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January 17, 2011

Future Shock

10 International Prospects to Watch

by Kevin Goldstein

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The overwhelming majority of big-league rosters are still stocked with Americans, Canadians, and players from the two Latin American pipelines of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Still, the game continues to expand its global reach, with particular emphasis placed lately on both Europe and Africa. With that in mind, here are 10 prospects—of varying abilities—who could end up in the majors in the near future. In addition, the wide range of home countries of the guys on this list serves as evidence of the changing international market.

Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves (Colombia)
Venezuela's neighbor to the west has yet to become a hotbed for baseball talent, but it has produced veteran shortstops Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria. Mound talent from Columbia consists of Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Emiliano Fruto and San Diego Padres reliever Ernesto Frieri. Teheran, whose uncle is a scout, was the best pitcher in the 2007 international signing class, and three years later he's arguably the top pitching prospect in the game. His combination of power stuff and advanced command gives him true ace potential, and he has struck out more than a man per inning in his minor-league career. Although he is still a few days shy of his 20th birthday, Teheran is slated to begin the year at Double-A, and could be in the big leagues before he's 21.

Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B, Kansas City Royals (Nicaragua)
While Dennis Martinez is still baseball's most famous import from Nicaragua, the top position player remains former San Francisco Giants outfielder Marvin Benard. While he's only 18 years old and, as a result, still far away from breaking into the big leagues, Cuthbert has a shot at changing all of that. The recipient of a $1.35 million bonus in 2009, Cuthbert showed impressive hitting skills in his pro debut, and scouts also walked away impressed with his defense, projecting him to be above average both with the bat and the glove. He'll make his full-season debut in 2011, and because he's coming up in baseball's best system, there's no need to rush him.

Luis Heredia, LHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Mexico)
Mexico tends to be a place where teams find fringe help, as organizations often uncover veteran finesse pitchers who can throw strikes, spin a breaking ball and carry themselves well at Triple-A in the event that a need arrives. Heredia changed this dynamic during the summer by becoming the first top international pitcher to hail from Mexico. The suddenly aggressive Pirates took notice, signing the 16-year-old Heredia for $2.6 million. Already 6-foot-6 and throwing in the lower 90s, to say he's projectable doesn't do the word (or the player) justice. At the same time, however, like many on this list, he's eons away from the majors, so there is plenty of time for things to get in the way of his development.

Max Kepler, OF, Minnesota Twins (Germany)
While Kepler's .286/.346/.343 line last season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League might not impress at first glance, for many scouts, and even the Twins, it was a revelation. Kepler was given the largest bonus ever for a European position player at $800,000, and few expected anything more from him than a simple acclimation year, but his athleticism allowed him to more than hold his own during his pro debut. The son of ballet dancers (his mother is American), Kepler doesn't turn 18 until February and has the potential to be a true five-tool talent. But even something like a 2016 big-league debut should be considered optimistic.

Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Tampa Bay Rays (Korea)
While power righty Chris Archer was the key to this month's Matt Garza deal, Lee was the best position player heading to Tampa in the trade. Few teams are busier in Asia, and the 20-year-old was always seen as the prize of the Cubs' work after signing for $725,000 in 2008.

His full-season debut was more of a hit than a miss—he posted a .354 OBP at Low-A Peoria—but hardly perfect. Nevertheless, while there's not much star potential here, scouts still think he can play every day as a shortstop with above-average defense and speed to go along with an offense that features a solid ability to hit for average. He'll head to High-A this year, and could apply some pressure to 2008 first overall pick Tim Beckham, one of the few bad stories out of Tampa's system of late.

Alex Liddi, 3B, Seattle Mariners (Italy)
Everyone knew that Liddi's 2009 batting line of .345/.411/.594 was a product of High Desert, the best hitting environment in the offense-heavy California league, but he did more than enough at Double-A last year to prove that he's really advanced his skills, hitting .281/.353/.476 in a far more neutral environment. Strikeouts and below-average defense will always be issues for Liddi, but scouts think some of his doubles will turn into home runs as his game matures—which could make up for his shortcomings.

Andrei Lobanov, LHP, Twins (Russia)
Sometimes it's just about putting your flag down, and that's the case with Lobanov as the Twins have long been known for their ability to find players in the dusty corners of the world. While Lobanov doesn't touch 90 mph with his fastball, he still compiled a 2.64 ERA between two A-ball levels in 2010, and scouts give him an outside chance of turning into a left-on-left specialist. Anything the Twins get out of Lobanov is gravy, as Eastern Europe is more of a long-term play at this point.

Gift Ngoepe, 2B, Pirates (South Africa)
The first black South African player to sign in the States, Ngoepe first caught the eyes of scouts with his performance in the World Baseball Classic, but he actually grew up around the game, as he was all but raised on the field of a local club team where his mother worked as a maid and maintenance person. After hitting .205/.315/.319 in the short-season New York-Penn League last year, he's a long shot to reach the show, but he does have above-average speed and a good approach. Like the Twins with Lobanov, this is a situation where the Pirates are hoping that in the future, when a more highly regarded talent from South Africa comes down the pike, he'll remember it was Pittsburgh that took a chance on Ngoepe.

Zhi-Fang Pan, 2B, Oakland Athletics (Taiwan)
Taiwan has become a major player in the international market, with many players getting six-figure bonuses. Included in this group is Pan, who signed for $125,000. Taiwan is unique in that Japan represents a big competitor for the top talent, and while major-league teams are usually willing to outbid NPB teams, the secondary talent still tends to go to Japan. Pan is still more of a sleeper than a true prospect, but his .331/.386/.439 stateside debut in the rookie-level Arizona League did open some eyes because of his quick bat and decent speed. With more and more teams sending scouts to Taiwan, the result has been that more Taiwanese players are landing on minor-league rosters, and the total of six players from the country to play in the big leagues should grow.

Junichi Tazawa, RHP, Boston Red Sox (Japan)
The question with Tazawa is this: Is his signing officially a failed experiment, or is the jury still out? While most Japanese players begin their careers in the Japanese professional leagues before coming stateside in the antiquated posting system, Tazawa bucked the trend by telling local teams not to draft him and then signing a major-league deal with the Red Sox. After reaching the majors in 2009 and looking like a potential back-of-the-rotation piece, Tazawa missed all of 2010 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. If his story was a bigger success, it could have led to a more consistent flow of Japanese amateur talent to the States, but for now, his slowed progress serves more to provide a note of caution.  

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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