The Top Prospects To Watch In The World Baseball Classic
See also: World Baseball Classic Rosters/Stats
After the 2009 World Baseball Classic, BA's J.J. Cooper and John Manuel spoke to scouts and ranked the top prospects from the WBC who were not already in a major league organization.
Four years later, the list looks prescient. Six of the top seven players on the list have played in the majors or signed with an MLB team. Japanese righthander Yu Darvish edged Aroldis Chapman at the top of the list, and both players signed major league contracts for more than $30 million once they hit the U.S. market. No. 3 prospect Hisashi Iwakuma had an effective major league debut with the Mariners in 2012. No. 5 Ryu Hyun-Jin has signed with the Dodgers, while No. 6 Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics) and No. 7 Norichika Aoki (Brewers) had strong rookie seasons in MLB. No. 4 prospect Masahiro Tanaka is the only member of the top seven prospects not to sign with an MLB organization yet and returns to front Japan's 2013 WBC rotation.
We'll have to wait until the WBC concludes to know who the top prospects in this year's event are, but we have some ideas. Here are the top players to watch entering the WBC among those not already on an MLB payroll.
Jose Abreu, 1b, Cuba:
Abreu is the most dangerous hitter in Cuba. The MVP in Cuba during the 2010-11 season, Abreu has tremendous righthanded raw power from his extra large frame (6-foot-3, 260 pounds) and the patience to take his walks. At 26, Abreu is making his Classic debut after missing the cut in 2009.
Erisbel Arruebarruena, Cuba:
Don't worry if you can't pronounce his name. Arruebarruena is the same age as Jose Iglesias and Adeiny Hechavarria and cut from a similar cloth as a slick-fielding shortstop. The 6-foot, 22-year-old righthanded hitter batted .320/.367/.520 in 306 at-bats last year in Cuba, although he's a free-swinger without great power, so there are questions on how his hitting would translate against big league arms.
Alfredo Despaigne, of, Cuba:
At 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, Despaigne doesn't have a classic left fielder's frame, but the 26-year-old has been an offensive monster in Cuba and on the country's national team for years. Despaigne won back-to-back MVP awards in Cuba in 2008-09 and 2009-10, then won his third MVP last year by setting the single-season home run record in Cuba with 36.
Yulieski Gourriel, 3b, Cuba:
Gourriel has been one of Cuba's brightest stars since he won back-to-back MVP awards in Serie Nacional at age 20 and 21. Now 27, Gourriel has represented Cuba at nearly every tournament that Cuba's top national team has attended, including the last two Olympics and WBCs. He's arguably the most complete player in Cuba, with the ability to hit for average and power, with an athletic frame and quality defense at the hot corner.
Kenta Maeda, rhp, Japan:
Maeda, 24, is not nearly as physically imposing as Yu Darvish was when he headed up Japan's 2009 WBC team, but the 6-foot righthander has proven his durability by topping 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. He thrives because of an average fastball with above-average command and an excellent hard-breaking slider that is his out pitch. He's only 24 and is several years away from coming to the U.S. unless he is posted. One thing to watch is Maeda's velocity has been down in pre-WBC workouts.
Nobuhiro Matsuda, 3b, Japan:
Japan lacks any current MLB players on its Classic roster, so it's going to be relying heavily on hitters who get plenty of contact, run well and show flawless fundamentals. Matsuda is one of the few hitters in the lineup with some pop. The 29-year-old runs well, plays a good third base, hits for average and has average power potential. Matsuda could be as little as two seasons away from a shot at the U.S.
Yadier Pedroso, rhp, Cuba:
The state of Cuban pitching is down; there's no Aroldis Chapman, Jose Conteras or Livan Hernandez on this WBC team. But Pedroso has big league stuff and big-game success, including beating Japan and Yu Darvish in the 2004 World Junior Championship finale. The listed 6-foot, 190-pounder is 26 and pitches off an 88-92 mph fastball with a hard slider that reaches the mid-80s and a get-over curve. He also varies his deliveries and has a putaway pitch in his plus split-finger fastball.
Masahiro Tanaka, rhp, Japan:
It's not talent that has kept Tanaka from making it to the States—he was only 20 in 2009, so he's only entering his eighth year in the Japan Leagues this year. He could be posted after this season or will hit free agency after the 2014 season. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder pitches with a plus fastball at his best to go with a wipeout slider. He's 75-35, 2.50 in his career.
Tseng Jen-Ho, rhp, Taiwan:
The 18-year-old high school star will make Taiwan a must-see destination for many decision makers, as they will get to watch a righthander who may demand near $2 million on the July 2 international signing date. Tseng throws a 91-93 mph fastball, a hard-breaking curveball as well as a potentially plus changeup and solid slider.
Tetsuya Utsumi, lhp, Japan:
Utsumi draws comparisons to Tsuyoshi Wada, the small lefthander who missed the 2012 season with the Orioles because of Tommy John surgery. Like Wada, Utsumi thrives on locating his 89-91 mph fastball and mixing up his pitches. He's a back of the rotation starter who would be MLB ready on the day he signed considering consecutive seasons in Japan with 1.70 and 1.98 ERAs.
Yoon Suk-Min, rhp, Korea:
One of the aces of Korea's second-place team in the 2009 WBC and a contributor to the 2008 gold medalists at the Olympics, Yoon has gotten even better since. He pairs a low 90s fastball with a solid slider and went 9-8, 3.12 in the Korean Baseball Organization last year, with 137 strikeouts and 33 walks in 152 innings. Other players to watch: Alexei Bell, of, Cuba; Rusney Castillo, 2b/of, Cuba; Chong Tae-Hyon, rhp, Korea; Yoshio Itoi, of, Japan; Kim Hyun-Soo, of, Korea; Lee Dae-Ho, 1b, Korea; Noh Kyung-eun, rhp, Korea; Toshiya Sugiuchi, lhp, Japan; Yang Dai-Kang, of, Taiwan; Yang Yao-Hsun, lhp, Taiwan