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15 ex-major leaguers who are kicking ass in a different country

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From Yuniesky Betancourt to Ruben Rivera, here are the players who are still playing at a high level somewhere in the world.

Ruben Rivera #28

Carlos Zambrano has made six starts for the Leones de Yucatan of the Mexican League this year. There are a lot of words below this, but none of them are as important as the ones in that sentence. Somewhere, on this continent, Zambrano is living the alternate reality we deserve, the one where pitchers don’t float away when they’re 31 because the human body hates baseball. He could have been another CC Sabathia, dang it.

Also, Zambrano’s six starts haven’t been very good, but it’s important that you know that he’s still pitching.

This post is a roundup of players like Zambrano, former major leaguers who are playing somewhere other than Canada or the United States, except there’s one major difference: These players are thriving.

Are there any Eric Thameses or Miles Mikolases here? Probably not, but I’m not going to rule it out. At the very least, it’s worth taking a look at the players who are having awesome seasons in a different country, such as ...

Yuniesky Betancourt

What he’s doing: .382/.404/.579 for the Guerreros de Oaxaca of the Mexican League

The 36-year-old is a career -2-win player who somehow played 1,156 games in the majors, who ended his career by hitting .212/.240/.355 in 409 plate appearances with the Brewers in 2013. The funniest part was that he started that season by hitting dinger after dinger, with eight in his first 30 games and putting up a .846 OPS that actually led to at least one column about how he was enjoying a career renaissance. Instead, he hit .195/.220/.298 over his final 313 plate appearances, and major league teams stopped calling.

He’s raking in Mexico now. That is, simply, a gorgeous, yunieskian batting line, with a gap between his average and OBP that wouldn’t fit a sheet of paper. It’s beautiful.

Josh Lindblom

What he’s doing: 2.78 ERA, 145 IP, 33 BB, 140 K for the Doosan Bears of the KBO

Lindblom was a second-round pick by the Dodgers, and he was one of those projectable arms that frustrated whatever organization he was in while tantalizing everyone else. That led to him being shuffled around, first in a trade for Shane Victorino, then in a trade for Michael Young, and finally in a deal for Michael Choice.

After a solid season in Korea, Lindblom signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates before the 2017 season, and after 37 solid Triple-A innings, he pitched in four games in the majors before getting designated for assignment. He went back to Korea, where he’s currently the best pitcher in the league.

Darin Ruf

What he’s doing: .328/.417/.582 with 23 HR for the Samsung Lions of the KBO

Beta Rhys Hoskins is demolishing the KBO for the second straight season, hitting for average and power. He recently hit three dingers in one game against the Kia Tigers and is one of the better hitters in the league.

Does he have a chance to be the next Eric Thames? Maaaaaybe, but it’s worth noting that Thames had a cool 200 point OPS advantage — 300 points in his best year — than even Ruf’s near 1.000 mark. There’s chance we’ll see Ruf again, but also keep in mind that he’s already 32 somehow. That makes me feel older than my daughter beating me in Mario Kart.

Everth Cabrera

What he’s doing: .441/.484/.525 for the Leones de Yucatan of the Mexican League

This is cheating because the Mexican League is split into two seasons, so that slash line is just for his last 132 plate appearances. And it’s very much worth noting that the Mexican League is like a thought experiment where almost every normal ballpark is replaced with Coors Field. But are you not entertained? Everth Cabrera, who was released after hitting for a .533 OPS in Triple-A last year, is absolutely raking for the Yucatan Lions.

Reminder that Cabrera once led the National League with 44 stolen bases and made the all-star team the next year. I could still see him on a bench in the future, even if that absurd line is almost certainly a fluke. He’s only 31, after all.

Dayan Viciedo

What he’s doing: .316/.392/.510 for the Chunichi Dragons of the Japan Central League

Here’s my pick for Most Likely To Return To The Majors for a few reasons. The first is that he’s still just 29. The second is that he was already close to a major league hitter, with a 95 OPS+ in his final MLB season the lowest of his last three years.

It’s the third reason that stands out for me, though: He’s changed his game in Japan. In 385 plate appearances this year, he’s taken 35 walks and struck out just 44 times. That’s not the hacker we remember, and he’s been rewarded with that gaudy batting average. Does that mean he can thrive in the majors right now? Not necessarily, but he’s sure checking off all the boxes that you would want to see from a player with unmistakeable natural talent who used to swing first and ask questions later.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

What he’s doing: 2.55 ERA in eight starts for the Chunichi Dragons of the Japan Central League

Look the stats aren’t actually that impressive once you get past the ERA, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t pretty, but I just wanted to let you know that Dice-K is still pitching and getting outs.

This also allows me to remind you of his pitching motion, just in case you had forgotten:

Wait for it. Waaaaait for it.


Intermission — the former major leaguers who have been kicking butt in Japan for several years now


Randy Messenger

What he’s doing: 3.54 ERA, 119.1 IP, 33 BB, 108 K for the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League

Just a reminder that Messenger has been like the Corey Kluber of Japan for years, and that the numbers up there represent a down season. The 36-year-old has pitched at a high level for nine seasons now, and he definitely had/has the talent to be an effective starter in the majors. He’d rather be an ace where he’s comfortable than a guy on a show-me contract like Miles Mikolas, apparently, and I can respect the hell out of that.

Wladimir Balentien

What he’s doing: .275/.381/.540 with 26 HR for the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League

Just a reminder that Balentien is a star in Japan, even if his numbers aren’t as absurd as they were in 2013, when he posted an ultra-rare Luggage-Lock Combination OPS of 1.234.

Not kidding about that star part:

Hmmm, stay in a place with the best food in the world where you rake and star in beer commercials with a weird version of “Smoke on the Water” in the background, or fight for a bench job with the Rangers in spring training. What a brutal decision. Tick tock, tick tock.

Jose Lopez

What he’s doing: .312/.335/.568 with 17 HR for the Yokohama Bay Stars of the Japan Central League

Just a reminder that Lopez is still punishing the NPB. And also a reminder that he made the MLB All-Star Game when he was just 22, and put up a .297/.322/.443 line in Seattle when he was just 24, so maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised.

Unlike Balentien, though, this is Lopez’s best season in Japan, and it’s fair to suggest that his average-dependent OBP isn’t the most stable of stats. If he came back to MLB, he would probably be latter-day Jose Lopez, which wasn’t a lot of fun.

Still, look at him rake against high-level competition. That is a lot of fun.


End intermission


Jamie Romak

What he’s doing: .331/.417/.648 with 35 HR for the SK Wyverns of the KBO

I know very little about Romak, but I can’t ignore that kind of season. He’s putting Ruf to shame, and it’s coming just a season after hitting 11 homers for the Padres’ Triple-A team in 95 at-bats, which seems good.

Alas, though, he’s already 32, which lowers the odds of him going full Eric Thames on us. He sure is having a heckuva season, though.

Jared Hoying

What he’s doing: .327/.390/.622 with 25 HR for the Hanwha Eagles of the KBO

Hoying played in 74 games for the Rangers before going over, so he certainly qualifies as a “former major leaguer,” but unlike a lot of the players on this list, he didn’t have a history of dominating the minors. His absolutely highest OPS in Triple-A was .842, and his average OPS was .773, so I don’t know where this is coming from, either. The quality gap between those two leagues just isn’t that great.

He’s just 29, so he could make a return if he keeps hitting like this. Besides, he can also pitch.

Daniel Moskos

What he’s doing: 1.55 ERA, 29.0 IP, 5 BB, 29 K for the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican League

It turns out that the 2007 MLB Draft was kind of a dog, so unless Madison Bumgarner was the next player on the Pirates’ draft board, it’s hard to get too grumpy about a missed pick. Still, if you’re a Pirates fan who likes to wallow in a pool of regret, here’s a rubber ducky of a name to float on top.

The Mexican League, again, is a hitter’s paradise. The average hitting line is .294/.364/.436, and the average ERA is 5.05. While Tijuana doesn’t have the kind of elevation that causes problems for the pitchers on other teams, it’s still easy to be impressed at that small-sample performance in the ML.

Moskos was just OK in his last stint in Triple-A, so there probably isn’t a comeback that’s imminent, but I’m a sucker for former top draft picks grinding out a career, so I’m rooting for him.

Norichika Aoki

What he’s doing: .316/.412/.456 for the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League

He can probably put that slash line up when he’s 44, so I’m not pretending to be surprised. I’m including him as an excuse to link back to one of my personal favorite articles on this website.

Daric Barton

What he’s doing: .283/.473/.478 for the Pericos de Puebla of the Mexican League

How could this not be Daric Barton’s line in the Mexican League? I don’t even think the scorekeeper keeps stats on him. Just goes to the restroom before every plate appearance and pencils in a walk or a hit 47 percent of the time. It’s beautiful.

Ruben Rivera

What he’s doing: .256/.407/.406 for the Acereros de Monclova of the Mexican League.

Finally, we get to the best one. Ruben Rivera is 44. He’s still playing. And he’s still helping his team win. Hell yes.

This is a down season for him, actually, as Rivera spent much of his late 30s putting up an OPS over 1.000 in the Mexican League. Still, there is another Julio Franco out there right now, and his name is Ruben Rivera. Let us all hope that he plays until he’s 53.

He hit against Dennis Eckersley when he was pitching for the A’s, you know.

Will any of these players make it back? If we’re lucky, Rivera will, and he’ll play for the Marlins.

DEREK JETER: What the ...

DEREK JETER: My fountain pen was just here.

But the odds are long for all of them. The point, though, isn’t to wonder if they’re all coming back to Major League Baseball. The point is that they’re all still playing somewhere, and they’re kicking some serious butt. Thank you.