A Wladimir Balentien return is overdue
Last offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers surprised many by opting to non-tender 2016 NL home run leader Chris Carter, and instead sign first baseman Eric Thames to a three-year, $15 million contract out of the Korean Baseball Organization. While Thames was unable to keep up his historic pace from the first month of the season, he was still a bargain for the Brewers at $4 million, hitting .247/.359/.518 with 31 HR, 63 RBI, and 75 BB. With that in mind, for teams looking for affordable right-handed power, they should look no further than the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) in Japan, and consider signing 33-year-old Wladimir Balentien.
If you’re wondering why you’ve heard of Balentien, it may have been because of his three, uninspiring seasons in the MLB from 2007-2009, where Balentien played in a total of 170 games for the Mariners and Reds. Upon leaving the MLB, Balentien was a career .221/.281/.374 hitter, with 15 HR, 52 RBI, and a dreadful 44 to 149 BB:K ratio. Plain and simple, Balentien was a fringe major league hitter.
In 2011, Balentien headed to Japan and signed with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the NPB, and like Thames and Cecil Fielder before him completely changed his career around. The 2013 Central League MVP and a four-time NBP All-Star, Balentien burst onto the scene in 2011, hitting 31 home runs in 140 games; however, he also hit .228 with a .783 OPS, leaving something to be desired. In 2012, Balentien put it all together, again hitting 31 HR, but despite playing in only 106 games, he upped his RBI total to 81 and improved his average to .272, and OPS to .958.
While the names Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera may not jump out at fans, Sadaharu Oh likely will, as the Japanese Babe Ruth was tied with Rhodes and Cabrera for the single-season home run record in the NPB with 55. In his 2013, MVP winning season, Balentien shattered that record in a season for the ages with 60 home runs in only 130 games, while also hitting .330/.455/.779 with 131 RBI. Excluding 2014, when he only played 15 games, Balentien averaged 31 home runs and 81 RBI from 2014-2017, and never saw his OBP drop below .358, or OPS drop below .864. In total, over his seven seasons in the NPB from 2011-2017, Balentien has hit .273/.381/.564 with 217 HR and 539 RBI, which again excluding his injury prone 2015 season totals of 1 HR and 6 RBI, put him at six-year seasonal averages of 38 home runs and 88 runs batted in.
On a global stage, Balentien was arguably the best player in the entire 2017 World Baseball Classic, being named to the 2017 WBC All-Tournament Team, and winning Pool E MVP. In Pool A play against Korea and Chinese Taipei, two of the world’s best teams, Balentien hit cleanup for his native Netherlands and went 5 for 8 with a walk and a run scored. After walking twice to conclude Pool A play against Israel, Balentien finished the first round of the WBC hitting .556 with a 1.223 OPS.
As great as Balentien was in the first round of WBC play, it was in the second round, in Pool E, where the slugger announced himself to a global audience. Against two-time WBC champion Japan, Balentien got Pool E play started by going 2 for 5 with a two-run home run. Needing a win to stay alive in their next game, the Netherlands trounced Israel 12-2, with Balentien right in the middle of the action after going 3 for 4 with three RBI, and three runs scored. But Balentien saved his best for last, going 3 for 4 with three runs scored, two home runs, and 5 RBI as the Netherlands shocked Cuba 14-1 to advance to the championship round of the WBC. In total, Balentien finished the second round of the WBC hitting .615 with 1.951 OPS, 3 home runs, and an astonishing 10 RBI in three games.
While the Netherlands ultimately fell 4-3 to Puerto Rico in an extra-innings classic, Balentien did all he could to carry his Dutch teammates into the championship, going 3 for 4 with a home run, double, two runs scored, and two runs batted in. While his age may scare some front offices away, there are crazier gambles to be had, as Balentien has proven he can dominate the same NPB pitching that GMs pay huge amounts of money for, and is coming off of WBC where he raked against some of the best foreign pitchers in the world. At this point, all he needs is a chance to prove himself, much like the Brewers gave Thames one year ago. And as Brewers fans will likely tell you, sometimes long shots pay off the biggest.