Marlins invest in Pacific Rim with latest signing

May 26th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Christina De Nicola's Marlins Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PHOENIX -- Marlins assistant general manager Oz Ocampo has a history of finding hidden gems on the international scene. He is hoping the same happens with his latest discovery.

The Marlins inked 21-year-old Japanese right-hander Raisei Nakamura to a Minor League contract on May 17, marking the second consecutive international signing period the organization has taken a chance on a Japanese right-handed pitcher (Hiroshi Takahashi in 2023). Only two Japanese-born players have appeared in the big leagues for the franchise: outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (’15-17) and righty Junichi Tazawa (’18).

This also signifies the first step in a concerted effort to expand the Marlins’ international influence outside of Latin America under new president of baseball operations Peter Bendix.

“One of the things when Peter came on board [was] he asked me, ‘What can we do to start and expand our efforts in the Pacific Rim?’” Ocampo recalled. “During Spring Training, we talked about it pretty extensively. And so I spent a lot of time going through my previous contacts in the international realm, and started that process, and within that process, we found out about Raisei.”

Ocampo spoke to people on the ground who had seen Nakamura pitch, then he watched video. He liked what he saw. So did the Marlins’ international department.

According to Ocampo, the 6-foot-3 Nakamura has a long frame, physical projection, athleticism, arm speed and a solid four-pitch mix (fastball, curveball, slider and changeup). His velocity had reached 90 mph with a 2,400 rpm spin rate. Both have room to grow under the organization’s tutelage.

Originally drafted by Hiroshima, Nakamura was released after allowing eight runs in six innings across eight appearances from 2022-23 while facing competition more than six years older than him. So Nakamura signed with the independent ballclub, Asian Breeze, which plays teams in Arizona, with the aim of signing a professional contract with an MLB team. His six scoreless innings garnered attention.

The combination of arsenal, potential physical development, stateside experience and intangibles convinced Ocampo to fly to Japan to meet with Nakamura. After spending time with him, it became an easy decision to sign him.

“He works hard,” Ocampo said. “He's very respectful. He's humble but also excited about the opportunity. The fact that he's traveled to the states, like all those attributes, gave a lot of confidence that he could come take on this challenge.”

Ocampo is no stranger to finding late bloomers. He played a role in signing Astros pitchers Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, José Urquidy, Framber Valdez and Ronel Blanco, none of whom were heralded in their respective signing classes. He sees parallels between them and Nakamura, who are considered older pitchers in the international realm.

Nakamura will soon begin his professional career at the organization’s Dominican Republic Summer League. The Marlins plan on providing as much support and resources as possible to ease the transition. They are in the process of bringing over an interpreter, who also has a pitching background and has worked with Nakamura.

“We thought that if you were to bring him into our system, we could be patient and give him opportunities to develop not only sort of the pitching aspects, but all aspects of the development -- whether that's strength conditioning, nutrition, things that he really needs for his overall development,” Ocampo said. “Not only for his body to get stronger, but also to solidify his delivery by controlling all that.”

Down on the farm

Here are some of the top performers at each full-season affiliate:

Triple-A Jacksonville: OF Victor Mesa Jr. (No. 4)
Entering Sunday, Mesa has four consecutive multihit games, going 9-for-18 (.500) with five runs, one double, one homer and four RBIs.

Double-A Pensacola: RHP MD Johnson (NR)
Johnson allowed only one unearned run on six hits across six innings on Saturday. He has completed at least six frames in three of his four starts this month.

High-A Beloit: RHP Karson Milbrandt (No. 7)
Milbrandt has given up just one earned run in each of his four starts this month across 20 1/3 total innings (1.77 ERA). His last time out on Friday, he struck out a season-high nine batters.

Single-A Jupiter: RHP Noble Meyer (No. 1)
Meyer has given up two earned runs combined over his last five starts spanning 25 innings. He has permitted two hits or fewer in each of those outings.