Without question, the most challenging player to rank on last year’s list of the Top 30 international prospects for July 2 was Taiwanese righthander Jen-Ho Tseng.
At the end of 2012, Tseng looked like he might be the No. 1 prospect on the international market for 2013. When he went to the 18U World Championship in September 2012, Tseng carved up hitters with a 22-2 K-BB mark and an ERA of 0.84 in 21 innings. He beefed up his stock even further in December at the Asian Championship in Taiwan, where he held a lineup of South Korean professional hitters scoreless for six innings in a critical 7-0 victory. He was an 18-year-old with good control of a low-90s fastball that could touch 95 and two secondary pitches that looked like plus or better future pitches.
After that, Tseng’s stock tumbled. He pitched in the World Baseball Classic as an 18-year-old and looked bad, not just in terms of performance but in the overall quality of his stuff, his arm action and mechanics. His velocity was down, his secondary pitches had gone backward and his delivery was out of sync, which hampered his control. As the year progressed, international scouts who went in to see him said they saw him struggle to get back to the pitcher he looked like at the end of 2012.
Right now, Tseng appears to be back on track. Pitching for three innings on Sunday against a travel team of Dominican amateur players from the International Prospect League, Tseng threw 89-93 mph, mostly in the higher end of that range for the first two innings. He mixed in an above-average curveball that mostly registered at 75, though he added and subtracted with the pitch. He threw plenty of strikes with his curveball, which had good depth and late, sharp bite. He buckled the knees of back-to-back hitters for strikeouts at one point, and while the hitters he’s facing were mostly 15- and 16-year-old boys, the fastball and curveball were quality pitches regardless of who he was facing.
Some scouts think Tseng’s best pitch is his changeup, though he didn’t use it much, nor did he appear to throw his slider, which can be an average pitch. It’s spring training, which means it’s never a good idea to put too much into an evaluation at this time of year. But what Tseng showed on Sunday is an encouraging sign. It’s what the Cubs saw from Tseng, who’s now 19, when they followed him last year as he struggled. They weren’t the only team that followed him, but they saw his velocity creep back up in June, when he touched 95 for them again, then signed him for $1.625 million on July 25.
At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Tseng probably won’t see the fastball bump any higher, and the question in the back of everyone’s minds, based on his history, will always be about whether he’s going to be able to retain that stuff over a full season, or if it will once again disappear on him. But if Tseng can throw strikes with three potential plus pitches and a quality fourth offering in his slider, those are the ingredients of a quality major league starting pitcher.