U23 Euros: (Re-)Starting a Career at a European Championship

This article was originally intended to include scouting on non-professional players, but instead, a preview is available (link) as we await additional information.

For many young European baseball players, continental championships are their best way of earning a professional contract with a major league organisation. Most who sign are discovered while at the Under-15 or Under-18 Championships, with players like Marten Gasparini (with whom we spoke this week) inking sizeable contracts after playing at European or World Championships. Under-23 tournaments have an added component, though, as former professional players suit up alongside much younger players with the shared goal of signing with an MLB organisation.

At the recently concluded Under-23s (U23), 10 current or former professional players took part, while quite a few teenage players improved their chances with high-quality performances. Originally, the idea was to look at both sets of players for our final U23 Euros review, but each group is worth considering in more detail. Today, we glance over the professionals with an eye on both their past and their future.

The Netherlands put together a squad that emphasised experience, and an impressive four former professional players suited up for the eventual Under-23 champs. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic had only one, while Germany was the only team to feature a current minor leaguer in Pascal Amon. Spain and Belgium were the other squads that included players who saw time in affiliated ball. No doubt hoping to secure another professional contract, several players made strong cases for a second chance.

Most impressive among this group was the Orange’s Denzel Richardson, who led the tournament in hits (13) and runs (12, tied), while hitting .448/.467/.655 and stealing two bags. The rare Dutch player to come from the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, Richardson played centre field, a position he manned in the Rockies’ system from 2012-15, hitting .225/.278/.337 with 23 stolen bases. In 2016, Richardson spent time in the Frontier League, notching a .262 average.

Richardson was joined in orange by Rodney Daal, Ruar Verkerk, and Rachid Engelhardt, all of whom now play in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the top level of Dutch baseball. Daal debuted as a 16-year old in the Hoofdklasse in 2010, attracting the attention of the Padres. A catcher, he started his professional career with San Diego’s Arizona Rookie League in 2011 at only 17, even earning a single game callup to Triple-A.

Daal broke out in 2012, hitting .298/.371/.470 between two low-level affiliates and impressing behind the plate, where he threw out 24 percent of runners despite being one of the youngest catchers at either level. Promoted to the full-season Midwest League for his age-19 season, Daal had another strong campaign, slashing .271/.317/.424 with similar numbers behind the plate.

Alas, Daal was released by the Padres in 2014 after his second suspension for a drug of abuse and, after sitting out the rest of the year, signed a contract with the Frontier League’s Evansville Otters. Bad decision-making was followed by even poorer luck, as Daal was badly injured in his first game and released once more, a typical practice in independent leagues. Still only 23, Daal’s hopes for a 2018 return to pro ball in the U.S. were likely scuppered with an inferior performance at the Euros, however, as he hit .077, though he did walk five times in four games.

A native of the Netherlands like Daal, Verkerk’s stay in the minor leagues was even briefer after an age-16 debut in Honkbal. Signed by the Twins in 2013, he suited up for two years for Minnesota’s Gulf Coast League team, but accumulated a .172/.218/.179 line, striking out 29.6 percent of the time. The third baseman had a stellar Euros, though, stroking the ball to the tune of a .375/.467/.542 and handling 12 chances without an error.

Like Daal and Verkerk, Engelhardt advanced to the Dutch majors at a young age, signing a contract with the Orioles at 15. The corner outfielder began his pro career in 2014 at Baltimore’s Dominican Academy, where he remained through 2016. Though he improved his third year in the Dominican Summer League, a .235/.313/.329 line through 128 games was not enough to keep him in the system. The Curaçaoan Engelhardt will likely be staying in Europe after an average performance at the Euros, where he hit .269 with a .691 OPS. In July, he played for the Netherlands in the biennial World Port Tournament, but collected only three hits in 18 at bats, striking out six times.

Germany was the only team other than the Netherlands to field two players who have seen time in the minor leagues. The first, Maik Ehmcke, saw 81 games of action over his age 19 and 20 seasons for two Diamondbacks’ rookie league teams in 2014-15. After totalling a career line of .216/.290/.278, the outfielder, now 23, was released.

On the other hand, Pascal Amon, the team’s other pro, is on the path to becoming a legitimate prospect. The outfielder and first baseman put his current season for the Arizona Rookie League Dodgers on hold to play at the Euros. Amon signed with Los Angeles in the summer of 2015 after playing in MLB’s European Elite Camp, which has recently produced major leaguers like Max Kepler and Dovydas Neverauskas.

Amon begun his career at 18 in the Dominican, but excellent plate discipline earned him a promotion to the AZL this year. He has responded well, bumping his line from .199/.333/.283 to .250/.316/.404 and did not disappoint as one of the younger players at the U23 tourney. Leading off and playing centre, the left-handed hitter batted .318, but reached base 48.3 percent of the time. Amon struck out only twice in 29 plate appearances. Germany’s latest minor league prospect is a long way from the majors and is only 4-for-20 since returning to Arizona, but his contact skills and batting approach give some hope he may follow countrymen Donald Lutz, Max Kepler, and Aaron Altherr to the majors.

While Amon is pro player on the rise, the Czech Republic’s Jan Novak is the most notable name on the list of former professionals at the Euros, as he was a high profile signing by the Orioles in December 2012 (link to our story). Novak saw action in three games in 2014, tossing a scoreless inning in each, and returned to Baltimore’s Gulf Coast League team the following year. The 6-3 lefty was solid again, recording a 4.21 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 25 2/3 innings, showing good control.

Novak retired from affiliated ball in 2016 and returned to the Czech Extraliga, but has also pitched for the Czechs in World Baseball Classic qualifiers and other major tournaments. At this year’s U23s, Novak had a three-inning tuneup against the Ukraine, whiffing four without allowing a run, before earning the win against Spain in an uneven performance. Novak tossed six frames, but allowed three runs on four hits and six walks, sending four down on strikes.

This week, the Czech side competed in the Summer Universiade, the Olympics for university students, and Novak was excellent against No. 3 South Korea. Pitching in Taiwan mere days after the Euros, the southpaw scattered seven hits and a single free pass over seven one-run frames, striking out six. Earlier today, he faced the University of Iowa, subbing for USA Baseball, and battled through 6 1/3, but took the loss after surrendering four runs on 11 hits and four walks. Though Novak will turn 24 in January, he has the potential for a long career in his home nation or elsewhere.

Eduardo Moredo, who had a grounder and a walk against Novak in Spain’s 7-3 defeat, played only one season in the minors, wearing Tampa Bay blue at the club’s Venezuelan Summer League squad in 2015. Moredo, a dual-national from Venezuela, hit .232/.318/.263 as an 18-year old, but has not appeared since. The middle infielder was a find for Spain, however, hitting .467 with excellent bat-to-ball skills, though he had two defensive miscues.

Sam Buelens saw time most recently among the aforementioned players, showing an excellent batting eye over 64 games for the Blue Jays’ Dominican Summer League affiliate over 2015 and 2016. The outfielder’s career line is at .197/.342/.217 with 27 stolen bases, but Buelens struggled mightily last season, hitting .132, and has not appeared in 2017. The 21-year old likely did not help his cause at the Euros, hitting .235, though he did walk five times on the way to Belgium’s surprising bronze medal. Buelens was only the third born-and-raised Belgian to play pro ball, with Michael Leys playing indy ball and Thomas de Wolf also playing in the rookie leagues.

With the obvious exception of Amon, most of the above players are unlikely to return to the minor leagues, partly because of skill levels, but also as some find it difficult to play so far from home. The most obvious candidate is Richardson, both because he hails from the Caribbean, but also for the dynamic skills he showcased at the Euros. It would not be surprising to see him or Moredo attempt to catch on in a Latin league this winter with the hopes of returning to the minors. Fans of the other players will likely need to catch them in European leagues and tournaments.

Other editions of the U23 Euros review include:
Upsets and Standings (link)
The Best Games of the Tournament (link)
Outstanding Hitting Performances (link)
The Top Pitching Performances (link)
Flashing Leather and Swiping Bags (link)
A Glance at Team Statistics (link)

See also the following related articles:
The European U23 Championship Explained (link)
Bond Talks No-No, Pitching for Great Britain (link)

About Gabriel Fidler

Extra Innings UK covers baseball around the world, focussing on the sport at the national team level, with features on prominent players, scouting reports, and occasional breaking news. We are fully credentialled by MLB and have covered the World Baseball Classic, continental championships, and the U.S. minor leagues.
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