5-0 in April en route to NL Rookie of the Month honors. Through the end of May, he boasted a 2.90 earned run average.
It was mostly downhill from there, unfortunately.
Ishii led the majors in walks during his first season despite only making 28 starts. By 2004, batters understood that he couldn't locate his pitches consistently, so they stopped chasing outside the strike zone. His swinging-strike percentage suffered as a result. A rapid decline in his fastball velocity made it even more difficult to compete.
The Dodgers dealt Ishii to the New York Mets during the following spring training. In three years, he had pitched 473 innings and issued 305 walks, which translated to an MLB-worst 5.80 BB/9 (min. 200 IP).
Perhaps the worst takeaway from Ishii's tenure in L.A. is that future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki was acquired by the Seattle Mariners the previous offseason for roughly the same financial commitment.
5. Jose Contreras
Team: New York Yankees
Total Cost: $32 million
Date of Signing: Dec. 26, 2002
Jose Contreras seemingly fit nicely into New York's immediate and long-term plans.
The team entered the 2003 season with two age-40 starting pitchers, Roger Clemens and David Wells, both of whom were also impending free agents. So Contreras would initially serve as a security blanket in case one of them broke down with an injury, then he would transition into the rotation full time during the final three years of his contract.
The heavy Cuban right-hander received his first starting opportunity in late May when Wells suffered a bruised calf. He later transitioned into the rotation in place of a struggling Jeff Weaver. Contreras embraced his new role, posting a 2.34 earned run average in nine total starts with a .184 batting average against and 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
This deal was going to be great bargain for the Yankees if Contreras could replicate those results going forward.
But of course, he didn't. He didn't come close.
Contreras continued accumulating strikeouts as a 32-year-old, but his command became problematic. He had issues with walks and wild pitches while surrendering home runs at a ridiculous rate.
Contreras' earned run average ballooned to 5.68 after two horrible outings in late July, which prompted the Yankees to trade him for Esteban Loaiza prior to the 2004 non-waiver trade deadline.
Including cash that was part of the exchange, New York paid about $15 million for 36 appearances (27 starts) and a 96 ERA+.
4. Tsuyoshi Nishioka
Team: Minnesota Twins
Total Cost: $14.57 million ($5.32 million posting fee, $9.25 million contract)
Date of Signing: Dec. 16, 2010
Tsuyoshi Nishioka secured a three-year deal with the Twins, coming off a huge 2010 season overseas. He led Nippon Professional Baseball in games, runs, hits and total bases, as reported by Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com.
Prior to that, however, the switching-hitting shortstop had persistently suffered from injuries. Knee, neck, feet and hamstring issues all contributed to either missed time and limited effectiveness during his eight summers with the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Regardless, Minnesota immediately plugged Nishioka into an everyday role, and his performance in 2011 spring training was actually very encouraging. The 26-year-old batted .345/.367/.414 in 20 games, striking out only twice, per MLB.com.
But that didn't carry over into the regular season, as Nishioka whiffed seven times through five games.
Then in career game No. 6 at Yankee Stadium, Nick Swisher plowed into him to break up a double play. The aggressive slide served its purpose but unintentionally resulted in a fractured fibula for Nishioka, which caused him to miss 10 weeks of action.
Nishioka returned in mid-June when the reigning AL Central champs were shockingly submerged in the division's cellar. The situation didn't improve for the team or the individual, as the Twins piled up 99 losses, their worst total in nearly three decades. Meanwhile, Nishioka's campaign was cut short by an oblique injury. He totaled 68 games with an anemic .226/.278/.249 batting line.
In 2012, Nishioka spent only one series in the majors. The Twins instead kept him at Triple-A for most of the season as he transitioned from shortstop to second base. His offense was still a huge concern, though, and the club expressed no desire to reinstate him on the active roster.
That realization convinced Nishioka to walk away from the final year of his contract, which would have guaranteed him $3.25 million, as reported by Josh Shipley of the Pioneer Press.
Of course, Nishioka's classy exit doesn't excuse his production. In 254 MLB plate appearances, he amassed only five extra-base hits. Edgar Diaz is the only other player (subscription required) in the designated hitter era to produce fewer of those in a career with at least that many plate appearances.
3. Hideki Irabu
Team: New York Yankees
Total Cost: $12.8 million
Date of Signing: May 29, 1997
The first thing we need to emphasize is that back in 1997, you could get a lot done in free agency with $12.8 million. Even with that total spread over a four-year deal, Hideki Irabu was being paid like a legitimate No. 3 starter.
And the Yankees were billing him as something even more than that—a Nolan Ryan-like phenom.
Irabu fell short of those standards.
He experienced only one double-digit strikeout performance during his three seasons (74 appearances) with New York. The Japanese right-hander also struggled to light up the radar gun as advertised.
When adjusting for the high-scoring era in which Irabu pitched and the hitter-friendly conditions of his home ballpark, his 4.80 earned run average for the Yankees wasn't so bad. But he nonetheless became a disliked figure by fans and even owner George Steinbrenner, who once publicly called him a "fat toad."
Coming off back-to-back World Series titles, the Yankees traded him to the Montreal Expos with one year remaining on his contract.
2. Daisuke Matsuzaka
Team: Boston Red Sox
Total Cost: $103.11 million ($51.11 million posting fee, $52 million contract)
Date of Signing: Dec. 14, 2006
The Red Sox obliterated the posting-fee record to secure the rights to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In hindsight, they surely regret making that nine-figure commitment.
Matsuzaka gave them about 19 starts per season from 2007 to 2012 with an adjusted earned run average that was barely league average. He declined from 8.84 K/9 as a rookie to 6.27 K/9 in the penultimate year of the contract.
Of course, you can't overlook the fact that the Japanese right-hander led the 2007 world-champion Red Sox in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched. Without his durability that summer, Boston probably finishes behind the New York Yankees in the AL East, thus depriving it of home-field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS. It would've been a tougher path to the Fall Classic.
But Matsuzaka didn't have much of a positive influence during that postseason run. He averaged less than five innings per outing (5.03 ERA, 1.53 WHIP in 19.2 IP).
Rather than establishing himself as a must-see attraction, Dice-K became a repellent. The pace of his pitching was mind-numbing. Walking a batter every other inning was frustrating on its own, but also consider that during his Red Sox years, only teammate Josh Beckett wasted more time in between pitches.
In summary, the Red Sox got their money's worth from Matsuzaka through 2008, then replacement-level performance the rest of the way.
1. Kei Igawa
Team: New York Yankees
Total Cost: $46 million ($26 million posting fee, $20 million contract)
Date of Signing: Dec. 27, 2006
The Yankees submitted their bid for Kei Igawa a couple of weeks after missing out on Daisuke Matsuzaka.
They paid a fraction of what the Boston Red Sox did...and received a fraction of the production.
As an extreme fly-ball pitcher, Igawa was the worst possible fit for Yankee Stadium. He served up a dozen home runs in only nine career appearances in the Bronx (42.2 IP).
Without a respectable third pitch to complement his fastball and changeup, Igawa became vulnerable as his starts progressed. His pitch sequences were painfully predictable, and he lacked the velocity to get away with mistakes.
Igawa limited opponents to a .252/.319/.467 batting line during his first time through a lineup, but that swelled to .367/.461/.653 the second time through.
Although the right-hander was once revered as an elite pitcher in the Far East, he spent the vast majority of his five-year contract "headlining" for the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Scranton Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
The club pursued Ted Lilly the same winter that Igawa became available, and for comparable money, could've have locked him up for the same five-year span. Instead, Lilly split time with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers from 2007 to 2011, contributing 195 innings per season and limiting his opposition to a .235 batting average.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.