Successful underdogs in each of the last two WBC’s, Netherlands enters the 2017 tournament as one of the likely favorites from Pool B. While Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons and Didi Gregorius highlight a host of talented big leaguers on the Dutch roster, one of the most important players for the Netherlands may well prove to be Yakult Swallows’ slugger Wladimir Balentien. Let’s take a look at the winding path that led Balentien to his current status as one of the top players outside of MLB.
A native of Willemstad Curaçao, Balentien was signed as a 16-year-old undrafted free agent in 2000 by the Seattle Mariners. Despite the lack of fanfare surrounding Balentien when he signed, he progressed continued to steadily improve, eventually becoming the Mariners #5 prospect by 2007, and being named to the 2007 All-Star Futures game. Late in that season, Balentien got his first cup of coffee at the big league level, but only appeared in 3 games and recorded 4 plate appearances. Coming into 2008, the Mariners had high hopes that their young prospect was primed for a breakout season, but Balentien struggled. Batting .202/.250/.342 with 7 HR in 71 games, Balentien was sent back down to the minor leagues for a little more seasoning. He continued to underperform in 2009, hitting .213/.271/.355 and prompting the Mariners to try to sell high by trading Balentien to the Cincinnati Reds. Despite hitting .264/.352/.427 to close out 2009 with the Reds, Balentien would never see the big leagues again.
After spending 2010 in Louisville with the Reds AAA affiliate with little indication that he would be called up to the big club, Balentien left the US for the Land of the Rising Sun, where he signed with the Yakult Swallows of NPB. Although he continued to struggle with contact in 2011, the great power which he had displayed as a prospect was finally showing through, hitting .228/.314/.469 with 31 HR. In 2012, at age 27, Balentien finally seemed to turn the corner, posting a strong .272/.386/.572 line, and replicating his 31 HR season in about 2⁄3 as many games. 2013 saw Balentien at the top of his game, bursting out with an eye-popping .330/.455/.779 and unleashing a home run hitting a barrage that saw him set the NPB single-season home run record which was held by, among others, the legendary Japanese batsmen Sadaharu Oh. Balentien finished the season with 60 HR and 131 RBI. Balentien was named the Central League’s MVP, becoming the first player in history to claim the award from a last place club.
Joining the Dutch team in 2013 for the first time, Balentien did not disappoint as the cleanup hitter and regular right fielder for the Oranje. Although he did not homer in the Netherlands’ 7 games, he nevertheless hit .304/.360/.435, tied for 4th in the tournament in doubles and drove in 5 runs. In Netherlands’ semifinal game against the eventual champions from the Dominican Republic, Balentien drove in the first Dutch run in the 1st inning with an RBI groundout against Edinson Volquez to score Andrelton Simmons. While the Dutch run would end at the hand of the mighty Dominicans, their cinderella run was the talk of the tournament, and the bat of Wladimir Balentien was a big part of the story.
In the batter’s box, Balentien is a hulking figure, standing 6’2’’ and weighing in at 220 lbs. He a pronounced open stance and something of a long swing which allows him to generate substantial power, but likewise makes him prone to swinging and missing. While he has improved on the contact issues associated with that swing from early in his career, he remains an all-or-nothing swinger. If he’s going to be hitting 30+ home runs per season, the Swallows (as well as team Netherlands) will gladly take it. In the field, Balentien is not especially fleet of foot and struggles to cover ground chasing down balls in the outfield. He does, however, possess a powerful throwing arm which helps him to make up for his lead-footed range in the outfield.
For the Dutch team, MLB stars are likely to garner a lot of the headlines, and rightfully so, as the team has a number of talented big league players. For the success of the team, however, Wladimir Balentien may prove to be every bit as important as the power bat from the center of the Dutch lineup.