After not making many splashes in the international signing market during the early years of the franchise, the Rays organization has since emphasized finding talent from all over the world.
Heading into the 2021 season, Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster has at least one player from six countries, including Japan, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In the Minors, two of the club’s top three prospects are from the D.R., including MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 prospect Wander Franco.
These are the Rays’ top 5 international prospects of all time. It’s important to note that this list only consists of players who were signed by Tampa Bay and have made an impact on the field with the organization. Players acquired via trade or traded away are not included. For example, Willy Adames, who was signed from the Tigers, is not on the list.
1. Akinori Iwamura, 2007-09
Signed a three-year, $7.7 million contract in ‘06
Iwamura was the first significant contributor from Japan, and he quickly endeared himself to fans as one of the key pieces of the 2008 Rays team that reached the World Series. Iwamura is one of the best second baseman in team history, posting a .281 batting average in his three seasons with the club.
Iwamura’s signing helped Tampa Bay in the Japanese player market as recently as last winter, when the club signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to a two-year, $12 million deal.
2. Alex Colomé, 2013-18
Signed as amateur free agent in ‘07
Colomé signed with the Rays in March and was considered a bit of a late bloomer as an 18-year-old starting pitcher. Though he eventually made the move to reliever, he turned out to be a good investment for Tampa Bay, as the right-hander became one of the best closers in franchise history. Colomé had some rough outings during the 2018 season -- his last with the Rays -- but he made the All-Star team in ‘16 and recorded a career-high and league-high 47 saves in ‘17.
3. Rolando Arrojo, 1998-99
Signed as a free agent in ‘97
With the Rays’ inaugural season set for 1998, the organization wanted to make a splash in the international market. Arrojo was one of the best available pitchers after he defected from Cuba, having won a gold medal in the ‘92 Olympics.
After spending the 1997 season in the Minors, Arrojo quickly established himself as the ace of Tampa Bay’s pitching staff the following year. He was the starter in the franchise’s first win, and he became the first All-Star in franchise history, finishing the season with a 14-12 record and a 3.56 ERA. Arrojo also finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting behind Oakland’s Ben Grieve.
Unfortunately for Arrojo, he didn’t find much success in 1999 and was traded to the Rockies in the deal that landed Vinny Castilla for the Rays. Either way, Arrojo was the first Cuban-born player in franchise history, opening the doors for others over the years.
4. Yonny Chirinos, 2018-present
Signed as an amateur free agent in ‘12
Chirinos was signed out of Venezuela in the same class that landed José Alvarado with the Rays. At the time, Chirinos was considered a project, but it has all certainly worked out for the right-hander, who has developed into one of the hardest workers on the team.
In his first two seasons with Tampa Bay, Chirinos went 14-10 with a 3.71 ERA in 44 appearances. In ’20, Chirinos battled COVID-19 at the beginning of the season and then underwent Tommy John surgery in August. Right now, the most important thing for Chirinos is to rehab and get healthy, but if he returns to the mound in ’22, the right-hander has a chance to continue moving up this list.
5. Wander Franco, Minor Leagues
Signed as an amateur free agent
Franco has yet to play a game at the Major League level, but all indications point to the young shortstop being a future All-Star. Franco received a $3.8 million signing bonus in 2017 and all he has done since then is hit. In his first season in the United States, Franco won Player of the Year honors in the Rookie-level Appalachian League at just 17 years old.
In 2019, Franco hit .337 and became the No. 1 prospect due to his innate ability at the plate. While this ranking will be dependent on what Franco does at the Major League level, he has a very good chance of becoming the best international signing in team history.