Cubs' top 5 international signings of all time

January 14th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras is the longest-tenured player in the Cubs' organization and has grown into one of the elite catchers in the Major Leagues. That's not bad for a one-time third-base prospect signed out of Venezuela by Chicago.

Contreras -- the starting catcher for the National League in each of the past two All-Star Games -- is just one example of how teams can find ways outside of the MLB Draft to acquire and develop a cornerstone player. Chicago hopes the same might be said one day of lefty (Dominican Republic), catcher (Panama) and other prospects in their system.

These are the Cubs' top five international prospects of all time:

Zambrano signed with the Cubs out of Venezuela on July 12, 1997, and he went on to become one of the most memorable pitchers in franchise history.

Known as "Big Z," Zambrano threw one no-hitter, made three All-Star teams, won three Silver Slugger Awards and finished in the top five in National League Cy Young Award voting three times. He ranks eighth in Cubs history in starts (282) and ninth in WAR (37.7 per Baseball Reference), and only Fergie Jenkins (2,038) has more strikeouts than Zambrano's 1,542 in team history.

Over 11 years with the Cubs, spanning the 2001-11 seasons, Zambrano went 125-81 with a 3.60 ERA in 319 games. He also launched 23 home runs for Chicago, setting a franchise record.

Zambrano's departure from the team was unceremonious, as he cleaned out his locker after a rough outing in Atlanta in which he yielded five home runs on Aug. 12, 2011. Zambrano claimed he was retiring, but he later backtracked on those comments. He was suspended by the Cubs, later put on the restricted list and was then traded to the Marlins the next offseason.

Even with that ending, Zambrano remained a fan favorite in the eyes of most Cubs loyalists.

When Contreras was voted into the NL All-Star Game as the starting catcher in 2019, he achieved a rare feat for the Cubs. Not since 1936-37, when Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett worked behind the plate for Chicago, had a Cubs catcher started in consecutive Midsummer Classics.

Over five years with the Cubs, Contreras has compiled 12.8 WAR, which is the most in club history for a player signed internationally. Contreras was signed on July 2, 2009, out of Venezuela as an infielder, but he started his transition to catching in '12.

In 2019, Contreras hit .272 with 24 homers and an .888 OPS in 105 games between injury issues for the Cubs. He hit .243 (.763 OPS) with seven homers and 26 RBIs in 57 games in '20. He has a .265/.351/.463 slash line in his career with the Cubs to date, homered on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues in 2016 and started Game 7 of the '16 World Series triumph over Cleveland.

The Cubs signed Castro out of the Dominican Republic on Oct. 25, 2006, and the shortstop went on to become the youngest All-Star in team history when he made the NL squad in '11. At 21 years old that season, Castro hit .307 with an NL-leading 207 hits. Castro made three All-Star teams, posted a .281/.321/.404 slash line and had 10.6 WAR in 891 games across '10-15 with the Cubs, who traded him to the Yankees ahead of the '16 season.

Signed on July 3, 1999, out of the D.R., Marmol turned into one of the most dynamic late-inning relievers in Cubs history. Marmol's career rates of 11.67 strikeouts and 5.89 hits allowed per nine innings are the best marks in franchise history. Marmol is second in team history in games finished (245) and third behind only Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter with 117 saves. Marmol had a 3.50 ERA over 483 games with the Cubs from 2006-13, made one All-Star team and averaged 12.9 K/9 with a 2.54 ERA across the '07-10 campaigns.

For the fifth slot here, the nod could've gone to either Torres (signed on July 2, 2013, out of Venezuela) or Eloy Jiménez (Aug. 1, 2013). Both were much-hyped as prospects and then became key components to big trades -- Torres in the Aroldis Chapman deal with the Yankees in '16 and Jiménez in the José Quintana trade with the White Sox in '17. Torres makes this list, because his potential as a prospect led to the acquisition of the overpowering Chapman, who helped Chicago end its 108-year World Series drought with the '16 victory.

The Cubs got their ring, and now Torres is making his name in New York. He was third in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2018, has made two All-Star teams and broke out in '19 with 38 homers and an .871 OPS for New York. He hit .243 (.724 OPS) with three homers and 16 RBIs in 42 games in '20.

Honorable mentions
was signed on June 30, 2012, out of Cuba and posted 1.1 WAR in his three years ('14-16) with the Cubs. He won a World Series ring in '16 and hit .344 with a 1.269 OPS in 15 career playoff games for Chicago.

Jiménez finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2019 after belting 31 homers with an .828 OPS for the White Sox. He won a Silver Slugger in '20.

Catcher (signed Dec. 8, 2004, out of the D.R) amassed 6.6 WAR over the '10-15 seasons with the Cubs.

The Cubs signed first baseman out of South Korea in March 1999, but he never lived up to the early hype.

Outfielder was signed out of Japan before the 2008 season and turned in 5.1 WAR over four years.