Taiwan is a Baseball Hotbed, and the Pirates are Getting a Strong Presence There

“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.

Fu-Chun Chiang (left) and Tyrone Brooks (right).

Fu-Chun Chiang (left) and Tyrone Brooks (right).

“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.

Yao-Hsun Yang

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].”

Wei-Chung Wang throwing to Jin-De Jhang.

Wei-Chung Wang throwing to Jin-De Jhang.

Wei-Chung Wang

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.”

Jin-De Jhang has the potential to be a two-way catching prospect.

Jin-De Jhang has the potential to be a two-way catching prospect.

Jin-De Jhang

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.

Jen-Lei Liao

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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • C Shint

    Very much interested to follow Liao this season. I’m sure age won’t matter much in the decision making, however, where do you see him starting this year Tim? And if the assignment is in fact short season ball, what kind of pace do you think they take with him?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Too early to tell. Outside of videos, I haven’t seen him pitch. Plus, I’m guessing he’ll be in short-season ball, and those assignments aren’t made until closer to June.

  • piraddict

    Very interesting article Tim, thanks! How well do these young kids speak English?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      All of them need translators.

      • piraddict

        Thanks, I thought as much. A development facility similar to the Dominican one in the Australia / Asia area would be a great sales tool in landing top, young Asian prospects. English is the universal business language now and the ability to learn it is highly prized in Asia. Locating the facility in Australia would place the recruits in an English language culture which would ease the cultural adjustments necessary for these Asian recruits to make if they are going to be successful in the Pirates system in the USA. Asian recruits would jump at the chance to be scholarshiped to learn English and baseball at the same time. The Dominican, being based in a Latin American/Spanish culture isn’t really an asset that is useful for the Asians.

        If the cost of such facility was $5MM and had an operational budget of $1MM per year it would have to produce the equivalent of one first round pick in total and a 3rd or 4th round pick per year to “breakeven” compared with the signing bonuses of the US draft. This is some of the least expensive money that could be spent on talent acquisition. Right now the amount spent on the infrastructure of international acquisition is presently uncontrolled by MLB agreements, so now is the time for the Pirates to expand their infrastructure. Such an Australian facility could be the first point of entrance for Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, South African in addition to Australian talent. There is only a small, small fraction of human beings who have the physical skills necessary to play MLB. Spreading a wider net is the best way to find them. For a small market team like the Pirates, finding a continual stream of “Polancos”, (MLB talent at a miniscule signing bonus), is the key to being able to compete on an ongoing basis. Having a full time scout assigned to the Taiwan/Korea/Japan area is a good start. Now the Pirates need to follow up by investing in a development facility that will be the recruiting tool that will enable them to sign the best talent in the area.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          A big reason teams don’t have development leagues in places like Australia or Asia is that those countries have pro leagues. Australia has the Australian Baseball League. Players in Asia have pro ball in Japan. Mexico has a summer league, which is totally different from their winter league.

          The Dominican doesn’t have anything like this. Thus, the need to develop players from that country.

          Also, everyone scouts the Dominican. Not many people scout Australia or Taiwan. The fact that the Pirates have full time scouts there gives them an advantage already. If they added an academy, all they’d be doing is developing players for the pro leagues in Japan, or competing with the academy in Australia. There’s no real benefit here.

          • piraddict

            Thank for the thoughts!

            I’d expect that acceptance of a place at the academy would go hand in hand with a team option on signing a pro contract with the Pirates.

            The target players would be very young players who might want a different experience than pro ball in another country right away. In the USA some players (eg Gerrit Cole) opt for college rather than signing a pro contract out of high school. They figure their value as a pro will go up with three more years of development ahead of signing. Likewise in Asia a potential stepping stone into American baseball could be seen as more attractive than looking towards Japan. You have to remember that the various Asian cultures don’t really like each other much. There is still animosity between the Chinese and Japanese, and Koreans and Japanese. In Asia Liao’s parents pushed him to go to high school in Japan for the baseball, and perhaps for the exposure to the Japanese pro leagues. Why not an easy way into America instead? So there is a market there.

            The point of having the academy is to capture great talent before it enters the pro system in Japan or Australia or elsewhere, whereupon you have to pay high prices for the elite talent as free agents. Or chose among players who wash out from that pro system.

            Establishing an academy there would be groundbreaking, but innovation always is. Compared to the cost of talent acquisition by other means the risk is relatively low. Maybe one way in would be to purchase a franchise in the Australian league and use it as part of the Pirates minor league system. Pared with a local college offering English as a foreign language programs and other cultural adaptation assistance an attractive program could be crafted.

  • http://twitter.com/PITTSBURGH4_1_2 PITTSBURGH4_1_2

    Where is rinku Singh I thought he might actually have a chance as a
    Lefty reliever. Also does wang getting major league experiance at this point ( if he sticks) help or hurt his development?

  • habitfooted

    This is a very good article on baseball about Taiwan. Its also nice to know that Taiwan is a baseball hotbed, as far as the popularity of baseball over there, They are amazing in terms of performance and participation,

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Tim….it’s good to see that there is another sharp, talented guy named “Fu”.

    The world needs lots more of them.

    Lee “Fu’ er ah, Foo” Young

    Btw, I got my nickname from Ed Olkowski, former basketball coach and geography teacher. He thought my name sounded oriental…and the name ‘stuck’.