2023 World Baseball Classic Top 10 Prospects
The World Baseball Classic is more than just a tournament of nations. It’s also a showcase for the best unsigned players in the world to introduce themselves to an international audience and display their talent against top MLB players.
Yu Darvish, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Masahiro Tanaka, Yuli Gurriel and Hyun-Jin Ryu all starred in the WBC before going on to become MLB standouts. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenta Maeda, Kosuke Fukudome, Alexei Ramirez, Raisel Iglesias, Seung-Hwan Oh and dozens of others signed after the WBC and went onto successful, multi-year MLB careers.
Here are the Top 10 prospects in the 2023 WBC that are currently unaffiliated with an MLB club. Many will make their way to MLB in the coming years, with some projecting to be future stars like Darvish, Cespedes and the rest before them.
1. Roki Sasaki, RHP, Japan
Sasaki became the latest Japanese pitching sensation last season when he threw a perfect game with 19 strikeouts, tying a Nippon Professional Baseball record, and followed with eight perfect innings in his next start. He retired 52 consecutive batters during that stretch and finished the year second in the NPB in strikeouts as a 20-year-old. Sasaki is a powerful, 6-foot-3 righthander with an explosive fastball that sits 97-100 mph and touches 102 with little effort. He complements his elite fastball with a devastating, 89-91 mph splitter that draws foolish swings and misses and an above-average slider with late, vertical snap. Sasaki ties his high-powered arsenal together with plus control and keeps his pitch count low by getting ahead of hitters quickly with his fastball and finishing them with his splitter. He is durable, athletic and holds his triple-digit velocity deep into his starts. Sasaki is the same age as a college junior and would be the undisputed No. 1 pick if he was in this year’s draft. He projects to be a true No. 1 starter and will command a massive contract when Chiba Lotte posts him, although that likely won’t be for another few years.
2. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP, Japan
Yamamoto won the Sawamura Award, the Japanese Cy Young award, each of the last two seasons and led Japan to a gold medal as its top starter at the Tokyo Olympics. He has a career 1.95 ERA in six seasons and led NPB with 205 strikeouts last year, 32 more than any other pitcher. Yamamoto is undersized at 5-foot-10, 176 pounds but features a deep, powerful arsenal he holds deep into games. His fastball sits 93-96 mph with riding, cutting life and his splitter is a plus-plus offering with huge depth he can land in the strike zone or bury for chase swings. He mostly overwhelms batters with those two pitches, but he also has a curveball, slider and cutter that are all above-average to plus. Yamamoto is durable despite his size with a fast arm and a clean delivery. He aggressively pounds the strike zone with above-average control and has a good feel for mixing his pitches. Yamamoto projects to be a No. 2 or 3 starter in MLB. His club, Orix, may post him after the 2023 season.
3. Munetaka Murakami, 3B, Japan
Murakami homered against Team USA in the gold medal game at the Tokyo Olympics and hit 56 home runs for Yakult last season, breaking Sadaharu Oh’s record for the most in a season by a Japanese-born player. He’s won the last two Central League MVP awards and won the league’s Triple Crown last year. Murakami is a thick, imposing lefthanded hitter with easy plus power to all fields. He makes lots of contact with a short, balanced swing and has the natural loft and strength to drive balls out with little effort. He covers the entire plate, hits both high velocity and quality breaking stuff and has a good feel for picking out pitches he can drive. He projects to be an above-average hitter with plus power and hit in the middle of an MLB lineup. Murakami has decent reactions at third base and the above-average arm strength for the position, but his burly frame limits his mobility. He is a fringe-average defender at third base and will likely move to first base, especially if he gets bigger. Murakami’s bat projects to make him an impact player regardless of position. He is expected to come to MLB after the 2025 season.
4. Jung-Hoo Lee, OF, South Korea
The son of Korean baseball legend Jeong Boom Lee, Jung Hoo jumped straight from high school to the KBO and set a new rookie record for hits en route to winning the rookie of the year award. He quickly blossomed into the league’s biggest star and won the KBO MVP award last season. Lee is a high-contact hitter with a fast lefthanded swing and a preternatural feel for the barrel. He consistently squares balls up and drives them on a line to all fields, using his plus speed to rack up doubles and triples. His lean build and flat swing path make him a contact hitter, but he has enough strength to turn on inside pitches and drive them over the right field fence. Lee has the speed and athleticism to stay in center field and is playable at all three outfield positions, although his fringe-average arm strength would be stretched in right field. He has a chance to be an everyday center fielder who hits for average near the top of a lineup in MLB and is expected to come over after the 2023 season.
5. Livan Moinelo, LHP, Cuba
Moinelo pitched for Cuba’s national team and in Cuba’s major league, Serie Nacional, as a teenager before moving to play in Japan in 2017. He emerged as one of the top setup men in NPB for Softbank and helped the Hawks win four consecutive Japan Series titles as a dominant high-leverage reliever. Moinelo is a skinny lefthander with a big arm and power stuff for his frame. His fastball is a plus pitch that sits 94-95 mph and touches 98 with excellent ride through the top of the zone to get elevated swings and misses. His 79-81 mph curveball is a plus-plus pitch with power and depth that confounds lefthanded hitters and his plus, mid-80s changeup neutralizes righties. Moinelo has the arsenal to start, but he has a high-effort delivery with a slight head snap and tends to overthrow at times, leading to fringy control. He’ll get a chance to start if he comes to MLB but will likely settle in as a high-leverage reliever in the back of a bullpen.
6. Raidel Martinez, RHP, Cuba
Like Moinelo, Martinez pitched for the Cuban national team and in Serie Nacional before moving to Japan in 2017. He struggled with control issues early in his career but eventually harnessed them to become one of NPB’s most dominant closers with Chunichi. He posted a 0.97 ERA last season and led NPB with 39 saves. Martinez is a big, physical righthander with plus stuff. His fastball explodes on hitters at 96-98 mph and his late-diving, 88-90 mph splitter is a devastating offering that racks up swings and misses. He also has an average slider he can mix in. Martinez is lights out when he’s on, but he sometimes struggles to repeat his delivery and his fastball flattens out at times. That lack of consistency prevents him from projecting as a closer in MLB, but his stuff is good enough for him to fit as a seventh-inning reliever who handles mid-to-high leverage situations.
7. Baek-Ho Kang, 1B, South Korea
Kang set the KBO rookie record for home runs as an 18-year-old and has been one of Korea’s top hitters since his debut. He missed most of last season with a broken toe and torn hamstring, but he remains a top offensive threat. Kang is an imposing hitter who takes big, powerful swings from the left side and seeks to do damage on every pitch. He is prone to overswinging and can be caught looking foolish at times, but he knows the strike zone and has the hand-eye coordination and bat speed to make contact despite his all-or-nothing approach. He’s a career .317 hitter and had steadily improved his strikeout and walk rates each year before his injury-plagued 2022 season. Kang has a thick, heavyset frame and is strictly limited to first base defensively. His above-average power makes him an intriguing prospect if he proves he can make enough contact against better stuff.
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8. Yariel Rodriguez, RHP, Cuba
Rodriguez was a soft-tossing righthanded starter with an 87-90 mph fastball in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, but his stuff has ticked up dramatically since he moved to Japan in 2020. He’s settled in as a top setup man for Chunichi and posted a career-best 1.48 ERA in 56 appearances last season. Rodriguez’s four-seam fastball velocity has increased markedly and now sits 93-96 mph and touches 98 in relief. He also has a two-seamer that runs in on batters and a hard slider with vertical bite that flashes average. Rodriguez only learned how to throw a splitter last year and is still gaining a feel for the pitch, but it’s usable and has a chance to improve the more comfortable he gets throwing it. Rodriguez’s delivery and arm action are slightly effortful and his control is fringy, but his growing arsenal and history of starting have some teams interested in him as a potential fifth starter. He continues to get better every year and is trending up.
9. Hye-Seong Kim, 2B, South Korea
A top Korean high school player as an amateur, Kim made his KBO debut at 18 years old and spent two seasons as Ha-Seong Kim’s double-play partner with Kiwoom. He finished second in the KBO with 34 stolen bases last season and also finished in the top 10 in the league in batting average (.318), runs (81), hits (164) and triples (7). Kim is an advanced lefthanded hitter with a preternatural feel for contact. He recognizes pitches well, catches up to velocity and consistently finds the barrel with a short, compact swing. He primarily hits the ball on a line for doubles and triples and doesn’t have much home run power, but he hits the ball hard enough to be an average hitter. Kim is a plus defender at second base and can play shortstop as needed. He projects to be a lefthanded utilityman who hits for average and provides defensive value in the infield if he comes to MLB.
10. Mitch Neunborn, RHP, Australia
Neunborn pitched collegiately in the U.S for North Iowa Area JC and in the summer collegiate Great West League before returning home to Australia. He won the Australian Baseball League’s rookie of the year award in 2021 as a starter for Adelaide and helped the Giants win the ABL championship last winter as one of their top relievers out of the bullpen. Neunborn is a strong, stocky righthander with a mid-90s fastball and an above-average, tight-breaking curveball that gets swings and misses. He primarily dominates with those two pitches, but he also has a slider and changeup that are serviceable offerings he can mix in. Neunborn’s control is inconsistent and he has health concerns, but his stuff is good enough to potentially fit in low-leverage relief.