Crew's top 5 international signings of all time
These are the Brewers’ top five international signees of all time.
1) Teddy Higuera
The middle name wasn’t the only commonality between Teodoro Valenzuela Higuera and Dodgers sensation Fernando Valenzuela. Both were relatively diminutive left-handers from Mexico, and for a brief period in the mid-1980s, one could argue they were the best pitchers in their respective leagues. Valenzuela was a superstar by the time Higuera arrived in the Majors in '85, but Higuera, when healthy, was every bit as good a pitcher, who made a splash of his own by finishing runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in '85 and runner-up for AL Cy Young Award in ’86. It was in that season, in ’86, when Higuera went 20-11 with a 2.79 ERA, made the AL All-Star team and a Sports Illustrated headline within the July 14 issue trumpeted, “Milwaukee Has Its Own Valenzuela.”
That magazine article tells the story of how the Brewers plucked Higuera from the Mexican League in 1983. Valenzuela’s success in the early '80s sent scouts flocking south of the border, and the Brewers developed an agreement with several teams -- including Higuera’s Ciudad Juarez -- whereby Milwaukee lent the teams players during the winter in return for first dibs on Mexican prospects. One of them was 25-year-old Higuera, whose contract was sold to the Brewers for $65,000 despite reports of six-figure offers from other clubs. The working relationship paid off, and after one season in the Minor Leagues in '84, Higuera found immediate big league success in ‘85. "Catching Teddy is like sitting in a rocking chair," catcher Charlie Moore told SI.
Shoulder injuries denied Higuera long-term success, but he is nonetheless among the top handful of pitchers in Brewers history. His .207 opponents’ average is best in franchise history for qualified starters, and his 2.45 ERA from 1988 is second all-time behind Mike Caldwell. Higuera’s 240 strikeouts in '87 has been eclipsed only once, by Ben Sheets in 2004. No Brewers pitcher has won 20 games since Higuera in ’86.
2) Sixto Lezcano
For the recent generation of Brewers fans, Lezcano may be best known as a key piece of what was long considered the best trade in Brewers history -- the December 1980 megadeal that sent Lezcano to the Cardinals with Dave LaPoint, Lary Sorensen and Minor Leaguer David Green for Rollie Fingers, Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich. In hindsight it was a lopsided deal; Fingers and Vuckovich won the next two AL Cy Young Awards (Fingers took home the MVP Award, too) and Fingers and Simmons went on to the Hall of Fame. Green, a hotshot outfield prospect at the time, was key to the deal, but so was Lezcano, who was just a year removed from hitting .321/.414/.573 with 28 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Brewers in '79, when he also won a Gold Glove Award. It proved the finest season of a 12-year Major League career with the Brewers, Cardinals, Padres, Phillies and Pirates.
Since Higuera was already established professionally in Mexico when the Brewers signed him, a case can be made that Lezcano is the best true international signee in franchise history. He signed at 16 years old in October 1970 out of Colegio San Jose High School in San Jose, Puerto Rico -- players from Puerto Rico weren't subject to MLB’s Draft until '89 -- and worked his way to a Major League debut on Sept. 10, 1974, when Lezcano singled in his first at-bat, went 3-for-5 and delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the 10th inning. But his most notable walk-off hit was Opening Day in '80, when Lezcano beat the Red Sox with a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to become the first player in MLB history to hit grand slams on multiple Opening Days (he also did it in '78).
3) Dave Nilsson
Nilsson, a catcher, was the second Australian to reach the Major Leagues, and he proved the best hitter ever from Down Under. The Brewers signed him in January 1987 on the recommendation of scouts Kevin Greatrex and Bill Castro (more to come on Castro in a moment).
“He was just 16 [years old the summer before the Brewers signed him] and was playing against guys 24-25,” then-Brewers scouting director Dan Duquette said at the time, according to the Milwaukee Journal. “He has a good arm and is a natural left-handed hitter with some power. David’s amateur background is limited, but we think we have a chance to make him into a player. And he can go back to Australia in the winter and play.”
That’s what Nilsson did for years, splitting time between the U.S. Minor Leagues and the Australian League, where he was a national hero. In 1993, Nilsson and left-hander Graeme Lloyd became the first all-Australian battery in an April 14 Brewers loss to the Angels. In '99, Nilsson became the first Australian to make the MLB All-Star Game. That proved to be his final season in the U.S., and one of his best, as Nilsson slashed .309/.400/.554 with a career-high 21 home runs. Over eight seasons with the Brewers, he logged an .817 OPS and an adjusted OPS of 110.
4) Bill Castro
Few men enjoyed a longer tenure in the organization than Castro, who signed out of the Dominican Republic in October 1970 following the Brewers’ first season in Milwaukee. He went on to pitch 10 years in the Majors for the Brewers, Royals and Yankees, including the first seven in Milwaukee, where Castro was a reliable reliever who posted a 2.96 ERA over 253 games (including five starts). After retirement, Castro served as a Brewers scout and a Minor League coach before a long tenure on the Major League coaching staff, first as bullpen coach and later as pitching coach before his dismissal in 2009. Castro remained with the Brewers several years after that in the Minors, meaning he was with the organization in some capacity during each of the first five decades of the team’s existence.
5) Alcides Escobar
Venezuelan-born Escobar got his feet wet with the Brewers before becoming a mainstay for the Royals, including their back-to-back World Series teams in 2014-15. He played only one full season in the Majors for Milwaukee, in '10, before being packaged with fellow prospects Lorenzo Cain, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi and sent to the Royals for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt. It proved a marvelous trade for both teams. The Brewers made it to the National League Championship Series the following year, and the Royals had several more core prospects for their building project. Escobar played parts of 11 years in the Majors through '18.
Other notable international signees: Pedro Garcia (1969), Eduardo Rodriguez ('71), Wily Peralta (2005), John Axford ('08), Orlando Arcia, ('10), Norichika Aoki ('11).