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March 1, 2013

The Asian Equation

A Guide to Asian Prospects in the World Baseball Classic

by Michael Street

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In the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), Asian teams have consistently outperformed their foreign counterparts. Japan won both the 2006 and 2009 tournaments, and Korea’s 12-4 record is the best of any country. Korea won a bronze in 2006 and a silver medal in 2009’s extra-inning, all-Asian final against Japan. There are several reasons for this apparent dominance, mainly arising from how much more seriously the Asian teams view the tournament than their Western counterparts.

Major-league players and managers see the tournament as an extended spring training, or an exhibition akin to an All-Star Game. Players are substituted not for strategic purposes but to ensure that everyone “gets their work in.” Instead of using an active manager, the U.S. team has been coached by two managers—Buck Martinez and Davey Johnson—who hadn’t worked in several seasons, making rapport with players more difficult. Additionally, many major-league players declined to participate, leaving the best players off the rosters of Western teams.

Asian teams simply care about the tournament more, driven not only by a strong sense of nationalism but also by the desire to prove that their leagues and players are every bit as good as their MLB counterparts. Substitutions are made for strategic reasons, even the unusual (but effective) ones used by South Korean manager In-Sik Kim in 2009, when he sent in pinch-hitters or defensive replacements in the second and third innings. The managers themselves are typically active, and Japanese players have been at spring training a week or two longer than their Western counterparts.

This year, the East-West balance has shifted slightly. Japan and Korea are fielding the only WBC teams without a single active MLB player, China joins Cuba as the only WBC teams with just one MLB player, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) is the only WBC squad with just two players. This disparity will make this tournament the best comparison yet between Eastern and Western talent.

No one knows that more than MLB clubs, who will be scouting the WBC to see if they can spot the next Yu Darvish or Hyun-Jin Ryu, both of whom made positive impressions in the 2009 tournament. To get Baseball Prospectus readers ready for the 2013 WBC, I’m highlighting the players who could be the next to jump across the Pacific and into the major leagues.

China
Baseball in China was once incredibly popular, but it took a huge hit in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the game was forbidden as a corrupting Western influence. Even after the sport reemerged, an entire generation of talent was lost, and rebuilding has taken the efforts of managers and coaches like Jim Lefebvre, current manager John McLaren, Bruce Hurst, and new hitting coach Art Howe.  

That has left China far behind in the player-development process. Several MLB players have signed Chinese talent in the past—Chao Wang, Zhang Zhenwang, Liu Kai, and current Team China player Wei Wang—but none of them cracked the majors. The only Team China player recognizable to most BP readers, Ray Chang, has rattled around the upper minors with Cincinnati, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Boston and Minnesota. Chang’s .272/.346/.379 line in eight minor-league seasons (.253/.312/.326 in Triple-A) tells you he won’t get more than a sip of major-league coffee. That he’s likely to be Team China’s DH and cleanup hitter should also tell you all you need to know about the team’s level of talent.

Still, there are a few bright spots. Wei Wang is unlikely to get another chance with an MLB team, but his backup Weiquiang Meng might. The 24-year-old plays third base when Wang starts behind the dish to get Meng’s bat into the lineup. The hot corner seems a more likely fit for Meng, given Seattle’s experience with Asian backstop Kenji Johjima.

On the mound, Jiangang Lu and Dawei Zhu both have foreign experience in Japan. A three-time winner of the China Baseball League’s Best Pitcher Award, Lu was also the pitcher of record for Team China’s lone WBC win, against Taiwan in 2009. The first Chinese-born player to be signed by a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) club, Lu remained stuck in the minors. Zhu, the first Chinese-born player to be drafted by a Japanese club, also lingered in the minors before returning to his native China.

Even if they’d enjoyed better success in Japan, these players would be too old for most MLB teams to take a chance on now. A far better choice would be Haifan Yang, an 18-year-old righty who is the youngest player on the WBC roster and could be a player to keep an eye on. Still, the pickings are slim among Chinese prospects, and we may see many more near-misses in the minors before a notable Chinese talent makes it to MLB.

Chinese Taipei
In the Little League World Series, no non-U.S. team has approached the success rate of Chinese Taipei (Taiwan). Taiwan has won 17 championships, more than double the seven won by their closest competitor, Japan. But older Taiwanese baseball players have had a hard time reaching the majors. Only eight Taiwanese players have played in MLB, and just three—Chin-Feng Chen, Chin-Lung Hu, and Che-Hsuan Lin—have been position players.

BP readers will, of course, recognize pitchers Chien-Ming Wang and the oft-injured Hong-Chih Kuo on the Taiwan squad. They join centerfielder and leadoff hitter Che-Hsuan Lin, who made his MLB debut with Boston last season and is now with Houston. Infielder Yung-chi Chen spent seven seasons with Oakland, Pittsburgh and Seattle, but he never reached the majors, undoubtedly due to his .261/.320/.337 line over three seasons in Triple-A.

Cubs fans might remember reliever Hung-Wen Chen, who spent five years in their minor-league system, amassing a 3.84 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and a modest 6.5 K/9. Those strikeout numbers climbed (as they often do) when Chen was shifted to relief work, and he still might catch on with another major-league squad if he can perform well in the WBC. Chen features a good splitter to go with a tailing fastball that touches the low 90s and a slider that’s still a work in progress.

Another Cubbie prospect, the hard-throwing hurler Yao-Lin Wang, has spent the last three seasons with Chicago, most recently with the Single-A Peoria Chiefs, where he spent some time in relief. He whiffs more than a batter per inning but needs to work on his control. With a fastball as his only plus pitch right now, he might stick in the bullpen, but he’s not considered a top talent.

The position players provide more interesting prospects, perhaps because many of Taiwan’s pitching prospects have already been scooped up. First baseman Cheng-Min Peng led the Taiwanese professional league in hitting five times, including his .391 mark in 2008, a national record; at 35, however, he’s too old to be a viable major-league import.

Ta-Hung Cheng is three years younger, and he bears the unique distinction of being the only catcher in the Japanese, America, Korean or Taiwanese leagues to lead his league in steals. As with other Asian catchers, the language and strategy barrier may prove to be insurmountable for Cheng, despite that tantalizing skill set.

Shortstop and probable WBC cleanup hitter Chih-Sheng Lin is a three-time home run champ in Taiwan and the 2012 Taiwan Series MVP. Lin, who bears the Orwellian nickname “Big Brother,” has a career line of .314/.383/.535 in nine seasons with the Lamigo Monkeys. A shortstop with power is a tantalizing combination, and I expect scouts to keep a close eye on Lin’s WBC performance.

Hitting behind Lin at the WBC should be left fielder Szu-Chi Chou, who suddenly found his power stroke in 2012. Before this year, Chou had never hit more than seven home runs, but he tripled that total this past season with the Brother Elephants. He’ll have to repeat that sudden success to be considered a legitimate MLB option.

South Korea
My favorite team from the 2009 WBC, Korea represents the new frontier in Asian baseball prospects, as heralded by the arrival of Hyun-Jin Ryu on the Dodgers. Other Korean players have come to MLB, and several MLB players have returned to the majors after tune-ups in Korea, but Ryu is the first Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) player to use the posting system to come to MLB.

At the top of the list of KBO players rumored to be coming to MLB is starting pitcher Suk-Min Yoon, who will be a free agent after this season. The righty features a fastball that peaks at 93, a hard slider, and a decent changeup, leading to a 70-53 record in the KBO with a 3.12 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. While he has fanned 7.6 per nine innings, he’ll need to work on shaving some walks from his 2.7 BB/9, though that may reflect the more walk-permissive Asian baseball style.

Third baseman Jeong Choi will be a free agent next season, and rumors say that he’ll try to sign with a major-league team. He features a good glove and a flyball stroke that has produced 126 home runs and a .484 SLG over eight seasons in the KBO; Choi also adds speed to the mix, with 88 swipes in that same span. Third basemen are at enough of a premium for MLB scouts to give Choi a longer look than his skill set might otherwise merit.

Korea’s best power hitter ever, first baseman Seung-Yeop “The Lion King” Lee, has played in both the KBO and NPB, hitting nearly 500 homers between the two leagues. He has received major-league interest before, in 2004 and 2007, but he didn’t sign because he wasn’t guaranteed a major-league roster spot. At 37, he’s probably too old to draw any more interest, though having won the 2012 Korea Series MVP could change that.

If anyone can surpass the Lion King in the record books, it might be Dae-Ho “Big Boy” Lee, who’s listed at 6’4”, 286. Big Boy set an international record with home runs in nine straight games in 2010, the same year he won the KBO Triple Crown. Seeking a greater challenge, Lee signed a two-year deal with the NPB Orix Buffaloes before last season. While his .286/.367/.478 line in his first NPB season wasn’t earth-shattering, he won the Home Run Derby, and his 24 home runs put him among the league leaders. He can play either infield corner, but Lee will probably slot in at third base for Korea in the WBC. When his Orix contract ends, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Big Boy test the MLB market.

Japan
The richest market for Asian MLB talent has been the Japanese leagues, which have brought us superstars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo, as well as a lot of other less successful players. Catcher Ryoji Aikawa and outfielder Atsunori Inaba on this year’s WBC squad tried to make the leap in the past, but couldn’t get a suitable offer. And outfielder Sho Nakata and pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura did draw considerable interest from MLB but chose to sign with NPB teams instead.

The high price tag involved with the posting system has led to recent negotiations about the process, which could affect the transpacific market by driving prices down. For now, no players have announced their intention to post before the 2014 season, perhaps due to these negotiations, but I’ll look at a few top candidates, both for posting or free agency.

Starting pitcher Kenta Maeda leads the list, as he’s openly discussed the option of being posted, stating that he will see how he feels against MLB players in the WBC before making his decision. Maeda is only 24 years old, and in five seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, he has amassed a 2.47 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, thanks to a 1.9 BB/9 that will assuage the fears of those who think that every Japanese pitcher has Daisuke Matsuzaka’s control (or lack thereof). Maeda’s 7.1 K/9 is also impressive, and he threw his first no-hitter in 2012. Expect plenty of eyeballs and radar guns to be focused on Maeda.

Another starting pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, is often mentioned in the same breath as Maeda as well as Yu Darvish. Like Darvish, Tanaka started in NPB at just 18 years old, when he racked up an 11-7 season with a 3.82 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. While he struck out more than a batter per inning, he had a bloated 3.3 BB/9. That walk rate has fallen each season since, to a microscopic 1.1 in 2011 and 1.0 in 2012. Tanaka’s strikeouts have dipped a bit along the way, but he still averages 8.6 K/9. Patrick Newman’s excellent NPBTracker velocity chart shows Tanaka with a fastball that just touches 90 to go with a slider in the low 80s and a forkball. Tanaka will also draw plenty of attention and could end up being even better than Maeda in the majors.

Seibu Lions pitcher Hideaki Wakui has also been mentioned as a posting candidate, though he endured a roller-coaster 2012 season. After five years as the Lions’ starter, Wakui was involved in an off-the-field scandal early in the season and was demoted to the minors. When he returned, he did so as the team’s closer and logged 30 saves. Little about Wakui’s numbers is eye-popping, like his 6.6 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9, though his 3.12 ERA and 1.23 WHIP are respectable enough. If he does get posted, it would be after this season, when his role is clearer and the scandal is a year farther behind him.

The track record of NPB shortstops in MLB hasn’t been a good one, but Takashi Toritani seems ready to reverse that trend. Toritani had been making noise about becoming a free agent after the 2012 season, but he chose to remain with the Hanshin Tigers for another season. In the process, Toritani turned down a two-year deal in favor of a one-year contract, increasing speculation that he will test the waters before the 2014 season. Toritani’s .282 career batting average isn’t all that impressive, but he does have a 10.8 percent walk rate and has flashed more speed than power as he’s aged. Still, his offense and middling defense, as well as the history of Japanese shortstops, make him more likely to catch on in a utility role.

Related Content:  WBC,  World Baseball Classic,  Asia

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Premium Article The Asian Equation: Th... (09/20)
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