Right-hander Hector Mendoza, a Cuban-born right-hander who had been pitching for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball, has left Japan and will pursue Major League free agency, reports Jorge Ebro of El Nuevo Herald. Mendoza will head to an unknown third country to establish residency as the next part of the process.
The 22-year-old Mendoza won’t turn 23 until next May and has just four seasons of experience in the Cuban National Series, so he’ll be subject to international spending limitations. The bulk of his professional experience playing in Cuba and Japan has come out of the bullpen (some as a closer), where he’s pitched to a 2.95 ERA with a 110-to-88 K/BB ratio in 149 2/3 innings. Those numbers don’t look especially eye-catching, but Mendoza comes with plenty of upside all the same, as Baseball America’s Ben Badler ranked him among the top 15 available talents in April 2015 (subscription required and recommended). At the time, Badler wrote that Mendoza could make the transition from the bullpen to the Majors and praised his 90-94 mph fastball, strike-throwing ability and in-zone command. Mendoza also has an average curveball that flashes plus, per Badler, and as of that scouting report, was making progress on a changeup as well. While Baseball-Reference lists him at 6’2″ and 176 pounds, Badler wrote after seeing him at the PanAm Games in July 2015 that he was up to 6’3″ and 195 pounds. Considering his age, it seems fair to suggest that Mendoza could continue to add to his frame.
It’s impossible at this juncture to put a timeline on Mendoza’s path to MLB free agency. It’s not uncommon for Cuban prospects to require upwards of a year — and in some cases, even longer — to ultimately secure free agency. As Ebro points out, many Cuban defectors ultimately establish residency in the Dominican Republic or Haiti before they’re cleared as free agents by Major League Baseball, but little is known about the path that Mendoza will take. If Mendoza does ultimately land with a big league club, though, he’ll require a fair bit of time in the minor leagues. He hasn’t pitched regularly in Cuba’s top league since the 2013-14 season, and while he’s made a handful of appearances in international tournaments and in Japan, he’ll need further development and ample opportunity to shake off some rust.