Major League Baseball is the best on the planet. Nowhere else, the Olympics, the Asian Leagues, anywhere can replicate the kind of baseball the MLB plays. Since Jackie Robinson, our national past time has been promoting all minorities to be a part of the game. First it was African-American players, then Hispanic players of all kind. Asian pitchers were next on the horizon, and Cuban pitchers didn't wait long to follow.
Ichiro was the first Asian position player, Hee Seop Choi was the first Korean. The trend of going outside of American borders is growing, with five foreign players looking to go straight to the Majors next season. Hideki and Contreras did well in 2003, and they are only helping us see the conversion rates between different countries and here. Maels Rodriguez, Yobal Duenas, Kaz Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Lee Seung-yeop will continue.
Suzuki and Matsui have taught us one thing: Japanese players can play. We are starting to learn how to turn Japanese stats into a projection for Major League performance. I ran a variety of statistics (H/AB, 2B/AB, 2B/H, HR/AB, HR/H, BB/AB, K/AB) for Suzuki and Matsui's statistics in the Majors, their career Japanese stats, and their last three seasons in Japan. I combined all those totals for both players, and compared them against each other. Here are the results (first number is Japanese career vs. MLB totals, second is last 3 years in Japan vs. MLB):
H/AB: .008 better in Jap.; .026 better in Jap.
2B/AB: .006 better in Jap.; .010 better in Jap.
HR/AB: .038 better in Jap.; .046 better in Jap.
BB/AB: .075 better in Jap.; .099 better in Jap.
All those numbers are relatively close, so we can infer a Japanese player's batting average will take a .015 hit when coming to the Majors, they will hit about an equal number of doubles, 4% less home runs, .080 less walks, and 5% less strikeouts. Here are Matsui and Iguchi's career Japanese stats, and their last 3 seasons:
Matsui career: .309H/AB, .058 2B/AB, .032HR/AB, .081BB/AB, .162K/AB
Iguchi career: .259H/AB, .047 2B/AB, .047HR/AB, .103BB/AB, .230K/AB
So, after using those stats, and the Hideki-Ichiro conversion, I have these predictions for these players in 2004, given 600AB:
Matsui: .295, 31 doubles, 15HR, 24BB, 72K
Matsui is a decent shortstop, that would be good for 10-20E a year in the Majors. He has above-average speed, and could be counted on for 25SB. He just turned 28, so a 4-year deal wouldn't be a bad idea. Interested teams include the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Mets, Angels, Orioles, and mainly, the Seattle Mariners.
Iguchi is an above-average second basemen, and can even play a decent shortstop. He has Gold Glove potential at the right side of the bag, and is merely average to the left. He has sensational speed, likely good for about 40-50SB. Tadahito will turn 29 in December, so a 3-year deal would be much smarter with him. The Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, Angels, Dodgers, Cubs, and the Mets would show interest. My gut tells me his best choice would be for the Mets, playing in Hideki's town.
The process of defecting from Cuba is a long and tedious onem that includes escaping Castro's iron fist, finding political asylum or residency in another country, and then being signed by a Major League team. Players that don't find residency elsewhere are subject to the June Amateur Draft, and will see far less money. Jose Contreras has 'residency' in Nicaragua, and expect Maels Rodriguez and Yobal Duenas to follow his lead.
Rodriguez, like Contreras, was one of Cuba's best pitchers, setting the single-season strikeout mark. He was reported to throw between 98-100 mph, with Pedro-like control. However, that scouting report was deemed moot after Rodriguez was reported to be in the upper-80s this last year. Maels says he can still pitch 100, and will demonstrate that sometime in the near future. Other Cubans who came before him at a similar age were Livan Hernandez, who had immediete success with the Marlins, and Danys Baez, whom has struggled with the Indians.
Much of Rodriguez's future will depend on what role Major League scouts deem is the best for him. Can his arm handle 200IP, or is he better suited to be a closer? Will the high-90s fastball stay with him 120 pitches, or just 40? The Red Sox promise to be court Rodriguez, as he could serve as a starter or a closer with them. New York should put in a phone call, and the Indians could be involved as well. The Phillies, Mets, Cubs, Cardinals, and Dodgers promise to be National League teams with interest.
Yobal Duenas is a different story, as he isn't following a worn path. I can't think of one Cuban position-player before him, so it will be difficult to project his statistics. Duenas is a 31-year old second basemen, whom at one point was the Cuban stolen base champ. He is said to be past his prime, and teams will be slow to bite on him. Boston would sign him if it helped their chance at Rodriguez, assuming Duenas is cheap. Anaheim may be interested, and the Mets will put in a phone call. Also, expect the Cubs and Dodgers to pursue Duenas as well.
Lee Seung-yeop will also be the first of his kind...the first position player to come from the Korean Professional League to the Majors. So it's impossible to predict his performance, even Hee Seop Choi's numbers are moot. We know Seung-yeop can hit the long ball, as he's broken the Asian Home Run record. He hit .301 this season, along with 144RBI.
If I was held at gunpoint, I would bet Lee posts a .260 average, with about 30 home runs. Think Mark Teixeira in 2003, but without Teixeira's later potential. Who knows who will bite, but I know the Dodgers, Giants, Mets, Orioles, and even Devil Rays will have interest.
Well folks, that's it for today. I'll have the Oakland A's Organizational Meeting up in the next couple of days, with the Red Sox following. So, keep reading...