Mailbag: Other top NPB players who could come to MLB

The mailbag inbox was pretty empty this week thanks to the holidays. That’s okay, because every so often we get a great question that is worth its own post, and that was the case this week. So, rather than the usual multi-question format, we’ve got one question and one big answer this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send us questions.

Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)
Yamada. (Masterpress/Getty)

Dan asks: Are there any other players on the Japanese market besides Otani that we can be excited about in the future?

There are definitely a few, but none come close to Shohei Otani in terms of potential big league impact. He is truly in a class all by himself right now. Otani is the best player in Japan and has the tools to be an ace-caliber pitcher in MLB, if not a reliable hitter as well. I’m curious to see if a team will let him hit and pitch when the time comes. That just might be what it takes to sign him.

Anyway, most of the top talent in Japan in terms of big league potential is on the mound right now. These things to tend to be cyclical, and right now there are more high-end arms than high-end bats. Check back in a few years and the opposite will probably be true. So, with that in mind, here are five non-Otani players in Nippon Pro Baseball who could interest MLB teams in the near future. This isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s just a few of the most notable. The players are listed alphabetically.

RHP Kohei Arihara

Arihara, 24, just finished his second season with the Nippon Ham Fighters, during which he had a 2.94 ERA with 103 strikeouts (16.1 K%) and 38 walks (5.9 BB%) in 22 starts and 156 innings. He runs his fastball up to 96 mph and uses a wide array of offspeed pitches, and while nothing he throws is a truly dominant offering, Arihara has good command and really knows how to pitch.

Arihara has gotten plenty of extra scouting exposure recently as Otani’s teammate. Once he gets some more experience under his belt — he missed time in college with elbow injury, which is obviously a red flag — Arihara will be a candidate to come over to MLB. His upside may be limited, but there’s a chance for mid-rotation production here.

RHP Shintaro Fujinami

Back in 2012, Otani and Fujinami were the top two prospects in the NPB draft, and plenty of folks at the time preferred Fujinami because his secondary pitchers were more advanced. Otani went first overall — Fujinami was selected by four teams in the first round, then was awarded to the Hanshin Tigers after a lottery drawing (the NPB draft is weird) — and has since developed into the better NPB player and MLB prospect, but Fujinami is damn good himself.

The 22-year-old Fujinami had a 3.25 ERA in 26 starts and 169 innings in 2016, striking out 176 (24.0 K%) and walking 70 (9.6 BB%). Control has been his biggest issue — he’s walked 9.2% of batters faced in his four NPB seasons — but he misses plenty of bats with a 92-95 mph fastball, a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. His 221 strikeouts a year ago were by far the most in the Central League, Japan’s non-DH league. Only one other player had more than 175 strikeouts. (Randy Messenger had 194.)

Fujinami is widely considered the second best MLB prospect in Japan, but he’s in the same boat as Otani. He’s only 22, which means he’ll be subject to the international hard cap for the next three years. Also, Fujinami is five years away from qualifying for international free agency, so he’ll have to go through the posting system to come over at any point before the 2021-22 offseason. It’s not only Otani who is getting screwed over by the hard cap.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

A few years ago Kikuchi, now 25, was considering jumping to MLB straight out of high school, which would have been unprecedented. (Junichi Tazawa was undrafted out of high school, played one year in a Japanese independent league, then chose to forego NPB for MLB.) NPB doesn’t like the idea of the best young Japanese players not playing in Japan, so nowadays anyone who signs with an MLB team out of high school is banned from NPB for at least three years. Not surprisingly, no one has done it.

Anyway, Kikuchi has spent the last six seasons with the Seibu Lions and has career has been up and down, mostly due to shoulder problems. He had a 2.58 ERA with 127 strikeouts (21.3 K%) and 67 walks (11.3 K%) in 22 starts and 143 innings this past season, though the blazing mid-to-upper-90s fastball that made him such a hot commodity as a teenager now resides mostly in the low-90s. Kikuchi relies on his three offspeed pitches (curveball, slider, changeup) to get most of his outs these days.

It’s no secret Kikuchi wants to come over to MLB at some point — he met with several clubs, including the Yankees, back in 2009 when he considered coming over after high school — and since he’s 25, the international hard cap won’t apply to him. It’s up to Seibu to post him because he’s still three years from international free agency. Kikuchi is not the tippy top MLB prospect he was a few years ago, but lefties who can miss bats are always going to get a look.

RHP Takahiro Norimoto

Three years ago the 26-year-old Norimoto took over as staff ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles after Masahiro Tanaka left via the posting system. His last two seasons have been eerily similar:

IP ERA Strikeouts Walks Homers
2015 194.2 2.91 215 (26.9%) 48 (6.0%) 14 (0.65 HR/9)
2016 195 2.91 216 (26.3%) 50 (6.1%) 12 (0.55 HR/9)

Freaky. Norimoto has big stuff but not big size. He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 178 lbs., and fair or not, teams are always wary of undersized righties. Durability is a concern, and so is fastball plane. Teams worry short pitchers will be fly ball and home run prone because they can’t pitch downhill. Still, Norimoto has a mid-90s fastball and can miss bats with both his splitter and slider. That’ll play.

Norimoto signed a three-year extension worth $1.72M per season last month, so he’s not coming over to MLB anytime soon. That’s a shame. He wouldn’t have been subject to any international spending restrictions because of his age. Not the bonus pools this signing period or the hard cap that takes effect next signing period. Womp womp. Norimoto will be 29 before he’s eligible to come over to MLB.

IF Tetsuto Yamada

Over the last three years, and especially the last two, Yamada has established himself as one of the most dominant hitters in Japan. Last season he hit .329/.416/.610 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases en route to being named Central League MVP. He was the first player in NPB history to win both the home run and stolen base titles. Yamada also had a Reggie Jackson moment in the postseason, swatting three home runs in three consecutive plate appearances in Game Three of the Japan Series.

This past season the 24-year-old Yamada managed a .304/.425/.607 batting line with 38 homers and 30 stolen bases for the Yakult Swallows. He’s a right-handed hitter with tremendous bat speed and quick twitch athleticism, plus he knows how to control the strike zone (17.2 K% and 14.4 BB% from 2015-16). While going 30-30 in the big leagues might not happen, Yamada has 20-20 potential, which would be pretty damn valuable from a good defensive middle infielder. (Reports indicate he fits best at second.)

Yamada has supposedly expressed interest in coming over to MLB, and since he’ll turn 25 in July, he won’t be subject to the international hard cap next offseason. The Swallows can post him and Yamada can sign a contract of any size. Unless the posting agreement gets changed again, that is. MLB seems to like making it difficult for top overseas players to play in their league for whatever reason.

It’s worth noting most of the biggest busts among Japanese players in MLB have been infielders (Kaz Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, etc.), and I’ve seen speculation that the game is so much faster here that infielders have a tough time adjusting, and their defensive issues carry over at the plate. Who knows whether that’s true. There’s risk with every signing, and it is fair to wonder whether Yamada’s big leg kick will play over here. My guess is some team will bet millions on his power-speed combination.

* * *

The Yankees have shown they will get involved in the Japanese market if there’s a player they really like, though they’re going to do their homework first. They won’t rush into anything like they did with Kei Igawa again. Otani is clearly the best Japan has to offer for a few years. Others like Fujinami and Norimoto are intriguing, though they face obstacles coming over (hard cap for Fujinami, contract extension for Norimoto).

Yamada could end up being a very big deal next offseason, assuming the Swallows agree to post him for MLB teams, which is far from a given. Middle infielders in their mid-20s with power and speed are always in demand. Even with Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro up the middle, plus a ton of shortstop prospects in the system, the Yankees may get involved should Yamada be posted. Third base is a question long-term and Yamada could help solve that (Yamada at second, Castro to third?).

Wednesday Notes: IFA cap, Draft MRIs, Tommy John rehab, Under Armour

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

According to Ronald Blum, the owners voted and ratified the new Collective Bargaining Agreement last night. The vote was 29-1. Only Rays owner Stu Sternberg opposed. The MLBPA approved the CBA unanimously, the union announced, it’s a done deal. Officially official. Details of the new CBA are still trickling in, so here’s some big picture news from around the league.

Yankees have $4.75M to spend internationally

The new CBA has implemented a hard cap on international free agents, and according to Ben Badler, the Yankees will have a $4.75M pool during the 2017-18 signing period. That’s what I figured based on everything we heard in the days following the CBA announcement, but now it’s official. The Yankees and every other team can trade for additional 75% in cap space. That works out to an extra $3.5625M. Now they have to find someone willing to trade cap space.

The bonus pools are based on market size now, not reverse order of the standings. Sixteen of the 30 teams have a $4.75M pool. Six get $5.25M and eight get $5.75M. Each team also gets an unlimited number of $10,000 bonuses that do not count against the cap. Between the international hard cap and the draft pools and the stiff luxury tax rates, the Yankees are running out of ways to flex their financial muscle. Each new CBA seems to bring them closer to the rest of the pack in terms of spending capacity.

Draft prospects can now volunteer for MRIs

According to Jon Morosi, the top 50 draft pitching prospects can now undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI to show teams they’re healthy. (The top 50 are determined by the MLB Scouting Bureau, I assume.) I see this as a good thing for those players, for two reasons. For starters, this will help avoid a Brady Aiken situation, in which a team drafts a player, finds out he’s injured, then walks away and forfeits all that draft pool space. The MRIs help keep that money in play.

Secondly, it gives the player and his agent time to do damage control. If someone has an injury, it’s going to be discovered anyway. Either during the pre-draft MRI, or after the draft during the pre-signing MRI. If a pre-draft MRI shows an injury, it gives the agent time to shop the player around and find a team willing to sign him anyway. Those teams are definitely out there. If the player waits until after the draft to have the MRI, he can only negotiate with that one team. So yeah, it seems like volunteering for a pre-draft MRI carries a lot of risk, but ultimately, I think it’s a good thing for the players. Teams too.

Tommy John rehab stint extended to 60 days

As part of the new CBA, pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John surgery can now spend 60 days on a minor league rehab assignment, reports Jeff Passan. It used to be 30 days, though teams would dance around this by having the pitcher pitch in Extended Spring Training games, which aren’t official minor league games and don’t count against a rehab clock. Problem is there’s no ExST after June, so if your player is rehabbing in, say, August, you’re out of luck.

Once upon a time, the standard Tommy John surgery rehab timetable was 12 months. Not anymore. Nowadays teams are giving their pitchers 14-16 months to rehab, sometimes longer. There was a rash of pitchers needing a second Tommy John surgery a few years ago (Kris Medlen, Daniel Hudson, Brandon Beachy, Jarrod Parker, etc.) and the thought was they came back too soon from the first procedure. A 60-day rehab windows allows teams to be patient and give pitchers even more competitive minor league rehab starts. Good news.

Under Armour to become official uniform provider

At the Winter Meetings last week, MLB announced Under Armour will replace Majestic as the league’s official uniform provider beginning in 2020. It’s a ten-year agreement. “We are excited to build on our partnership with Under Armour, a powerful global brand that continues to grow exponentially … We appreciate Majestic’s many contributions to our clubs, players and fans throughout our partnership,” said commissioner Rob Manfred in a statement.

Okay, great. So MLB has a new uniform provider. Who cares, right? Well, according to Paul Lukas, as part of the agreement, Under Armour will be allowed to slap their logo on the upper right chest of all jerseys, like so:

under-armour-yankees-jersey

If you click through the Lukas link, he has some images of players with the Under Armour logo photoshopped onto their jerseys. The Majestic logo is currently on the sleeves of MLB jerseys. The Yankees were granted an exemption and are the only club without the Majestic logo on their uniform. That won’t be the case with Under Armour though. They’ll have the logo on their chest too.

It’s only a matter of time until full-blown advertisements wind up on MLB jerseys — I have no idea if that’s five years away, or ten, or 30, but they’re coming — and the Under Armour logo is step one. Well, I guess the Majestic logo was step one, but moving them to the front of the jersey is a pretty big deal. The New Era logo will now be displayed on the left side of all caps starting next season, Yankees included, so the #brands are coming. The iconic, untouched Yankees jersey of the last century will soon be no more.

Shohei Otani still expected to be posted next offseason, which is great news for the Yankees

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
Otani or Ohtani? Neither, actually. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

Earlier this week we learned Shohei Otani, the best pitcher (and hitter?) in the world not under contract with an MLB team, hopes to come over to MLB next offseason. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement means Otani will be subject to the international spending cap, severely limiting his earning potential. Hard to believe MLB and the MLBPA created a system that incentivizes a great player to stay away from the league, but here we are.

Anyway, according to Jim Allen, Otani’s manager with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Hideki Kuriyama, said he still expects Otani to come over next offseason despite the hard cap. He’s doing it for the challenge, not necessarily the money. “I think money is not a matter for Shohei. I think what he has in his mind is where and what kind of batters he wants to face,” said Kuriyama to Kyoto.

Needless to say, Otani coming over next season is good news for the Yankees. He’s a potential ace who will turn 23 in July, meaning he has so many prime years ahead of him. Otani would fit right in with New York’s youth movement. He’d be the centerpiece of the youth movement on the pitching side. Three other factors would make his decision to come over next offseason very good for the Yankees.

1. Several other big market teams will still be limited by the international spending penalties. The Yankees are currently riding out the second year of the penalties associated with their 2014-15 international spending spree. They were limited to $300,000 maximum bonuses during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods. Come the 2017-18 signing period, the one Otani will count against next offseason, they’re free to spend again.

Other big market teams are not so lucky. The penalties do carry over to the next CBA — you didn’t think MLB would let those teams get away easy, did you? — which means the Athletics, Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Padres, Reds, and Royals will all still be dealing with the penalties from their recent international spending sprees. They can’t offer Otani more than $300,000. Right off the bat, potential suitors like the contending Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, and Nats are out of the race. The Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Mariners, and Rangers will be the only traditional big market clubs not subject to the $300,000 limit.

2. The release fee still applies. There are two systems in play here. First, the posting agreement between MLB and NPB, which allows Otani to come over. And two, MLB’s international hard caps. Otani has to be posted, which means the (Ham) Fighters will presumably seek the maximum $20M release fee. Not every team can afford to pay that upfront. Well, they can, but some choose not to. The Yankees have no such problem. They’ll cut a $20M check no problem, like they did with Masahiro Tanaka and, ugh, Kei Igawa.

3. Otani will be insanely cheap. This is how it will work, as things stand. Otani gets posted and some team agrees to sign him for what I assume will be their entire international pool. That team pays the (Ham) Fighters the $20M release fee. Otani comes to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee (minor league contracts only for international players!), makes the team, and plays the 2018-20 seasons as a pre-arbitration eligible player making something close to the league minimum. An ace at that salary is basically the most valuable commodity in baseball.

Could a team promise to give Otani, say, an eight-year extension worth $180M at some point next year? Sure. But as Ben Badler notes, MLB would likely see such an arrangement as intentional circumvention of the hard cap and put an end to it. Otani, who made roughly $1.75M in 2016 and recently signed a $2.36M contract for 2017, won’t be able to truly cash in until his arbitration-eligible years. At that point I’m guessing MLB and especially the MLBPA would be okay with a big extension. If not, a grievance will surely follow.

* * *

The new CBA really screws over Otani, who is still making good money in Japan, but not nearly what he could be making over here. He’ll get a nice bonus when he signs next year, then have to settle for the big league minimum for a few years. It’s a fraction of what he’d get had he not been eligible for the spending cap because of his age. So much can go wrong from 2017-20, before the big extension, which really sucks. Otani has to assume a lot of risk.

Unless MLB makes Otani exempt from the hard cap — Ken Rosenthal has been told from MLB as well as teams there won’t be an exemption — in which case everything changes, the Yankees will be in great position to sign him next offseason. So may other big market clubs are dealing with the $300,000 limit, and many of clubs that aren’t can’t afford to fork over a $20M release fee. The Yankees also have the advantage of saying, “Hey, we’re in New York, so you’ll be able to make millions in endorsements for the time being.” (The downside: Every team can offer similar money.)

As it stands, the hard cap is incredibly unfair to Otani and a godsend for the Yankees. It makes the signing so incredibly low risk because all they’d have to pay is the release fee ($20M), his bonus ($4.75M), and three years at the minimum-ish salary ($2M, tops). That’s $26.75M total. How could they not go after him at that price given his upside? If Otani does intend to come over next season despite the hard cap, the Yankees couldn’t ask to be in a better situation. So much is working in their favor.

Monday Notes: Sabathia, Tanaka, WBC, Otani

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

The 2017 Winter Meetings are in full swing down at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just south of Washington, DC. Here are the day’s Yankees-related rumors and here are some other bits of news and notes.

Sabathia doing well after knee surgery

At a charity event over the weekend, CC Sabathia told Evan Drellich he is doing well following right knee surgery earlier in the offseason. His throwing program is set to begin today. Sabathia had what the Yankees called a “routine clean-up” procedure on his knee after the season, the knee that has given him all that trouble in recent years. The procedure was planned well in advance. It wasn’t a surprise or anything.

Sabathia, 36, is entering the final year of his contract, and he’s probably the second best starter on the team right now. I know if the Yankees were facing a must win game and my choices to start were Sabathia or Michael Pineda, I’d go with Sabathia. Don’t know about you. Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher this summer and had his best season since 2012. I’m hopeful the new approach will allow him to remain effective at least one more year. Given his age and all those innings on his arm though, you never really know.

Tanaka wants to pitch in WBC

Even after pitching in the 2009 and 2013 events, Masahiro Tanaka would like to pitch in the World Baseball Classic next spring, he told the Japan Times. “There’s been no development (in my roster status), but of course I have the motivation (to play),” he said. Tanaka threw 9.1 innings across one start and seven relief appearances in the 2009 and 2013 WBCs. He won the title with Japan in 2009.

Japan nor any other team has released their final 2017 WBC roster. Those aren’t due until January. Interestingly enough, Japan did not take any MLB players in the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro. It was all NPB players. It’s unclear if that’s a new policy or just a one-time blip. They did use MLB players in the 2006 and 2009 WBCs. If Tanaka wants to pitch, the Yankees can’t stop him. I don’t like the idea of him throwing intense innings in March any more than you do. Blah. Tanaka is one of several Yankees who could wind up playing in the WBC.

Otani hopes to come to MLB next offseason

According to the Japan Times, Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani has told the team he wants to be posted next offseason. He signed a new one-year contract with the (Ham) Fighters over the weekend, ensuring he won’t be posted this winter, but next winter is apparently his target. “I know that the club will respect my will whenever I decide I want to go (to MLB). It is pleasing to get that support and I’m thankful for it,” said Otani.

Otani, who has been working out with Tanaka this offseason, is the best player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. You could argue he’s the best hitter and pitcher not in MLB. Otani will turn 23 in July, meaning he will be subject to the international hard cap put in place by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. My guess is MLB and the MLBPA will agree to make Otani exempt from the hard cap. Either that, or he’s going to come over when his earning potential is severely limited.

CBA Details: Disabled List, All-Star Game, Luxury Tax, Free Agent Compensation, More

MLBPA chief Tony Clark. (Boston Globe)
MLBPA chief Tony Clark. (Boston Globe)

Last night MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a brand new Collective Bargaining Agreement, meaning teams can finally move forward with their offseason plans. More and more details about the CBA are starting to trickle in, so let’s round ’em all up and analyze. This all comes via Ronald Blum, Ken Rosenthal, Stephen Hawkins, Jon Morosi, Jon Heyman, and Joel Sherman.

Disabled list reduced to 10 days

The 15-day DL is now the 10-day DL. The 7-day DL for concussions and 60-day DL are unchanged. The new 10-day DL means we’ll see fewer teams play shorthanded going forward, which is something the Yankees (and especially the Mets) have done from time to time. We also might see an uptick in “phantom” DL stints. Got a young starter who needs his workload kept in check? Stick him on the 10-day DL with an upset tummy and let him skip a start without playing shorthanded.

All-Star Game no longer tied to World Series

Thankfully, the All-Star Game will no longer determine homefield advantage in the World Series. It’ll instead go to the pennant-winning team with the better regular season record. Hooray for common sense. That’s still not a perfect solution because of unbalanced schedules and all that, but it’s the best possible solution, I think. Certainly better than alternating leagues each year or tying it to the damn All-Star Game.

Rather than homefield advantage in the World Series, players will instead play for a pool of money in the All-Star Game. That’s a pretty good way to get them motivated. No idea what that pool will be, but I hope it’s substantial. Like $1M per player on the winning team. Something like that. Want guys to play hard in the All-Star Game? Putting a million bucks on the table is a good way to do it.

Luxury tax details

The complete details about the luxury tax system … ahem, the competitive balance tax system … are now available. The thresholds the next five years are as reported yesterday: $195M in 2017, then $197M, $206M, $209M, and $210M in subsequent years. Here are the tax brackets:

  • First time offenders: 20% (up from 17.5%)
  • Second time offenders: 30% (remains the same)
  • Third time offenders: 50% (up from 40%)
  • $20M to $40M over threshold: 12% surtax
  • $40M+ over threshold (first time offenders): 42.5% surtax and first round pick moves back ten spots
  • $40M+ over threshold (repeat offender): 45% surtax and first round pick moves back ten spots

So a team over the luxury tax threshold three straight years and at least $40M over the last two years would be taxed at 95% (50% plus 45% surtax). It’s not a hard salary cap but it might as well be. That’s a major deterrent. Come 2019, when the tax threshold is $209M, the “soft” cap will essentially be $249M. Anything over that results in a 62.5% tax for first time offenders.

Also, those tax rates will be phased in next season. Apparently MLB is treating 2017 as something of a transition year for teams at or over the threshold. That doesn’t matter for the Yankees. They’ve been over the luxury tax threshold ever since the system was put in place, so they’re getting hit with a 50% tax right off the bat, plus whatever surtax applies depending on their payroll. My guess is they’re less than $20M over the threshold in 2017, so no surtax.

Free agent compensation and qualifying offer details

The qualifying offer itself remains relatively unchanged. It’s still a one-year contract set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, and the player must be with the team the entire season to be eligible for it. There are two changes to the qualifying offer: players can only receive it once in their careers, and now they have ten days to accept or reject the offer rather than seven.

The free agent compensation rules are a bit convoluted now. Here’s how it works:

  • Signing team receives revenue sharing money: Forfeits their third highest draft pick. Keep in mind this is not necessarily their third rounder.
  • Signing team paid luxury tax during most recent season: Forfeits second and fifth highest draft picks, plus $1M in international bonus money.
  • All other teams: Forfeit second highest draft pick plus $500,000 in international bonus money.

Got all that? The Yankees are going to be paying revenue sharing always and forever, so the first bullet point doesn’t apply to them. Once they get under the luxury tax threshold, they’ll only have to give up their second highest pick plus $500,000 in international money to sign a qualifying free agent. I doubt that’s enough to scare them away from top free agents. It shouldn’t be, anyway. Now here are the rules for the team that loses a qualified free agent:

  • Players signs deal worth $50M+: Former team gets a compensation pick after the first round.
  • Players signs deal worth less than $50M: Former team gets compensation pick after Competitive Balance Round B, which is before the third round.
  • Former team pays luxury tax: The compensation pick is after the fourth round regardless of contract size.

This basically means older players like Carlos Beltran will never get the qualifying offer, ditto good but not great relievers. Those guys never sign deals worth $50M+, and the risk of them accepting the qualifying offer is not worth the reward of essentially a third round pick. This system should also eliminate free agents getting hung out to dry like Ian Desmond last year. That’s good for the union.

International free agency

As you know, there is now a hard cap on international spending, which is just awful. That was one of the last places the Yankees could really flex their financial muscle. The spending cap next year will be $4.75M for large market teams like the Yankees, $5.25M for mid-market teams, and $5.75M for small market teams. Well, I guess assigning the bonus limit by market size is better than using regular season record. The hard cap still sucks.

Because a hard cap isn’t enough, international players will now be exempt from the hard cap at age 25, not 23. They pushed it back two years. Jeff Passan confirmed with a team official that this applies to Shohei Otani, who is only 22. Rather than be posted next offseason, as expected, he has to wait until 2019 (!) to come over and not be eligible for the hard cap. So dumb. So, so dumb. Hopefully MLB comes to their senses and makes an exception for him (and other similar players). MLB and the MLBPA should want dudes like Otani playing their game.

(Aside: I wonder whether the hard cap will push some international free agents to play overseas for a few years, where they can make more money, then come over to MLB once they turn 25. Seems like a possible unintended consequence.)

Minimum salary

Reports indicated the minimum salary would increase substantially with the new CBA, and, well, that didn’t happen. The league minimum will rise from $507,500 in 2016 to $535,000 in 2017. That’s a 5.4% increase in year one of the CBA. The last two CBAs had a 16% increase in year one. Womp womp. The minimum salary will increase to $545,000 in 2018 and $555,000 in 2019. The players get cost of living increases in 2020 and 2021. Woof. Swing and a miss, MLBPA. Swing and a miss.

Miscellany

Here are some other miscellaneous details from the new CBA.

  • Players no longer accrue service time while serving drug suspensions. In the past players accrued service time during drug suspensions, but not suspensions under the domestic violence policy.
  • MLB will play regular season games outside the United States and Canada  as early as 2018. London and Mexico are the leading candidates. MLB has played regular season games in Asia and Australia in the past.
  • Roster limits remain the same. Teams will have a 25-man roster from Opening Day through August 31st, then from September 1st onward they can carry up to 40 players. Hooray for that.
  • The Performance Factor of the revenue sharing system has been eliminated. That is going to save the Yankees a boatload of money behind the scenes. Wendy Thurm explained the system a few years ago.
  • Chewing tobacco is banned for new players. Current players are grandfathered in and can still use it. Kinda silly, but whatever.

So, from the looks of things, the owners scored big wins with the luxury tax system, international free agency, and the minimum salary. The players get more lenient draft pick compensation rules and also a shorter disabled list, which means more call-ups through the season. They’ll also benefit from the international hard cap because it ostensibly means less money for amateurs and more money for big leaguers. I dunno, seems like the owners got the best of the players with this one.

Year Two of the 2014-15 International Free Agency Class [2016 Season Review]

Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)
Wilkerman. (@MLBPipeline)

Two and a half years ago the Yankees did something that sent shockwaves throughout baseball. On July 2nd, 2014, the first day of the 2014-15 international signing period, the Yankees committed more than $17M in bonuses to amateur players and completely blew their $2.2M bonus pool out of the water. Between bonuses and penalties, the team spend upwards of $30M on international free agents that signing period.

The Yankees were not the first team to exceed their international bonus pool but they were the first to do it in such an extreme way. Since then other clubs, including the Dodgers and Braves and Padres, have followed suit and spent huge on international free agents. The tax and other penalties, including a $300,000 limit on bonuses during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 international signing periods, were a price worth paying for a one-year talent windfall.

As the owners continue to push for an international draft as part of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations — Ken Rosenthal says they’ve backed off that demand, for what it’s worth — the Yankees are in the process of developing and cultivating that 2014-15 international class. International free agency is not the thing for you if you’re looking for instant gratification. Turning 16-year-olds into big leaguers is a long and not always smooth process.

The 2016 season was the second full year in pro ball for players signed during the 2014-15 period — players sign contracts that begin the following season, so the kids who signed on July 2nd, 2014, signed 2015 contracts — and the Yankees are starting to see some exciting things happen in the lower minors. Here’s a progress report on that 2014-15 international signing class.

The Top Prospect

You know, it’s actually very up for debate who currently is the best prospect the Yankees signed as part of the spending spree. But, since this is my blog, I’m making an executive decision. SS Wilkerman Garcia ($1.35M bonus) burst onto the scene with a huge debut in 2015, hitting .299/.414/.362 (140 wRC+) with more walks (15.8%) than strikeouts (12.0%) in 39 rookie ball games. He’s the best prospect from the 2014-15 class. Unfortunately his 2016 follow-up didn’t go too well.

Garcia, who won’t turn 19 until April, suffered a shoulder injury in Spring Training this year, and while he didn’t need surgery or anything like that, he spent much of the first half rehabbing in Extended Spring Training. When he was ready to play, he went to rookie level Pulaski and put up a disappointing .198/.255/.284 (52 wRC+) batting line with 18.4% strikeouts and 6.3% walks in 54 games. Wilkerman was two and a half years younger than the average Appalachian League player.

The stat line is not pretty, but the most important thing is Garcia’s shoulder is now healthy and he didn’t lose any of the high-end athleticism that landed him such a large bonus. Wilkerman is a switch-hitter with bat control and strike zone knowledge, plus he runs very well and has a strong arm, which suit him well at shortstop. Hopefully 2016 was just a bump in the road. Garcia projects as an impact AVG/OBP/speed/defense leadoff type.

The New Hot Prospect

Florial. (@jarahwright)
Florial. (@jarahwright)

One of the best prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period did not sign on July 2nd. He signed in March 2015. OF Estevan Florial ($200,000) was a highly regarded prospect heading into the signing period before being suspended by MLB for paperwork issues. Joel Sherman has a great story on Florial’s background. Apparently his mother used fraudulent paperwork to get him into school.

Florial, who turned 19 last week, annihilated the Dominican Summer League last season, hitting .313/.394/.527 (154 wRC+) with seven home runs and 15 steals in 57 games. His stateside debut in 2016 didn’t go quite as well. Florial put up a .228/.310/.370 (92 wRC+) line with eight homers and ten steals in 70 games at mostly Pulaski. (He also made brief cameos with Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa.) Florial struck out in 28.9% of his plate appearances.

The stat line is not what gets folks so excited about Florial. It’s the scouting report. During a recent Baseball America podcast, Josh Norris said scouts are giving Florial a 70 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) for three tools: power, running, throwing. That’s bonkers. Florial, a lefty hitter, has huge power and is a tremendous athlete. The only red flag in his game — and it’s a significant one — is his tendency to swing and miss.

More than a few tooled up players have been sabotaged by insufficient hitting ability, but that doesn’t mean you stop targeting those players. Every once in a while they turn into Kris Bryant. Florial is so well-regarded that teams are already asking for him in trades, according to Sherman. Given his natural ability, the Yankees scored a major win signing Florial for a mere $200,000 that late in the signing period.

The Power Threats

The two largest bonuses the Yankees handed out during the 2014-15 signing period went to 3B Dermis Garcia ($3.2M) and 3B Nelson Gomez ($2.25M). (Garcia signed as a shortstop and has since moved to third.) For both players, their calling card is their power. MLB.com ranked them as the top two international prospects in 2014 and they gave Dermis a 65 for his power. Gomez received a 60. Those are huge numbers for kids who were only 16 at the time.

Garcia, 19 in January, showed off that power during his 57-game stint with Pulaski this summer. He hit .206/.326/.454 (114 wRC+) overall and finished second in the league with 13 homers. The home run leader, Bradley Jones of the Blue Jays, hit 16. He’s three years older than Garcia. Dermis also struck out 34.3% of the time because he takes a big aggressive hack, which leads to a lot of whiffs. When he connects though, this happens:

At one point this summer Garcia went deep in four straight games — only 15 teenagers hit at least four home runs all season in the Appy League — and eight times in the span of 15 games. Eighteen-year-old kids in rookie ball just don’t do that. His power is truly special.

Garcia is not a mindless hacker. He knows the strike zone (13.9 BB%) and which pitches he can punish. His swing is just so aggressive — it’s basically a Javier Baez swing, that kind of aggressive — that he comes up empty a good amount of the time. Once Dermis realizes his power is so great that he can still hit the ball out of the park while taking a more controlled swing, he’s going to be a monster.

As for Gomez, the just turned 19-year-old made his stateside debut in 2016 and authored a .194/.249/.403 (92 wRC+) batting line in 54 games with one of the Yankees’ two rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates. The good news: Gomez was second in the league with nine homers. (The leader, Ignacio Valdez of the Tigers, had eleven and is two years older.) The bad news: Gomez struck out 25.8% of the time and walked 3.8% of the time.

Unlike Garcia, Gomez is a true hacker who will swing at pretty much everything and chase out of the zone. His plate discipline and approach are a very long way away from being competitive. Neither player offers a ton defensively, so their value is tied up heavily in their bats. Garcia is much more than a mistake hitter. He can hit. He just needs to tone things down a notch. Gomez has to figure out how to read spin and discern a ball from a strike.

The Sleeper

Unlike the players above, SS Diego Castillo ($750,000) does not come with loud tools. He’s not going to wow you with speed and his arm like Wilkerman, or hit the snot out of the ball like Dermis or Gomez, or grab your attention like Florial. Castillo, who turned 19 last month, is a bat-to-ball machine with a sweet swing and an opposite field approach. He can also play the hell out of shortstop thanks to good mobility and a strong arm.

This summer Castillo came to the U.S. and hit .267/.332/.327 (102 wRC+) with one home run and five steals in 44 GCL games. His strikeout rate (11.4%) is a result of his contact-focused approach, plus he drew a good amount of walks too (7.6%). Castillo is a boringly good prospect. He’s not flashy, but he’s very fundamentally sound and instinctive on the baseball field. Castillo has the ability to be a rock solid shortstop who helps on both sides of the ball at the next level.

The Advanced Prospect

Advanced is a relative term. We are talking about (mostly) teenagers here, after all. The oldest bonafide prospect the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period is SS Hoy Jun Park ($1.2M), who signed at 18 after graduating high school in South Korea. He spent this past season sharing second base and shortstop with Kyle Holder at Low-A Charleston, where he hit .225/.336/.329 (97 wRC+) with two homers, 32 steals, 23.2% strikeouts, and 13.0% walks in 116 games.

At this point Park’s offensive game lags behind his defense because he didn’t face the greatest competition growing up. He’s a left-handed hitter with a good swing and a plan at the plate, and once he adds some meat to his frame (6-foot-1 and 175 lbs.), the power should come. Park is a no-doubt shortstop with a quick first step and a strong arm. He’s prone to being a little too flashy and making mistakes, but that’s nothing a little experience can’t fix.

Park is older than most of his 2014-15 signing period brethren and he’s already spent a full season in Low-A, so he’s higher up the ladder as well. His offensive game has started to come around nicely since signing. Park’s easy to overlook in a farm system loaded with shortstops, but he has some really exciting skills. He has the potential to be a standout shortstop on both sides of the ball.

The Pop-Up Prospect

Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)
Freicer. (Robert Pimpsner)

“Pop-up” prospects happen a lot with international free agents. Jorge Mateo and Luis Severino were pop-up prospects. Both were lower profile prospects signed to relatively small bonuses, their physical development was favorable — a lot kids go through growth spurts and lose the athleticism that get them signed in the first place — then bam, they were top prospects. Scouting kids who are 15 or 16 years old and projecting what they’ll be at 21 and 22 is awfully tough. The error bars are huge.

RHP Freicer Perez ($10,000) is the pop-up prospect from the 2014-15 signing period. The 20-year-old held his own with Short Season Staten Island in 2016, pitching to a 4.47 ERA (3.81 FIP) with 20.6% strikeouts and 10.5% walks in 13 starts and 52.1 innings. Perez is massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 190 lbs., which means he still hasn’t filled out and could add to a fastball that already sits 95-97 mph. His breaking ball and changeup need work, as does his overall command, but squint your eyes and you can see a Dellin Betances starter kit. Not too shabby for a $10,000 investment.

The Other Big Money Prospects

The Yankees gave out seven seven-figure bonuses during the 2014-15 international signing period. Stick to the spending pools and most teams would be able to afford two $1M+ bonuses, maybe three. The Yankees made a complete mockery of the system. No wonder the owners are pushing for an international draft now.

Anyway, four of those seven $1M+ bonuses went to Gomez, Park, and the two Garcias. One of the other three went to OF Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5M), an 18-year-old who hit .269/.321/.394 (112 wRC+) with two homers and an 18.8% strikeout rate in 29 games while repeating the Dominican Summer League in 2016. Amundaray has been billed as a good worker and very coachable, and the Yankees are waiting for his athletic ability to translate on the field.

OF Juan DeLeon ($2M) was arguably the most exciting prospect the Yankees signed two years ago thanks to his well-rounded game and true five-tool skill set. He appeared in only a dozen GCL games this summer due to an injury, hitting .212/.308/.364 (103 wRC+) in 39 plate appearances. Meh. I wouldn’t call this a lost year — DeLeon did get to work in Extended Spring Training before the GCL season — but not much happened for him in 2016.

The final seven-figure bonus went to C Miguel Flames ($1.1M), whose development behind the plate has been slow. Last year he caught nine games in the DSL (41 at first base) and this year he caught ten games in the GCL (36 at first). Many of them weren’t even full games. The Yankees had Flames catch five innings every few days for a while, and that was it. Not everyone takes to the position as quickly as Luis Torrens. The Yankees have had to ease Flames into it.

The Best of the Rest

Among the other notable 2014-15 international prospects are OF Brayan Emery ($500,000) and RHP Gilmael Troya ($10,000), both of whom played in the GCL in 2016. Emery, 18, hit .208/.328/.255 (88 wRC+) with one homer in 32 games and has insane tools. He was initially expected to sign for $1M+. Troya, 19, broke out last year after some mechanical tweaks, though he took a step back this summer and put up a 3.78 ERA (4.41 FIP) in 50 innings. He stands out for his fastball/curveball combo and pitching know-how.

Here are the rest of the notable prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period, plus a note on their 2016 performance and current status:

  • OF Antonio Arias ($800,000): 18-year-old hit .239/.350/.266 (95 wRC+) in 51 games while repeating the DSL. He’s a great athlete and incredibly raw. A total lottery ticket.
  • OF Lisandro Blanco ($550,000): 19-year-old was overmatched in the GCL, hitting .111/.265/.185 (52 wRC+) in 26 games. Baseball is hard, even when you have premium bat speed like Blanco.
  • OF Leobaldo Cabrera ($250,000): 18-year-old hit .196/.261/.224 (53 wRC+) in 43 GCL games. He’s a raw athlete who stands out most for his throwing arm.
  • OF Frederick Cuevas ($300,000): 19-year-old playing sparingly in the GCL and hit .267/.302/.350 (96 wRC+) in 30 games. Cuevas is a lefty hitter with some pull power and approach issues.
  • IF Griffin Garabito ($225,000): 19-year-old followed up a solid 2015 debut by hitting .182/.238/.223 (44 wRC+) in 36 GCL games. He profiles best a contact heavy utility infielder.
  • C Jason Lopez ($100,000): 18-year-old hit .192/.267/.346 (85 wRC+) in only eleven GCL games. He’s a recently converted infielder with a rocket arm and some pop.
  • OF Erick Mendez ($250,000): 20-year-old put up a .243/.318/.393 (112 wRC+) line in 40 games between the GCL and Pulaski, then failed a performance-enhancing drug test after the season. He’ll serve a 50-game suspension at the outset of 2017.
  • OF Raymundo Moreno ($600,000): 18-year-old hit a fine .284/.381/.333 (119 wRC+) in 56 games while repeating the DSL. He’s got some loud tools and could make a name for himself in the GCL in 2017.
  • OF Pablo Olivares ($400,000): 18-year-old put up a .285/.378/.392 (135 wRC+) batting line in 47 GCL games. He a right-handed hitter who sprays the ball to all fields and is an excellent center field defender. The Yankees might have something here.
  • IF Danienger Perez ($300,000): 20-year-old hit .213/.248/.283 (60 wRC+) in 35 games between the GCL and Low-A. Perez is a speedy slap hitter who hasn’t hit much in pro ball.

These are not even all the prospects the Yankees signed during the 2014-15 signing period. These are just the most notable. All told, the Yankees brought in about four years worth of international talent two years ago. Most years you may get one or two premium prospects and two of three secondary guys of note. In 2014-15, the Yankees landed four headliners (Park, Florial, the Garcias) and a host of second tier prospects (Gomez, Perez, Castillo, DeLeon, Flames, Amundaray, Emery, Troya, Olivares).

I’m not sure how many of these players will play full season ball in 2017 — Park will for sure, and I could see the Yankees pushing Florial and Perez to Low-A — but the Yankees have more than enough short season league teams to house them all. No one has knocked your socks off statistically yet — hey, they can’t all dominate instantly like Jesus Montero — but Florial, Dermis, Park, and Perez have all made improvements while others are still showing the big tools that got them signed at 16. With kids this age, that’s not always a given two years later.

Wednesday Notes: Medicals, Strike Zone, Revenue Sharing

The commish has a lot of work to do these next few weeks. (Elsa/Getty)
The commish has a lot of work to do these next few weeks. (Elsa/Getty)

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 15 days. MLB and the MLBPA are hard at work negotiating a new deal and I’m sure they’ll get it done in time. No one wants a work stoppage. There’s too much money to be lost on both sides. Here are some big picture updates from around the league in the meantime.

MLB to standardize medical info

In the wake of Padres GM A.J. Preller’s suspension, MLB will standardize the medical information teams must disclose during trade talks, reports Kyle Glaser. The Padres essentially hid medical info at the trade deadline. That’s why Colin Rea was returned from the Marlins. He had a preexisting injury. There’s also an issue with Drew Pomeranz’s elbow the Red Sox didn’t know about it. Zoinks.

“We’ve talked about medical records given the issues we had this season, and I think we’re going to focus on trying to do even a better job of standardizing that process when clubs exchange records,” said MLB chief legal officer Dan Halem to Glaser. “We’re going to formalize it a little more and contemplate pushing for guidance in terms of what has to be in and what has to be out. Just make sure everybody has confidence in the system.”

GMs were informed of the new standards during the GM Meetings last week. Halem told Glaser this has been in the works for a while and isn’t a response to Preller’s suspension. Hmmm. Either way, I’m kinda surprised it took this long for this to happen. There have been some other preexisting injury issues over the years — the Gary Majewski trade comes to mind — and this is in the best interest of the league. Better late than never, I suppose.

MLB considering strike zone changes

According to Jon Morosi, MLB is considering formal changes to the strike zone this offseason thanks to PitchFX and Statcast, which help foster more adherence to the rulebook. Jon Roegele’s research has shown the strike zone has gotten bigger since 2009, mostly at the bottom of the zone near the knees. The pitches that are hardest to hit, basically. That’s one of the reasons offense dipped in recent years.

I’m not sure what kind of changes MLB is considering — I guess something that lowers the top of the strike zone since no one calls the high strike anyway? — but I guess we’ll find out. MLB umpires are the best umpires in the world, it’s not like there’s a secret group of elite umpires the league refuses to hire, but they’re not perfect. Far from it. If PitchFX and Statcast and all that help create a more uniform strike zone that more accurately reflects the rulebook, then great.

Players protesting international draft

MLB hopes to implement an international draft in the near future, which would both push the signing age back from 16 to 18, and also cost players money by reducing their negotiating leverage. In response, amateur prospects in the Dominican Republic boycotted the league’s showcase last month, according to Ben Badler. MLB then canceled the two-day showcase and forced the players to take random drug tests. This is fine.

Several current big leaguers who signed as international free agents back in the day have spoken out against an international draft. Gary Sanchez is one of them. Here’s his video. Others like Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Santana, Miguel Sano, and Ivan Nova have posted similar videos too. I’m curious to see how this plays out. The MLBPA usually has no problem negotiating away the rights of amateurs, but with so many big leaguers speaking out, how can they ignore them?

Revenue sharing a key point in CBA talks

As MLB and the MLBPA negotiate the new CBA, a key item is the revenue sharing system, reports Susan Slusser. Specifically, teams that pay into revenue sharing (like the Yankees) want to make sure teams that receive revenue sharing are actually spending it. There’s been concern small market teams are just pocketing a portion of their revenue sharing checks. The Marlins and Athletics have come under scrutiny, specifically.

“There is leeway to justify other expenditures (like scouting),” said an MLBPA official to Slusser. “But if a team shows no progress year after year and most of the revenue sharing spending is on non-Major League salaries, red flags go up. There are clubs that other clubs look at and say, ‘What are they doing? Is this really the best use of our money?'”

The Yankees pump more money into revenue sharing than any other team — they paid over $90M in both 2014 and 2015 — so I’m sure they’re one of the clubs curious to know where their money is going, as they should. Revenue sharing isn’t going away. It’s been around too long and it’s working. The Indians and Royals just went to the World Series. More teams are in contention right now than ever before. But there’s an obvious problem with small market clubs pocketing revenue sharing money. The Yankees and other big market teams have every right to be concerned.