Around 11 months ago, I checked in on a player dominating in a foreign league who appeared likely to return stateside. Eric Thames ripped minor-league pitching, struggled in MLB, and then went on to dominate in KBO for three seasons before finding success back in MLB with the Brewers this season at the age of 30.
Like Thames, Wladimir Balentien ripped minor-league pitching (.283/.351/.535 with 67 homers in 1,271 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, according to Baseball-Reference), struggled in the Majors (.221/.281/.374 with a 72 wRC+, 7.9% BB% and 26.7% K% in 559 plate appearances) and found success overseas. Balentien began playing in NPB for the Yakult Swallows as a 26-year-old in 2011 and has mashed in seven seasons slashing .278/.385/.573 with 211 homers, a 14.7% BB% and 21.4% K% in 2,947 plate appearances, per Baseball-Reference.
The slugging outfielder set a new single-season NPB record for homers by slugging 60 in 2013. Balentien’s homer outburst as well as more homers across NPB that season in general sparked a discussion about the balls being juiced (sound familiar?). Jay Jaffe wrote about the NPB juiced ball scandal for Sports Illustrated back in 2013. Within the linked article, it’s revealed the balls were altered that season in order to boost offense. Before chalking up Balentien’s massive season to being entirely the product of an altered baseball, it’s important to get the full picture of the offensive environment in seasons leading up to 2013. Balentien smacked exactly 31 homers in back-to-back seasons during a “dead-ball era” in 2011 and 2012. He also followed up his record-setting season with 31 homers in 446 plate appearances with a .301/.419/.587 slash, 16.8% BB% and 21.3% K% in 2014.
Skip ahead to this season, and Balentien is still raking in his age-32 season. The 33-year-old outfielder is hitting .284/.381/.554 with 26 homers, a 12.9% BB% and 20.1% K% in 388 plate appearances. Earlier this year, Balentien played in the World Baseball Classic for the Netherlands. Not only did he play in the WBC, he played extremely well leading the tournament with four homers in 26 at-bats while slashing an insane .615/.677/.1.115. Back in March, Balentien indicated that he hoped his excellent tournament play, “opens a couple doors for me, maybe, coming back to the States.” He also said, “of course, I’m always thinking that I can get a second chance to play in the major leagues,” when discussing the possibility of returning to the States after this season.
Balentien’s age — he’ll open next year at 33 years old and turn 34 in July — makes him less intriguing than Thames was at this time last year. As was the case with Milwaukee’s slugger last year, Balentien’s landing spot remains unclear. It’s possible he doesn’t return to MLB or he ends up signing with a club that plays its home games in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. The former would make him a non-fantasy option in 2018 and the latter would reduce the appeal of rostering him. Having said that, forward thinking gamers in deep keeper leagues and dynasty formats with favorable keeper rules for players scooped out of the free-agent pool might want to add him. He’s not in the player pool in ESPN, Yahoo! and Ottoneu leagues, but his CBS player page indicates he’s 0% owned, and it’s possible he’s in the player pool there (though, I can’t confirm since I don’t play in any CBS hosted leagues).
For those wondering what to expect from Balentien, Dan Szymborski was kind enough to help with an outlook by providing some ZiPS projections. Dan noted when sharing the projections that a slight decline in play from 2012-2013 as well as an Achilles injury that sidelined him for most of 2015 have resulted in a decline in his projection from his best years. For next year, ZiPS projects Balentien for 426 at-bats, 25 homers, 45 walks, 122 strikeouts and a .251/.324/.469 slash line. If you’re more bullish on his playing time, he looks like a 30-plus homer hitter with an average that’s less damaging than someone like Khris Davis, for instance. Balentien’s 2019 projection slips to 21 homers, 40 walks, 107 strikeouts and a triple slash of .251/.320/.456 in 395 at-bats, but that’s still a useful line in larger leagues, namely if he can be added now with a minimal keeper cost commitment. Balentien is a name to keep an eye on in the offseason, and gamers in re-draft leagues can reassess his value after he finds a home prior to fantasy drafts.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.