The World Baseball Classic kicked off yesterday and this year, just like each event since its inception, the WBC will showcase the best talent on the planet. 2013 will be the third WBC and is sure to expose the world to some of the next wave of emerging baseball players. The WBC is a platform for players from countries outside the US to show what they can do against elite competition. Several players who put themselves on the map in international competition are now playing in the Major Leagues and are deserving of fantasy attention.
Alexei Ramirez, SS, Chicago White Sox
Ramirez caught the eye of several scouts while playing center field for Cuba in the 2006 WBC. He ended up signing with the White Sox to play shortstop and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. It looked like fantasy players had a new power/speed threat to target on draft day after Ramirez hit .290 with 21 home runs and 13 stolen bases. Unfortunately, Ramirez hasn't hit those numbers since. He maintained double digits in home runs and stolen bases until 2011 when he stole 7 bases in 12 attempts and followed by hitting only 9 home runs in 2012. Ramirez has 15/15 potential and maybe 20/20 but he hasn't been able to put it all together since his rookie season.
Dayan Viciedo, OF, Chicago White Sox
Viciedo didn't actually play in the WBC but he almost made the 2006 roster for Cuba at the age of 16. He left Cuba in 2008 and capitalized on Alexei Ramirez' success by signing with the White Sox that offseason. Power is Viciedo's best attribute and he showed what he can do given a full slate of at bats when he hit 25 home runs in 2012. He has good bat speed and the ability to put the bat on the ball but he swings at too many pitches out of the zone. He had a fly ball rate of only 31.4% last year, a number that will limit home run production, so you would like to see him hit some more balls in the air. He posted a strong LD% so I would expect his BABIP to normalize a bit and I think he comes in at more of a .275 hitter than .255 in 2013. Viciedo will be 24 in 2013 and I think we see him take another step forward. He's a good source of cheap power that should be available later in drafts.
Norichika Aoki, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Aoki played in the 2006 WBC but he really stood out in 2009 when he led Japan to their second title. He hit .324 with 7 RBIs during the tournament and signed with Milwaukee in the 2011-2012 offseason. Aoki led Nippon Professional Baseball three times and posted a career slash line of .329/.377/.426 in Japan. He also averaged 23 stolen bases per season but hadn't stolen more than 20 bases since stealing 31 in 2008. Scouts were divided about how Aoki would fare in the U.S. since he struggled after NPB switched to a baseball similar to the ball used in the MLB and WBC. Aoki responded by hitting .288 with a .788 OPS. He also stole 30 bases and hit 10 home runs. He's projected to hit at the top of a very good Brewers lineup so scoring 80 or more runs again is definitely projectable. The only concern about Aoki is that he will be 31 this season and his decreasing stolen base production in Japan may point reduced speed. That said, Aoki will post a good average and run totals but I wouldn't expect double digit home runs or 30 stolen bases again. I'm expecting around 8 home runs and 25 stolen bases - numbers similar to what I think Ichiro will do but you'll be able to get him at a cheaper price.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Oakland Athletics
Yoenis Cespedes was the star of the 2009 WBC hitting .458 with 2 home runs and 3 triples during the tournament. Although his tools were on display during those games and he was well known in scouting circles, it was this video that had everyone (including baseball fans) talking about him. All of the references to "core power" and "explosive ability" proved true as Cespedes exceeded even the loftiest expectations for a Cuban defector who lacked polish and who struggled against good breaking pitches. He broke camp with the Athletics and never looked back. Cespedes hit .282 with 23 home runs, 16 stolen bases, 70 runs and 82 RBIs in his first year in Major League Baseball. He was able to make some adjustments during the season to address his issues with breaking balls and went on to hit .311 with 14 home runs in the second half. He missed some time due to injury so with a full season this year and some more improvement, Cespedes has a chance to go 30/20 with excellent run and RBI totals. Cespedes is a top 10 outfielder in my book and I'll be targeting him in the late second to early third round.
Kyuji Fujikawa, RP, Chicago Cubs
Fujikawa was one of the elite relief pitchers in Japan for almost a decade but had to wait to become a free agent before joining a Major League club because his NPB team would not post him. He signed with the Cubs this offseason and will compete for with Carlos Marmol the closer's role during Spring Training. He has good command and control and has the experience of pitching in high leverage situations. Fujikawa throws a low to mid-90s fastball and uses a splitter as his out pitch. Marmol will probably start the season as the closer but if he struggles or gets traded, look to Fujikawa as the next option and be sure to snatch him off the waiver wire if you're in need of saves. He's also a nice option if you miss out on closers in your draft and want to take a flyer on a guy who may have the job at some point this season.
Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers
Yu Darvish was the most hyped Japanese pitcher to come to the U.S. since Daisuke Matsuzaka made the switch in 2007. Darvish was billed as a "different" pitcher than the usual soft throwing Japanese players who came over and pitched to contact. Scouts love his aggressiveness and his willing to pitch inside to hitters. He's definitely a strikeout pitcher who mixes speeds as well as changes planes and keeps hitters off balance. He throws four fastballs (two-seam, four-seam, cutter and split-finger), two curveballs and a devastating slider. He barely threw his changeup and, with his arsenal of pitches that all show plus potential at times, he didn't really need it. Darvish struggled some with his command early but was able to make the appropriate adjustments and decreased his BB/9 from 4.65 to 3.65. He ranked 9th among starting pitchers in swinging strike percentage and 6th is total strikeouts with 221 Ks in 191.1 innings. Darvish has the pedigree of an ace and has the potential to be a top 5 fantasy starter.
Hisashi Iwakuma, SP, Seattle Mariners
Iwakuma led Japan to the 2009 WBC title going 1-1 with 15 strikeouts and a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings pitched. He struggled as a reliever when first joining the Mariners in 2012, but found his groove when he moved into the rotation. He held opposing batters to a .246 average as a starter and posted 2.65 ERA. He struck out 78 hitters in 95 innings and walked only 28. Iwakuma's stuff doesn't compare to Darvish and he's not as young or athletic, but he still has value in deeper leagues and as a spot starter.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ryu is the only player on this list who has not played in the States but the Dodgers thought he was worth a bid of over $25 million and a $36 million contract. Some scouts see him more as a reliever because of questions about his secondary pitches but the Dodgers believe in his changeup and slider. His fastball sits in the low 90s and touches 94 mph with some cutting action but it isn't a dominant offering. Although he's a bit heavy, he's not unathletic and repeats his delivery well which allows him to log innings. If he reaches his potential, he'll stick as the Dodgers' number three and profiles as a low-end number three in fantasy as well. He'll be the first player to make the transition from KBO to MLB so its difficult to project how he will fare his first year in America.