2017 World Baseball Classic: Top 10 Prospects

SEE ALSO: World Baseball Classic Schedule


The World Baseball Classic has long been an event for the best players in the world to introduce themselves to U.S. audiences, more often than not using it as a springboard to major league stardom down the road. Whether it was Daisuke Matsuzaka and Alexei Ramirez in 2006, Yu Darvish, Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes in 2009, or Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu and Jung Ho Kang in 2013, international players of many stripes have gone on to sign major league contracts after showing what they can do in the WBC.

This year, however, doesn’t figure to work out quite like that. While there are a few intriguing prospects at the top, the unsigned crop of international talent this year is arguably the worst it has been since the WBC began in 2006.

The ankle injury sustained by Japanese ace Shohei Otani had a lot to do with that. So has the flood of defections from Cuba by the country’s top youth players in recent years. Even an increased scouting presence in Korea, Taiwan and other Asian and Latin American nations means that now, more than ever, the world’s best players are largely all already in affiliated ball, with fewer top unsigned prospects left to showcase themselves in the WBC.

Nonetheless, there are some foreign players worth watching in this year’s WBC, with a strong possibility at least a few will find their way to major league rosters down the road.

1. Victor Mesa • of, Cuba • Age: 20. B-T: R-R.

The son of Victor Mesa, the former Cuban baseball star who used to manage the Cuban national team, Mesa is the most exciting young prospect in Cuba. A 20-year-old coming off a breakthrough Serie Nacional season in which he hit .354/.399/.539 in 70 games, Mesa is a plus-plus runner who led the league with 40 stolen bases in 50 attempts and plays outstanding defense in center field with a strong arm. He would be a high first-round pick if he were in the draft.

2. Shintaro Fujinami • rhp, Japan • Age: 22. B-T: R-R.

Though Shohei Otani would have stolen the show, Fujinami is an excellent Japanese pitching prospect in his own right. The 22-year old still has some projection left in his 6-foot-5, 189-pound frame and has excelled with the Hanshin Tigers, going 42-32, 2.96 and averaging more than a strikeout per inning in his career. His fastball sits 94-96 mph and his curveball and splitter are both swing-and-miss pitches, which he memorably flashed in a dominant showing against a tour of MLB All-Stars in 2014.

3. Tetsuto Yamada • 2b/3b, Japan • Age: 24. B-T: R-R.

Yamada has been one of the Central League’s top players in recent years and is Team Japan’s most dynamic position player. He is coming off back-to-back 30-30 seasons for the Yakult Swallows, boasts a career .312/.402/.539 slash line and is a Gold Glove winner to boot. Though on the slighter side at 5-foot-10, 163 pounds, Yamada’s demonstrated power-speed combo in the middle infield makes him a highly attractive prospect.

4. Ha-Sung Kim • ss, Korea • Age: 21. B-T: R-R.

Kim hit 20 home runs and stole 26 bases last season in the KBO as a 21-year-old. He did struggle to hit for average, but his .281/.358/.477 line is actually modest in a league that produces offensive stat lines similar to MLB in 1930. Kim has speed and power and has quick hands and a solid glove. He’s likely several years away from coming to the States, but he’s has the combination of physicality and quick twitch that U.S. teams look for in players coming over from Korea.

5. Alfredo Despaigne • of, Cuba • Age: 30. B-T: R-R.

The best player in Cuba in terms of present ability, Despaigne now spends most of his time playing in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. The 30-year-old slugger’s combination of strength and bat speed give him the power to hit 30 home runs over a full season, even with an aggressive hitting approach and a tendency to expand the strike zone at times.

6. Hyeon-Jong Yang • lhp, Korea • Age: 28. B-T: L-L.

Yang is one of the better pitchers in the KBO. He went 10-12, 3.68 with Kia last year, was the league’s ERA champ in 2015 and has ranked in the top 10 in the league in strikeouts for the past five seasons. Yang sits in the low-to-mid-90s with usable control of a four-pitch repertoire (curveball, slider, changeup). He mixes his pitches well and is very durable.

7. Yoshitomo Tsutsugo • of, Japan • Age: 25. B-T: L-R.

The premier slugger in Japan, the 6-foot, 209-pound Tsutsugo hit 44 home runs for Yokohama last season while walking 87 times against just 105 strikeouts. Tsutsugo has steadily increased his offensive production across the board every season, culminating in a .322/.430/.680 slash line last year in addition to his Central League-leading home run total. Big power from the left side is always in demand, and Tsutsugo has it in spades to go with patience and hittability. His corner outfield profile and older age knock down his prospect status some, but he will have a chance to show his power plays in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium as long as Japan reaches the semifinals.

8. Tom de Blok • rhp, Netherlands • Age: 20. B-T: R-R.

The 6-foot-4, 185-pound righthander stood out as a 17-year old at the MLB European Academy in 2013 and signed with the Mariners, but left during his first extended spring training in the U.S. and returned to the Netherlands, saying he was voluntarily retiring. Now 20, de Blok has been a standout in the Dutch Major League the last three seasons, going 9-3, 1.69 and averaging more than a strikeout per inning. His fastball sits 91-93 mph with good command and his curveball is a swing-and-miss pitch, although it lacks consistency. His combination of youth, size and stuff has garnered interest from Japanese clubs.

9. Guillermo Aviles • 1b/of, Cuba • Age: 24. B-T: L-L.

Aviles was once considered one of Cuba’s most promising prospects but hasn’t quite lived up to it. The slender lefty never quite grew into his body as expected, but is still young and has shown some hittability from the left side and patience, hitting .347/.436/.490 for Granma in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in his most recent full season in 2015. He didn’t impress during the Cuban national team’s tour of the Can-Am League last summer, but has a chance to restore his stock with a strong WBC showing.

10. Seiya Suzuki • of, Japan • Age: 22. B-T: R-R.

Suzuki was the breakout star of Japanese baseball in 2016, hitting .335/.404/.612 with 29 home runs, 95 RBI and 16 stolen bases during in his age-21 season with Hiroshima. He finished in the top three in the Central League in batting average, slugging, OPS and total bases and finished third in league MVP voting. While he lacks the track record of Otani, Yamada or Tsutsugo at this point, his one standout season was enough to turn heads and put him on the international radar.

— Contributing: J.J. Cooper, Ben Badler

Best of 2009

The 2009 World Baseball Classic was the most talented group of international players ever, and BA ranked the Top 20 prospects from the event. Nine of the top 10 made the major leagues; here’s a breakdown of everyone from the Top 20 who played in the U.S. and how they’ve fared.

1. Yu Darvish, rhp, Japan: Rangers ace has gone 46-30, 3.29 in 100 big league starts.

2. Aroldis Chapman, lhp, Cuba: Hardest thrower on the planet helped Cubs win 2016 World Series

3. Hisashi Iwakuma, rhp, Japan: Despite injuries, Iwakuma has gone 63-37, 3.39 in five Seattle seasons

4. Masahiro Tanaka, rhp, Japan: Yankees ace has gone 39-16, 3.12 in 75 starts; averages 8.2 K/9 in MLB

5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, lhp, Korea: Dodgers lefty trying to come back from injury after going 28-15, 3.17 in 2013-14

6. Yoenis Cespedes, cf, Cuba: Now with Mets, slugger has 137 HR in five seasons; signed for $110 million this offseason

7. Norichika Aoki, of, Japan: Already on his fifth team in six MLB seasons; has .286/.353/.387 line

8. Yulieski Gurriel, 2b, Cuba: Late-defecting vet signed for $47 million with Astros in 2016; team’s No. 8 prospect

10. Hiroyuki Nakajima, ss, Japan: Signed in 2012 for $6.5 million with Oakland but never reached MLB

11. Hector Olivera, ss, Cuba: Signed in 2015 for $62.5 million with Dodgers, including $28 million bonus; hasn’t lived up to it

15. Kyuji Fujikawa, rhp, Japan: Spent parts of three seasons in MLB after signing with Cubs for $9.5 million.

18. Suk Min-Yoon, rhp, Korea: Signed in 2014 for $750,000 with Orioles; spent one season in Triple-A

19. Hyun-Soo Kim, of, Korea: Hit .302/.382/.420 for Orioles in 2016 after signing two-year, $7 million deal

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