By Cliff Corcoran
This year's World Baseball Classic still has a handful of games remaining, including the semifinals and finals on Monday through Wednesday, but already there have been a number of formerly anonymous (at least to most American observers) breakout stars. It remains to be seen if any of these men will have Major League futures, but they'll always be able to take pride in their performance in this year's Classic.
Josh Zeid, RHP, Israel
WBC Stats: 4 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 2 SV, 0.00 ERA, 10 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 6 BB, 10 Ks
A 10th-round pick of the Phillies out of Tulane in 2009, Zeid spent two years in the Astros' bullpen, but hasn't appeared in the Majors since 2014. Last year, after failing to earn a job in Angels camp, he opened the season in independent ball before signing a Minor League deal with the Mets in June and spending the rest of the year bouncing between Double- and Triple-A. Granted free agency in November, he remains unsigned, but he made a great case for himself over the last two weeks as arguably the most valuable player, and certainly the most valuable pitcher, for the Cinderella team of this year's tournament (before it was eliminated), Team Israel.
Zeid, who can get his fastball into the mid-90s, closed out Israel's tournament-opening win against Korea with three scoreless innings, retired five of six batters faced to picked up the save against semifinalist Netherlands to finish the first round, retired four of five to record the save against Cuba to open the second round, then started Israel's final game against 6-0 Japan and twirled four scoreless frames against the best lineup on Israel's side of the bracket. Zeid will turn 30 this month, and his six walks in the tournament did nothing to quell the concerns about his control that have plagued him throughout his career. Nonetheless, he would seem to be worth a look as a versatile righty reliever, and couldn't have asked for a better platform to present himself to Major League scouts who may have written him off.
John Andreoli, RF/CF, Italy
WBC Stats: .316/.350/.842, 6-for-19, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 8 Ks
Of the players on this list, Andreoli is the only one who departed a Major League Spring Training camp to join his Classic team, having been in camp with the Cubs as a non-roster invitee. With Italy, Andreoli wasn't just productive, his were some of Italy's most important hits of the tournament. Andreoli announced his presence immediately in the opening game against Mexico, homering in his first at-bat, then delivering the walk-off single that capped Italy's five-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth in what would prove to be the team's only win. In the next game, a wild, seesaw affair against Venezuela, Andreoli's lone hit tied the game at 8 in the bottom of the eighth. In Game 3, he delivered a two-run homer in the top of the first against Puerto Rico, and in the tiebreaker game against Venezuela, he hit a seventh-inning solo homer to give Italy a 2-1 lead that lasted until the top of the ninth.
Guadalajara's mile-high altitude likely aided that power display. Andreoli has hit just 20 home runs in 565 Minor League games. Still, 12 of those homers came in Triple-A last year and he is entering his age-27 season, so his power could be maturing. If there was ever a time to give Andreoli a chance as a fourth or fifth outfielder, it is now. Unfortunately for him, the Cubs' roster is an especially difficult one to crack, particularly as a hitter. Also working against Andreoli is the fact that the spike in strikeout rate that accompanied his career high in homers last year followed him to Mexico, where he struck out in eight of 20 plate appearances. Still, the real Andreoli can get on base (.374 career OBP in the Minors) and steal bases (43 steals at a 78 percent success rate for Iowa last year) while playing all three outfield positions. It's not unthinkable that Andreoli could slip past fellow right-handed hitter Matt Szczur on to the Cubs' roster at some point this season.
Esteban Quiroz, 2B/RF, Mexico
WBC Stats: .667/.800/.1.833, 4-for-6, 2B, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 3 BB, 0 K
Small sample warnings apply to every entry on this list, but Quiroz is an extreme case, having come to the plate just 10 times in the Classic. For a larger sample, look at his batting line over 416 plate appearances for the Tigres de Quintana Roo in the Mexican League last year. Quiroz hit .335/.449/.552 for the Tigres in his age-24 season, hitting 15 home runs and drawing 66 walks against just 48 strikeouts. Yes, the Mexican League is an extreme hitter's league, but those are tremendous numbers from a player who just turned 25 last month and can play six positions (second, short, third and all over the outfield). The catch is that Quiroz is a stocky 5-foot-7 and plays so many different positions in part because he's not particularly adept at any of them but his left-handed bat is too valuable to bench. Indeed, the reason he had so few plate appearances despite starting all three of Mexico's games in the Classic is that he didn't finish any of them, removed for a righty pinch-hitter, a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement.
Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, LF, Japan
WBC Stats: .364/.462/.773, 8-for-22, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 4 BB
Tetsuto Yamada, 2B, Japan
WBC Stats: .320/.419/.640, 8-for-25, 2 2B, 2 HR, 5 BB, 2 SB
Kodai Senga, RHP, Japan
WBC Stats: 3 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K
Every World Baseball Classic has provided Major League fans with an early look at Japanese stars who would later sign with Major League clubs. This year, we were hoping to get a look at two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, but he missed the Classic due to an ankle injury, and the limits of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which applies international spending limits to any player under the age of 25, will delay his seemingly inevitable arrival in the States. Ohtani won't turn 23 until July, but Senga turned 24 in January, Yamada will be 25 in July, and Tsutsugoh turned 25 in November. Chances are at least one of that trio, and likely more, will be in the Major Leagues by the time the next World Baseball Classic arrives in 2021.
Tsutsugoh hit .322/.430/.680 with 44 homers in 133 games for the Yokohama Bay Stars last year and has shown an impressive, all-fields approach thus far in the Classic. Yamada reached 30 homers, 30 steals, a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage, and .600 slugging percentage in each of the last two seasons for the Yakult Swallows. Senga's regular-season statistics have been less spectacular, but he has mid-90s velocity, good secondary stuff, and historically Japanese pitchers have had more success in the Major Leagues than Japanese hitters.
Alfredo Despaigne, LF, Cuba
WBC Stats: .474/.583/.947, 9-for-19, 3 HR, 4 BB, SB
Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote that Yasmany Tomas, then 22, Jose Abreu, then 26, and Despaigne, also 26, were the three members of Team Cuba most likely to defect and join a Major League club. Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox that October. Tomas signed a six-year, $68.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks in December of the following year. Despaigne stayed in Cuba, which has allowed him to play in Nippon Professional Baseball since 2014. Now entering his age-31 season, he signed a three-year deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last month worth a reported $16.2 million.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.