Braves, Indians Get Active In Pacific Rim

The international signing period, which began July 2, doesn’™t just apply to Latin America.

The Braves and Indians made significant splashes in the Far East in the first week of the period, with both teams signing pitchers out of Taiwan, while the Braves locked up a Japanese high school catcher and the Indians signed an Australian shortstop.

The story of the Braves’™ signee out of Japan, 16-year-old Ryohei Shimabukuro, is the most unusual one, because American organizations are not allowed to sign Japanese high school players. They are subject to the Japan League draft. But Shimabukuro was eligible to sign because his high school in Osaka didn’™t have a high school program, and he had dropped out of the school. It had been discontinued in his freshman season after the school’™s coach was embroiled in a scandal for unusual methods of discipline.

“Our scout there (Hiroyuki Oya) had seen him when he was 14, when we were scouting Takumi Hamaoka,” said Australia-based Phil Dale, the Braves’™ top Pacific Rim scout. “He liked Shimabukuro then, and he stayed with him. It was a really good job by him, because usually we can’™t sign Japanese high school players. He was known to be one of the best junior-high hitters in Osaka, but then he didn’™t get to play this year.

“The bat’™s beautiful. Dave Nilsson and Pat Kelly and Rod Carew are all down here at the baseball academy in Australia, and they are all saying he’™s got the best swing here. He’™s a little bit better than we thought we had (offensively).”

The Hamaoka signing has worked so far for the Atlanta. Signed in 2004 as an 18-year-old, Hamaoka was off to a 5-for-16 start in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Now it has led them to sign Shimabukuro. Dale said Shimabukuro’™s receiving skills behind the plate are sound, but his arm strength, which is below average, will have to improve for him to remain a catcher.

The media in Japan swarmed Shimabukuro (listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds) when he signed, necessitating a press conference. Shimabukuro, whose mother is from Argentina and who speaks Spanish well, is the youngest Japanese player to sign with an American organization and told the Japanese media that he had dreamed of playing in the major leagues. He’™ll get his first experience in Australia, where major league organizations pool their players in an informal league modeled on the Rookie-level Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues.

Shimabukuro’™s signing bonus apparently wasn’™t too significant, as Braves officials said they didn’™t have much competition for his services. He will come to the U.S. for instructional league in the fall and then for the first time long-term for spring training next year. Because he is fluent in Spanish, the Braves have options with him for 2007. He could go back to Australia, play in either the VSL or DSL, or play in a U.S. league, which would require a visa.

Dale said the Braves also were excited about the signing of a prep righthander from Taiwan, righthander Chen-En Hung. Area scout Jeremy Chu did the legwork on the signing, with Dale and international scouting director Rene Francisco also scouting Hung, a slender 6-foot-1 with a projectable build from Kaoshiung.

“He touches 90 (mph) already and has nice secondary stuff, and his arm works easy,” Dale said. “He kind of reminds you of Chien-Ming Wang the way his arm works.”

The Indians signed Australian shortstop Jason Smit for a reported $350,000 bonus. Smit has two potentially above-average tools in his bat and his throwing arm, and he has some athletic ability as well. He’™s considered the top prospect out of Australia eligible to sign this summer.

The Indians also signed Taiwan’™s top amateur pitcher, Tseng Sung Wei. The 21-year-old Tseng pitched for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic and pitched five shutout innings against USA Baseball’™s college national team on July 4. The righthander faced Team USA again Sunday in Durham, N.C., and went six innings, striking out seven and giving up three runs in a loss.

Team USA manager Tim Corbin (Vanderbilt) said Tseng had a very clean arm action on a fastball that topped out in the 90-93 mph range, to go with a hard slider in the low 80s range.

“He was outstanding,” USA national team general manager Eric Campbell
said. “That guy is very refined. He has a good fastball, and knew how
to pitch both sides, up and down.”

The Blue Jays signed 6-foot-6 Aussie righthander Josh Wells for a reported $200,000 bonus, but Wells apparently has injured his elbow, clouding his status.

Contributing: Bryan Smith.