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December 31, 2010
Warning Track Power
Over the past few years, the Hot Stove has produced many stories about imported talent from the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball league. From the truly foreign commodities such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kosuke Fukudome, to the domestic transplants like Dan Johnson and Colby Lewis, these imports, despite their wide-ranging levels of success, usually get significant buzz.
But what about the former major-league players who are leaving the States to pursue a career in the Land of the Rising Sun? Major-league teams and their minor-league affiliates have lost a few players to the NPB this year, yet little to no coverage is given to them. While it’s impossible to say who (if any) of these players will turn into the next Bobby Rose or Gene Bacque, we can still take an objective look at who these players are, what they could have reasonably been expected to do in the 2011 major-league season, and what their prospects are going forward. With that in mind, below are the snapshots of a few players who bid bon voyage over the winter.
Tracy, originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001, signed a deal with the Hiroshima Carp this offseason worth around $1.3 million, a modest raise from the $900,000 contract he signed with the Cubs a year ago. After dealing with various knee issues and an inability to effectively transition to a bench role over his career, Tracy found himself without a domestic market, and the Carp scooped up the former East Carolina Pirate in November. This is what Tracy was able to do during his major-league career:
As we can see, Tracy’s calling card early in his career was some power (relative to the typical corner player) and an advanced ability to hit for average. One year after being harvested from Arizona’s farm system, Tracy broke out in 2005 by hitting 27 home runs, 34 doubles, and posting a 911 OPS and 3.4 WARP. Unfortunately for Tracy, he was unable to replicate those numbers over a full season during his post-2005 career, banishing him to minor-league obscurity and a bench role for the 2010 Chicago Cubs. However, over the few plate appearances that he was able accumulate over the 2007–2009 seasons, Tracy was able to maintain his Isolated Power mark near his career rate. His ability to maintain that levels with only semi-regular at-bats positioned him to look like near-perfect candidate for a team looking for a pinch-hitter or just some four-corners insurance, though he wasn't particularly successful.
In terms of how Tracy would haven been able to perform in the majors during 2011, one needn’t look further than his 2010 PECOTA projections. PECOTA correctly predicted Tracy’s TAv and WARP totals last year. There isn't much hope for his 2011 projections.
A season or two ago, Tracy was considered a solid platoon option against right-handed pitchers and a defensive replacement at the four corners. Today, neither of Tracy’s “strengths” is worthy of that adjective anymore. With a PECOTA career path that looks like the floor of Death Valley and another year of wear on his microfractured knee, it’s clear why he was keen to go overseas.
Looking east, Tracy’s success in Japan will depend on his ability to stay healthy for the 144-game NPB season. Provided the former infielder keeps his creaky knees well-oiled and his oblique unstrained during 2011, he may be on his way to exceeding the Carp’s expectations (and everyone else’s). The Central League in the NPB is hitter-friendly (Mazda Stadium, home of the Carp, had a 1.14 home run Park Factor and a relatively modest .95 in runs), which should help Tracy regain some of his pre-2007 form. If he can stay healthy and hang in against lefties this season, he'll be productive.
Rescued from the moans and groans that accompany the “Quad-A” label, Balentien, now 26, signed with the Yakult Swallows this winter after terrorizing Triple-A pitching for a third straight year. He has a strong bat and power that can play anywhere, which will help him hold down a regular position. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Balentien has been able to accomplish over his last few seasons:
Though Balentien showed a clear ability to dominate in Triple-A, he was never able to put things together in The Show. In his big-league trials with Seattle and Cincinnati, Balentien’s mediocre eye and overly aggressive approach got the best of him, as he mustered a 29.2 percent strikeout rate against a meager 7.9 percent walk rate. However, he has smacked 67 home runs in just 302 Triple-A games since 2007. A former top prospect for the Mariners, Balentien can be a force if he continues to improve in the pitch-recognition department. Also, while he’s not quite as svelte as he used to be, Balentien still has a strong throwing arm in right field.
Determining how Balentien would have performed in the majors in 2011 is tricky because of his free-swinging ways. Using our minor-league peak translations for the International League as a reference, we can see that he hit a major-league equivalent of a .253/.301/.455 triple-slash line for the 2010 season with Louisville, the Reds' Triple-A affiliate. Furthermore, his translated 756 OPS and .261 TAv would have ranked the 43rd and 66th respectively among outfielders with at least 400 plate appearances in 2010. In terms of TAv, Balentien could have outperformed outfielders like Juan Pierre, Juan Rivera, and Carlos Lee last season. However, beyond the statistical and translational angle, Balentien’s 2011 production would have been contingent on keeping his head on straight (he was deemed “hot-headed” in the 2010 Baseball Prospectus Annual). However, with a spotty track record, like getting DFA'd by the Mariners in 2009 due in part to makeup concerns, there’s no guarantee that he would have been able to stay controversy-free.
Looking into his potential in Japan, Balentien seems like an ideal player to make his way to NPB (and I wouldn’t be the first person to think so). His power could turn heads, especially considering his new home park is the extremely homer-friendly Jingu Stadium. However, he may not be able to adjust to his opponents' slow, methodical windups and breaking balls. Similarly, if Balentien has some sort of Rod Allen-esque meltdown in his first year in the league, he could find himself available on the market once again.
Signed out of Hanyang University in Seoul, Park became the first South Korean-born player ever to appear in a major-league game in 1994. Now 37, Park is jumping the puddle again, this time landing in a country just east of his Korean roots. As he prepares for his debut with the Orix Buffaloes, let’s take a look at Park’s recent numbers.
Park has been close to a league-average pitcher over the last few years. Other than a one-start stint with the Mets, Park has consistently shown that he can still eat innings and be semi-effective. Though his ERA has been high over the last few seasons, SIERA believes that there was some flukiness. He also maintained an above-average strikeout and miniscule walk rates well into his 30s.
Park’s days of starting every fifth day have been over for quite a while but, as a reliever, the former Philadelphia Phillie could have been a productive 11th or 12th man in a bullpen in 2011. However, given reliever volatility and the rise in market value of bullpen help, it’s hard to blame teams for preferring to look either internally or at younger arms to round out their pitching staff. Park likely would have had to accept a minor-league deal and a spring training invite, so it’s hard to blame him for looking to take his services elsewhere either.
As a Buffalo, Park will find himself in the very pitcher-friendly Pacific League division of NPB. While his home park had run and home-run factors of 1.19 and 1.17 last season, the rest of the stadiums in his league have factors well below that. Combine the comfort of roomy league venues with the fact that he will essentially be pitching against Triple-A-level batters, and Park should be successful in the twilight of his career.