Two of the larger story lines of this baseball off season have been the pursuit of Yu Darvish and Yeonis Cespedes. Ironically, both ended up signing for American League West teams. And the two acquisitions point to the difficulty in evaluating obtaining players from both countries. We have the scouting reports and how the players performed relative to the competition in their respective countries. But nobody knows how that will translate to success in Major League Baseball. Ozzie Guillen said it best. Wanting such players is like gambling.
Getting players from either Cuba or Japan is difficult. Japan has the posting situation where a team has to first pay the Japanese team that owns the rights to the player just for the opportunity to negotiate a deal. As the Darvish deal shows, that can be an expensive proposition. It goes without saying that a Cuban player has to first defect from his country, obtain citizenship in another country and then get a visa to play in the United States. Cuban defectors then become free agents that instigate bidding wars for their services. The final tally for the Oakland Athletics was $36 million for four years for Cespedes.
Naturally, when you have to lay out that amount of cash to obtain a player, you want that player to play in the majors and not the minors. Many experts insist that Cuban baseball is the equivalent to High A minor league baseball. It's not a guarantee that such players are ready for prime time. Japanese players have even more resistance to the idea of pitching in the minors. For a Japanese player to want to leave their home country, they want to play at the highest level in this country.
To get some kind of handle on the value proposition, a search was made of Cuban born players since 1980. The 1980 date assumes that the player in question was more highly likely to been a defection situation since those players were likely born after Fidel Castro came into power in Cuba. The search found forty players who have played a total of 173 years in the majors. Of course, many of those years were partial seasons, but we'll stick with that for now.
A similar search also found 45 Japanese players who have played a total of 175 years. This near-symmetry gives us a nice comparison point. The list of success stories among these players is not a large one. Five of the 40 Cuban players have put together careers of more than 10 bWAR. Six of the Japanese players have compiled more than 10 bWAR thus far. Sixteen of the Japanese players have negative WAR totals. Fifteen of the Cuban players have compiled negative WAR totals for their career.
Career leaders among the Japanese players:
- Ichiro Suzuki - 54.5 WAR
- Hideo Nomo - 20.6 WAR
- Hideki Matsui - 16.9 WAR
- Takashi Saito - 11.1 WAR
Career leaders among Cuban players:
- Livan Hernandez - 27.6 WAR
- Orlando Hernandez - 21.1 WAR
- Yunel Escobar - 17.2 WAR
- Jose Contreras - 13.9 WAR
That's not an overly impressive list. There are probably better ways to calculate value for Cuban and Japanese players than years played because of the obvious problem in that many of those years were partial years. Perhaps others have done better work at figuring the value proposition here. But for the sake of making a point, Japanese players have played 175 combined seasons and have compiled 205.1 WAR or 1.172 WAR per season. Cuban players have only accumulated 120 war in their 173 combined seasons or .69 WAR per season. Of course, if you take Ichiro out of the mix (the one true superstar among all of these players) the Japanese players come down to .92 WAR per season.
Players from these two countries provide strong interest among clubs in Major League Baseball. And while the teams should scour the world for talent, there is risk involved. Obtaining such players can be expensive and as we have seen in our crude little study, the value obtained hasn't been great.