“We’re working very hard to be global. Not just in the Dominican, but as we spread out, there’s ballplayers everywhere, and our challenge is to go find them, as it is for the other 29 teams.”
That was Clint Hurdle when I talked to him last week about the talent that is coming to the Pirates out of Latin America. Hurdle probably didn’t have to point that out. The track record for the Pirates speaks for itself. They were the first team to sign a player out of India (Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel). They signed the first black player out of South Africa (Gift Ngoepe). They’ve signed guys out of Lithuania (Dovydas Neverauskas), Belarus (Alex Lukashevich), several players out of Australia, and The Netherlands (Danny Arribas).
One of the places the Pirates seem to keep going back to is Taiwan. They’ve signed several players out of Taiwan, mostly on the amateur level, but more recently on the professional level with the addition of Yao-Hsun Yang this off-season. Their amateurs out of Taiwan have started getting attention as prospects, with Jin-De Jhang mentioned as a promising lower level guy to follow, and Wei-Chung Wang getting selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the Rule 5 draft this off-season.
“We’ve taken baby steps initially when this regime first came in, and now I think people know that we’re a very serious competitor as far as players over there in the far East,” Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks said.
Part of Brooks’ job is to oversee the international signings, including serving as a cross checker for guys who are signed out of places like Taiwan. But the majority of the scouting in the area comes from Fu-Chun Chiang, who is the full-time area scout for the Pirates in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Chiang has been with the team since 2009, which is when they signed Ping-Hung Chi, Sheng-Cin Hong, and Chih-Wei Hsu — three amateurs out of high school. None of those initial signings are still in the system, although the more recent signings have had success.
“Fu does a great job of identifying the kids there,” Brooks said. “We’ve got a lot of support from Neal [Huntington] and Greg [Smith], allowing us to take some chances on some of these kids. And it’s been great that we’ve had success with some of these guys that so far have had a chance to come over and try to get adjusted to everything from a cultural standpoint, from beyond just a baseball standpoint.”
Once Chiang identifies a player, and once he gets the approval to sign the player, he is free to negotiate the deal. He lives in Taiwan, which gives him the chance to have a great knowledge base on the coaches and players in the area.
“I do my best to watch guys as young as I can,” Chiang said. “You have to follow a guy from a young stage to a mature level. That’s good for scouting, and to understand how they are.”
That’s an advantage that most teams don’t have. There are only about 10 to 11 teams who have full-time scouts in Taiwan, according to Chiang. It’s a surprise that more teams aren’t scouting in Taiwan, especially with all of the talent coming out of the area. The Pirates have started to get attention with prospects like Wang and Jhang, but Wei-Yin Chen displayed the talent coming out of the area, pitching for the Baltimore Orioles last year in the majors.
“It’s a baseball hotbed, as far as the popularity of baseball over there,” Brooks said. “It’s pretty incredible. You can see just how much they practice, how much they work out, just the amount of participation they have there.”
Here is a look at the players from Taiwan who are currently in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, along with Wang, who could still return to the Pirates.
So far the Pirates have focused most of their signings out of Taiwan on the amateur level. Yao-Hsun Yang is the first professional player who the Pirates have signed. They inked him to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. He will likely start the year in Triple-A, but gives the Pirates some left-handed depth throughout the season.
Yang is a guy who the Pirates have been following for some time, due to Fu’s scouting of and relationship with the pitcher.
“The great thing is that Fu has identified this guy from the very beginning, and has known the guy, and has followed his career,” Brooks said. “We just felt this was a great moment when this opportunity came about, to do something here. Obviously he had a desire to come over here to the States as well.”
Even if Yang doesn’t make it to the majors, the fact that he signed with the Pirates will increase their exposure in Taiwan. Since Yang played pro ball in Japan, he’s a famous player in Taiwan.
“That’s a big help for the Pirates in my area,” Chiang said on the signing of Yang. “More people know of the Pirates [in Taiwan].”
Over the off-season, the Pirates lost Wei-Chung Wang to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Rule 5 draft. The move was a surprise, as Wang was just signed back in 2011. However, he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft due to a technicality and an injury when he signed. Wang had an elbow injury, which voided his original contract — a $350,000 deal that was the highest bonus for an international amateur out of Taiwan. He ended up having Tommy John surgery, then was signed by the Pirates to a reduced deal. Because he signed a second contract, he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft, although it seemed unlikely that a team would take him and try to jump him from the GCL to the majors.
“It really caught a lot of us by surprise,” Brooks said. “We obviously love the ability we saw, and felt he was making a lot of great strides.”
The Pirates could still get Wang back. The Brewers can only keep him if they protect him on the active roster for the entire 2014 season. That might be difficult when considering the jump that Wang is making. Even if he doesn’t stick in the majors this year, Wang has the stuff to eventually be in the majors.
“We saw the ability from the time that we first went over and saw him,” Brooks said.
“He’s got projection,” Chiang said. “Lefty, touches low 90s, good changeup, good command and control. He has a chance to be a middle of the rotation guy.”
I got to see Wang throw last year in the GCL. By the end of the year he had a fastball that was touching 95, a changeup which is a plus offering, and a big breaking curveball. He has the potential for a plus fastball, plus changeup, and an average breaking ball, along with great control.
“The changeup was there when we saw him [in Taiwan],” Brooks said. “We saw that developing, and it continued to get better once he came over. We knew just physically he needed to grow. And obviously the whole rehab process he went through coming back from the Tommy John was really helpful for him to dedicate time to his body, to get himself into a better physical condition. I think that right there played a big role in allowing some of the gains we’ve seen, especially from a velocity standpoint.”
When I first noticed Jhang in late 2011, he looked big, and didn’t look like he had a shot of being any type of prospect. Since that point he has slimmed down, which has made him more agile behind the plate. His hitting skills have also been strong, with the ability to hit for average, good plate patience, and some pop in his bat.
“He’s strong,” Fu said. “He’s got power, and can swing with good judgement. For him, if we can improve the defense side, he might have a better chance.”
“When we identified him over there, we saw there was some maintenance needed to be done with the body,” Brooks said. “But it was something we felt, with our strength people, we could do things to help him to get to that point.”
The defense has improved, with Jhang displaying a strong arm and good receiving skills. He still has some work to do with his blocking and movement behind the plate, but that could come with more experience. Fu noted that he has improved behind the plate since before he signed.
“We knew it was going to be a little bit of a process, as far as being behind the plate full-time,” Brooks said. “He played third base over there as well. We saw tools that were there, as far as arm strength. But we knew it was going to take a process as far as understanding from a receiving point, and also just from a language barrier, trying to understand calling a game, and that whole aspect of being in tune with your pitcher. And that’s something that’s still an ongoing process.”
One of the impressive things with Jhang this past year is that he went to Jamestown without a translator. He’s capable of interacting with pitchers to the point where a translator is no longer needed. He also has become very good at Spanish, which helps when interacting with the Latin American international players.
The Pirates signed Jen-Lei Liao out of Taiwan this off-season. Liao is currently waiting on his visa, and is expected to be in minor league camp. He’s a 20-year old pitcher who has a huge frame, at 6′ 6″, 264 pounds. The Pirates have taken plenty of pitchers out of the draft with similar frames, and they’ve had success with several of those guys. The approach with Liao will be the same — improve his control, and get him to maximize his frame.
“There were some things we saw with the delivery,” Brooks said. “Some things we felt we could make some adjustments to. But there is some natural feel to pitch already. We just feel like physically there is still more we can do for him, especially from a body maintenance, because he’s a real big framed kid, 6′ 6″, 250 plus.”
Liao currently throws in the upper 80s, topping out at 92. He comes from a good baseball background. Both his mom and his dad are former athletes, playing softball and baseball respectively. They’re both coaches, and pushed him to go to high school in Japan for the baseball experience.