Looking for the next Big Papi

In a growing global game, you better sign the right international free agents

By César Augusto Márquez

Major League Baseball celebrates its annual draft this week, hoping to find the next Carlos Correa, the number one pick in 2012, among first-year amateurs in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Just as important is July 2, when international free agents who are 16 can sign their first professional contracts, in short, where most Latinos get their chance to become the next Miggy, King Félix or Big Papi.

This year’s top international free agents have scouts salivating. The list includes a slender Brazilian who throws high heat; a shortstop from the Dominican Republic who is the nephew of a former Gold Glover; a Venezuelan catcher with good hands and raw power who’s already being compared to four-time All-Star Salvador Pérez and a mature young hurler who wants to be the next legendary Mexican pitcher. Here are their stories:

Trading goals for strikeouts

RHP Eric Eiji Taniguchi Pardinho
Born January 5, 2001 in São Paulo, Brazil
5-foot-10 / 155 pounds
Projected club: Toronto Blue Jays

How international is this year’s pool of international free agents? Jesse Sánchez of MLB.com points out that more than 4,000 prospects representing at least 24 countries — including Belarus, the British Virgin Islands, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Haiti and Sweden, to name a half-dozen exotic ball-playing destinations — have registered for the new signing period.

So why, then, are we not surprised that one of the first pitchers projected to be signed is a Paulistano, Eric Pardinho, a slender righty who throws 95 mph? Since Yan Gomes became the first Brazilian to reach the major leagues in 2012, the land of fútbol is becoming baseball’s next frontier.

Pardinho, of Japanese descent on his mother’s side, also plays soccer. Like many of his compatriots, he fancies himself a striker. But he fell in love with baseball at a young age, when he was barely four, during a visit to a ballpark in Kakegawa, Japan, where he lived as a child.

“I love scoring goals. I like to win,” said Pardinho in an interview with La Vida in Spanish. “But I never forgot my first visit to a ballpark. I liked it very much. And I became a pitcher, just like my grandfather, Eiji Taniguchi, and my uncle, Tadaki Higashi.”

Pardinho mesmerized scouts last summer during the COPABE U-16 Pan American Championships, striking out 12 in a game against the Dominican Republic.

“I had a hard time distinguishing between his changeup and slider,” a Venezuelan scout, who was present at the game and works for an American League East team, said in an interview with La Vida.

Still 15, Pardinho debuted with the Brazilian national team in a World Baseball Classic qualifier against Pakistan in September and got two outs to close out the sixth inning. He faced four batters, giving up a hit and walk, but without allowing a run in the 10-0 win.

“Having the chance to debut with the national team meant a lot to me,” said Pardinho. “I hope to be able to pitch for them many more times and help grow baseball in my country.”

Scouts hope that Pardinho fills out, but love his mindset and maturity. In that regard, he is pure Japanese, a product of Brazil’s famous CT Yakult Academy, where the emphasis for young pitchers is on fundamentals and technique, mastering the fastball and lifting weights before moving on to secondary pitches and more advanced facets of the game.

Pardinho calls himself a “normal kid who goes to school and plays baseball.” But he’s more a child of the global village. He speaks Portuguese, Spanish and Japanese, admires Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters pitcher-outfielder Shohei Otani, considered the top international prospect regardless of age.

To chill before games, Pardinho listens to GReeeeN, a Japanese hip-hop band. If he ever makes it to the major leagues, that might be a first for walk-up songs.

Other Brazilian prospects to watch: RHP Heitor Tokar

Like Uncle, Like Nephew

SS Wander Samuel Franco
Born March 1, 2001 in Baní, Dominican Republic
5-10 / 160
Projected club: Tampa Bay Rays

Thanks to the new MLB collective bargaining agreement, teams can spend only between $4.75 to $5.75 million for international free agents this year, with penalties for those clubs who exceed their bonus pool. Never again will a young, untested Yoan Mocada get $31.5 million or a Luis Robert $26 million.

But if someone gets $4 million or something close to the max, it will be Wander Samuel Franco, the No. 1 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com.

His DNA seeps baseball. A shortstop, he is the nephew of another campo corto, Erick Aybar, a 12-year veteran and former All-Star and Gold Glove winner playing this season with the San Diego Padres. And Franco’s two brothers, Wander Javier and Wander Alexander, are minor leaguers with the Kansas City Royals and the Houston Astros, respectively.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with him, and I think he’s a pretty complete prospect,” Aybar told MLB.com. “He can hit, he can play defense, he can run the bases. I think he’s going to be a really good prospect over the years (if) he keeps working.”

“If you watch Franco carefully, you can see that his build, movements and skills are like those of Erick Aybar, the difference being that Wander Samuel could end up hitting with more power,” a director of Latin American scouting for an American League Central team told La Vida.

Franco is rated so highly partly because of the way he carries himself on and off the field. Clearly, he’s learned from his uncle Aybar, working out with him in the offseason, from taking batting practice to lifting weights in the gym and running on the beach. Bloodlines count in baseball and Franco taking advantage of them.

“I’d like to be just like my Uncle Erick,” Franco told MLB.com

Other Dominican Republic prospects to watch: SS Jelfry Marte, SS Luis García, SS Ronny Mauricio.

A Baby Salva

C Daniel José Flores
Born October 21, 2000 in Porlamar, Venezuela
6-1 / 182
Projected club: Boston Red Sox

Miguel Cabrera — four-time batting champ, two-time MVP and Triple Crown winner — is a shining example of the importance of international free agents, signing with the Marlins on July 2, 1999. And since then, scouts have dug deep in Venezuela to find some of the best players in today’s game.

But they almost missed Daniel Flores, who was born in Margarita Island, off the northeast coast of Venezuela. He was discovered a couple of years ago by José Salas, a former player who is the coordinator for Béisbol y Amistad, a program run by the United States Embassy that offers baseball clinics in remote areas of the country.

“The first time that we saw him, we knew that he would be special. We could clearly see that he had a natural talent to play baseball,” said Salas, now his trainer, in an interview with La Vida in Spanish. If Salas sounds familiar, he has a brother by the same name who was a minor-league catcher and signed for more than $1 million with the Atlanta Braves in 1998.

The relationship between Salas and Flores has evolved into one akin to father-son.

“I’ve lived the past two years with José and his family and, frankly, I don’t see him as my coach, but as my father,” said Flores in an interview with La Vida in Spanish. “Both José and my mother, Rosa Urbaneja, have been key to my growth, both as a person and a professional.”

Scouts like Flores’ defensive skills. “He’s mature, has a polished arm and does things you normally don’t see in 16-year-old catchers,” said a representative from a National League West team.

“He stands out for his defensive skills, but he also has raw power and hits for average. For me, he’s another Salvador Pérez,” said a Latin American scouting director based in Venezuela who works for an American League team.

Even Pérez has taken notice and, according to Flores, has forwarded suggestions and tips.

“He’s been helping me a lot,” Flores said. “We share a common background since we both come from humble roots. We look alike physically and I hope to have a career like his.”

Other Venezuelan prospects to watch: OF Everson Pereira, OF Raimfer Salinas and C Antonio Cabello.

The rock of Sonora

RHP Damián Mendoza
Born January 25, 2001 in Sonora, México
6-1 / 190
Projected club: Texas Rangers

Considered the top prospect from Mexico and the top pitcher among international free agents, Damián Mendoza also grew up in a baseball family. His father played first base in amateur ball and his brother Abel played the same position for the Navojoa Mayos in the Mexican Pacific League.

“That’s why I fell in love with baseball,” Mendoza said in an interview with La Vida in Spanish.

Unlike his father and brother, he took to pitching, inspired not by Fernando Valenzuela or Esteban Loaíza, two of the best Mexican starters major league history, but by 22-year-old righty flamethrower Roberto Osuna, who has saved 72 games in 84 opportunities in less than 2½ seasons as the Toronto Blue Jays’ closer.

“I admire Roberto a lot,” Mendoza said. “I hope to the Lord that I have a chance to play with him and, most of all, to play for our country.”

Tall, fluid and loose, Mendoza’s heavy fastball tops out at 92 mph with late action. He also throws his curveball and changeup for strikes. If he looks like a future closer, he already talks like a future closer. His favorite band? AC/DC, just like Trevor Hoffman, who saved 601 games over 18 seasons, second to Mariano Rivera on the all-time list.

“I listen to rock before every game to relax,” Mendoza said. “I love AC/DC. Hoffman used to enter the game to “Hells Bells.” I would like to do it with “Thunderstruck.”

Other Mexican prospects to watch: SS Luis Verdugo.

Featured Image: Alex Trautwig / MLB Photos / Getty Images