Indians Reap Rewards From Focus On Taiwan
CLEVELAND—When the Indians stumbled upon catcher Chun-Hsiu Chen in Taiwan, they were really looking for a pitcher.
"There was a real young, but big, righthanded pitcher we'd heard about and were going to work out," said John Mirabelli, the Indians vice president of scouting operations. "They said, 'Hey, we're going to bring this young catcher over to catch him.' Chen was just the tag along; we didn't know anything about him."
Turns out the pitcher didn't interest the Indians. But the club gave the 17-year old Chen a couple of at-bats to thank him for his help. Chen had been a third baseman and catcher in high school, but behind the plate he was a little rough around the edges.
"But he got in there and was like, boom, boom, boom," Mirabelli said. "We were like, 'Holy smokes, this kid can hit.' So we kept him around for a few more days, and we wound up signing him."
Just a few years before landing Chen, the Indians began to expand their scouting reach and identified Taiwan as area of untapped talent.
"Taiwan is right now what Australia was about 30 years ago," Mirabelli said. "It was about six years ago that we identified the Pacific Rim (Taiwan primarily, but also Korea and Japan) as an emerging market (for amateur talent). "Baseball's become more popular in those places, and the World Baseball Classic had a lot to do with that as kids are getting more involved in the game at a younger age.
"So we thought, 'Let's explore over there and see what the potential is.' "
The Indians' best Taiwanese prospects both play for Akron this season: the 22-year-old Chen and righthander Chen-Chang Lee, 24.
In his fourth season in the U.S., Chen has made a slow trek through the system, mostly because of the crucial need for him to be able to communicate with pitchers in both English and Spanish.
While his catching skills continue to emerge, Chen's bat has proven already to be one of the best in the system. Last season at two Class A stops, the righty-swinging Chen hit .315 to rank second among Cleveland farmhands. This season through 51 games, he was batting .278/.325/.455 with seven home runs.
"Chen has made significant strides in the last year and a half," Indians assistant farm director Carter Hawkins said. "He started 2010 as a 21-year-old splitting time in the (low Class A) Midwest League. To progress two levels and contribute in Double-A in such a short period has been very encouraging.
"He has shown that his bat, with his short, quick swing and ability to drive the ball to both gaps, will continue to be a factor as he moves into the upper levels of our system. He's working hard to improve his defensive consistency, and as his communication ability improves, he should be able to make strides in taking a leadership role and running a pitching staff."
Lee is in his third season with the Indians, his second at Double-A. Through 18 appearances as a reliever this year, Lee held a 2.90 ERA in 31 innings with 45 strikeouts and just seven walks.
"Lee has been very impressive this year pounding the bottom of the zone with his fastball and getting (a lot of) swing and miss with his slider," Hawkins said. "There's little other than available opportunity that is keeping him from (Triple-A) Columbus. He's done a great job of remaining consistent in his outings in Akron and showing the command of his stuff that he will need to be a major league option for us."
In all, the Indians currently have five Asian-born players in the organization. In addition to Chen and Lee at Double-A, they have Korean-born major league outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, Japanese righthander Toru Murata at high Class A Kinston and Taiwanese outfielder Chia-Ching Lin currently at extended spring training.
"After we dipped our toe into the water in Taiwan, it's led to us signing more guys and being more aggressive over there," Mirabelli said. "We feel there's such a value to it, we now have two full-time scouts for us there. From a competitive standpoint, not many teams are over there yet so we're not going up against 30 teams when it comes to signing, just five or six."
One of the Indians' scouts for Taiwan is Jason Lynn. In addition to scouting in Taiwan, he also serves the role of an interpreter once the players come to the U.S., as he helps them assimilate into a new culture.
Lynn's parents and extended family are from Taiwan, so he'd visited the country some 20 times growing up. But he was born in the U.S. and grew up in Boston.
"There's definitely talent to be found in Taiwan," Lynn said. "In signing Lee and Chen, they are two examples that you can get value in that market. It just takes some time to sift through and find the right guys."
Lynn said he's found young players in Taiwan are especially interested in coming to the U.S. to develop their baseball careers. Last year teams signed five Taiwanese amateur players, including Cleveland's $150,000 investment in Lin.
Lynn said that amateurs in Taiwan, more so than Japan or Korea, have distinct major league role models. "There's Chien-Ming Wang, who used to be with the Yankees and is now with the Nationals," he said, "and reliever Hong-Chih Kuo with the Dodgers. There are recent players from Taiwan that have made it in the major leagues, so the young players feel that with hard work, they can too."