2009 World Baseball Classic Top 20 Prospects

For one weekend in March, scouts could sit in one place and watch prospects come to them. When South Korea, Japan and Cuba gathered to play the second round of the World Baseball Classic in San Diego, it was a virtual all-you-can-scout buffet of top talents.

Unlike scouting amateur players, scouts watching the World Baseball Classic have to project acquire-ability as much as tools when watching the WBC teams. Many of the Japanese and Korean players will spend years in their homeland’s leagues before they are even given the option of coming to the U.S., and Cuban players can’t play in the U.S. unless they defect.

But teams know it’s worth keeping tabs on the top foreign talent—three pitchers and two position players from Japan’s 2006 WBC team have come to the States since then, while two from Cuba’s 2006 provisional roster, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, have defected and signed with the White Sox.

Since we love to rank prospects, here’s a look at the top unaffiliated prospects from the 2009 WBC. We put no age cutoff on this list, although age did play a factor in the rankings. And we did not try to predict which players will eventually come to the U.S., so Yulieski Gourriel makes the top 10, even if it’s unlikely he’ll ever play in the States.

1. Yu Darvish, rhp, Japan

On Team Japan, Darvish stands out. It’s not only because at 6-foot-5, he stands heads and shoulders over most of his Japanese teammates. The 22-year-old carries himself with the swagger of a rock star, from his leg kick after key strikeouts to his actress wife and his love of the limelight.

He also stands out with his stuff. He has one of the best, and deepest, assortments of pitches in baseball period. His fastball sits between 93-95 mph and he can touch 99 mph at times. But his 82-84 mph slider and 76 mph 12-to-6 cuveball may be even more effective. He also has a 90-91 mph split that dives into the dirt at the plate.

Interestingly, he always pitches from the stretch, and he’s recently added a slight pause as he breaks his hands that adds some deception to his timing.

If there is any complaint about Darvish from U.S. scouts, it’s that he pitches too much off his secondary stuff when he has the fastball to simply blow hitters away. But it’s hard to argue with results—he went 12-5, 2.90 with Nippon in 2006, bettered it by going 15-5, 1.82 in 2007 and 16-4, 1.88 in 2008.

Darvish has given no indication that he plans on coming to the U.S. anytime soon, and he’s still several years away from free agency, although he could garner Nippon a posting fee likely in excess of the $51 million Daisuke Matsuzaka brought Seibu.

If Darvish ever does come to the U.S., he likely would have a somewhat easier transition than many Japanese players. His Iranian father lived in the States in the 1970s and 1980s before moving to Japan, and Darvish still has relatives in the U.S.

2. Aroldis Chapman, lhp, Cuba

Cuba doesn’t throw power arm after power arm at teams like they did in the past—only four of the 10 pitchers who threw in the second round of the World Baseball Classic sat above 90 mph with their fastball, but while that is true, they do boast maybe the best arm in the game.

Listed at only 21, Chapman has the perfect pitcher’s body with long arms, a lanky frame and a high release point. Very few lefhanders can sit at 93-94 mph like Chapman can, even fewer can touch 100 mph, as he showed again at the World Baseball Classic. In the past, Chapman has hit 102 mph during a Serie Nacional game.

While we profiled 10 players, there was so much talent at the WBC that we ranked 20.
1. Yu Darvish, rhp, Japan
2. Aroldis Chapman, lhp, Cuba
3. Hisahi Iwakuma, rhp, Japan
4. Masahiro Tanaka, rhp, Japan
5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, lhp, Korea
6. Yoennis Cespedes, cf, Cuba
7. Norichika Aoki, of, Japan
8. Youleski Gourriel, 2b, Cuba
9. Kwang-Hyun Kim, lhp, Korea
10. Hiroyuki Nakajima, ss, Japan
11. Hector Olivera, ss, Cuba
12. Vladimir Garcia, rhp, Cuba
13. Frederich Cepeda, of, Cuba
14. Takahiro Mahara, rhp, Japan
15. Kyuji Fujikawa, rhp, Japan
16. Shuichi Murata, 3b, Japan
17. Alfredo Despaigne, of, Cuba
18. Suk Min-Yoon, rhp Korea
19. Hyun-Soo Kim, of, Korea
20. Toshiya Sugiuchi, lhp, Japan

Chapman also throws a changeup, slider and curveball, but it’s the fastball that has scouts drooling.

“If you are looking for more than that in a pitcher, you’ll be searching your whole life,” an AL scout said. “He was so much fun to watch. If he’s 21 like he’s listed, the sky’s the limit. You’ve got honestly just one or two tweaks that could be made but he could go straight to the top of a big league rotation.”

Chapman isn’t a finished product, as he showed in a poor start against Japan. Chapman struggled to locate his fastball, and since he kept falling behind in counts, he was never able to set up hitters to use the rest of his assortment of pitches. He also needs to improve his tempo, which often slowed to a Steve Trachsel pace.

But those are only minor quibbles. If he ever did defect, or if the current U.S.-Cuba embargo rules are ever loosened, Chapman would immediately become one of the most coveted free agents on the planet.

3. Hisashi Iwakuma, rhp, Japan

While many of the players listed on this Top 10 are barely in their 20s, Iwakuma is a pitching veteran.

Unlike most of the other pitchers on this list, Iwakuma has had some health concerns, as he missed most of the 2006 season with a shoulder injury, and he struggled in 2007 as well. But he returned to full health in 2008, as he went 21-4, 1.87 to lead the Pacific League in ERA and wins to earn the league’s MVP award.

Iwakuma doesn’t light up a radar gun, as his fastball sits around 89-90 mph and tops out at 93, but he pairs it with a nasty split-finger fastball that dives at the plate and a solid-to-plus slider. As he showed throughout the World Baseball Classic, Iwakuma is extremely efficient. He carved up Cuba, needing only 66 pitches to work six innings.

Since Iwakuma has already played nine years in Japan, he could head to the U.S. as soon as his current contract is up if he so chooses. If he did, he would have little problem finding teams ready to plug him into their rotation.

“He would step into any rotation in the majors right now; he might be the No. 1 for half the teams in the majors,” an American League scout said. “He’s very impressive across the board.”

4. Masahiro Tanaka, rhp, Japan

While U.S. fans have heard of Yu Darvish before the WBC began, they likely had not heard about Masahiro Tanaka, but in Japan, Tanaka has rivaled Darvish for making an immediate impact. Tanaka was rookie of the year in 2007 as he struck out 196 batters in 186 innings as an 18-year-old.

At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Tanaka lacks Darvish’s long arms and lanky frame, but he does have a 93-95 mph fastball to go with a devastating (87-89 mph) wipeout slider. Tanaka has two pitches that both grade out as 70s on the 20-to-80 scouting scale plus plenty of polish for a 20-year-old. Thanks to the presence of Darvish, Hiashi Iwakuma and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tanaka had to slide into a bullpen role for the Classic, but he has the stuff to make the move to the States as a starter. Entering only his fourth year of pro action in Japan, he’s years away from free agency, but Tanaka would be a coveted commodity if he was posted.

5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, lhp, Korea

When scouts see Ryu’s portly frame, his goofiness and his knack for rising to the occasion, it’s not hard to see why he’s compared to David Wells.

In South Korea, Ryu became the first player to be named the league’s rookie of the year and MVP in the same season, as he went 18-6, 2.23 with 205 strikeouts in 202 innings in 2006, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.

Ryu was the star as Korea surprised everyone to beat Cuba and win gold at the 2008 Olympics. He went 2-0, 1.04 in the tournament, including a masterful 8 1/3 innings in the gold-medal winning 3-2 win over Cuba.

Ryu played a very important, but slightly subordinate role to Jung Keun Bong at the World Baseball Classic, as the more veteran lefthander was called on to face Japan on three separate occasions (going 2-1) on his way to a World Baseball Classic all-tournament team selection.

But Ryu was impressive again at the WBC. He just turned 22, but he already pitches like a veteran. Ryu has four average to above-average pitches, includes a 86-93 mph fastball with late life that he can add and subtract from when needed, a slow curve (75 mph), a tighter slider and a changeup. Already extensively tested in international play, Ryu’s biggest asset is his feel for pitching. Scouts have said that he would be a first-round pick if he was in the U.S., and would likely need only a brief period of acclimation before stepping into a big league rotation.

6. Yoennis Cespedes, cf, Cuba

While Cuba doesn’t have as much pitching as it had in the 1990s, it may boast its best-ever group of power bats, even with Alexi Bell missing the Classic because of injury.

Cespedes ended up being one of the goats of Cuba’s second-round exit, as his dropped fly ball resulted in two Japanese runs that broke open the game that led to Cuba’s elimination. He did somewhat make amends only an inning later when he tripled off Iwakuma but was left stranded at third.

The triple showed Cespedes’ many tools in one swing. He has solid present power (he’s consistently among the leaders in home runs in Cuba’s Serie Nacional) as well as excellent speed, especially once he gets going, although it’s hard to get a great time on him to first (4.15 seconds from the right side) because he takes a big swing.

Although he’s listed at only 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Cespedes has a strong, physical build with the potential to add some more strength as he ages.

7. Norichika Aoki, of, Japan

Aoki isn’t Ichiro, but he may be the next best thing.

Like Suzuki, Aoki is at his best as a table-setting leadoff hitter. He has hit .340 or better in three of his four pro seasons and already has two batting titles.

He also has recorded a .385 or better on-base percentage every year, including a league leading .434 on-base percentage in 2007. He has the ability to beat out infield hits thanks to his 4.0 flat speed out of the box from the left side, but he is strong enough to drive the ball as well, as he shows surprising power in batting practice. Like Ichiro, his in-game approach is more contact-oriented.

Defensively, he’s above-average in center field, although he slid over to left field for the WBC in deference to Kosuke Fukudome.

8. Yulieski Gourriel, 2b, Cuba

Gourriel has been one of the top prospects on Cuba’s team since the 2003 World Cup, when he was a star at the plate and at second base as a 19-year-old.

Unless relations between the U.S. and Cuba improve, he’s unlikely to ever play in the U.S. Gourriel’s father, Lourdes Gourriel, is a coach on the national team.

Gourriel came up as a second baseman/shortstop, but he’s moved over to play more third base as he’s hit his mid-20s. He still played some second base at the Classic, but he profiles and fits best at third, where he’s at least average defensively with an average arm and soft hands. Most of his value comes from the bat, where he combines excellent bat speed with the ability to square up the ball.

Gourriel, like most Cuban hitters, takes aggressive cuts, and he’s shown plus power. He’s physically similar in some ways to Alexei Ramirez with a more polished approach and perhaps a bit less bat speed and fast-twitch actions.

9. Kwang-Hyun Kim, lhp, Korea

Only 20, Kim already has a pretty distinguished pedigree. He beat Japan in the semifinals of the 2008 Olympics to set up Korea’s gold medal win against Cuba. Because of that gold medal, he and Ryu are exempt from the two years of military service that usually interrupts Korean baseball players’ careers. He’s also already proven himself to be one of the top pitchers in Korea, leading the league in wins and strikeouts in a 16-4, 2.39 season as he helped the SK Wyverns to back-to-back Korean Baseball Organization titles.

Kim pairs a 91-92 mph fastball with an above-average 83-85 mph slider and a slow curve. He pitches with full extension from a high three-quarters arm slot, which makes life especially rough on lefthanded hitters.

Kim did not have a particularly successful WBC, as he was on the mound for Japan’s 14-2 mercy rule win during the first round of the tournament. After that, he was relegated to the bullpen for the rest of the tournament, but when you consider that he would still be in college if he was pitching in the U.S., the poor outing did nothing to diminish scouts’ belief that he’s an elite prospect.

10. Hiroyuki Nakajima, ss, Japan

Choosing between Cuba’s infielder Hector Olivera and Nakajima for the 10th spot was extremely difficult.

Olivera is better with the glove, with better range, and few question that he can handle the position in the big leagues. Nakajima is better at the plate, although there is some concern as to whether he’ll be able to stick at shortstop in the big leagues, something that proved too much for former Japanese League gold glover Kaz Matsui, the player he replaced with Seibu.

Nakajima proved to be Matsui’s replacement at shortstop with Seibu. He served a one-year apprenticeship before Matsui left, then slid in and proved to be a very competent replacement. Last year, Nakajima finished one-point short of a Pacific League batting title as he hit .331/.410/.527, and he has hit better than .300 in each of the past three seasons, although he’s a more of a free-swinger than one would like for someone with only average power at best—he struck out 134 times in 533 at-bats in 2007.

Nakajima’s arm may be a little short for shortstop in the U.S., and his range may be better suited for second base, but his bat should allow him to make the transition.

Read more at http://legacy.baseballamerica.com/international/wbc-top-10-prospects-7914/#G1SIHmrmCYtmtspr.99

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