Bucs emerging as leaders in Asian market

January 25th, 2022

The Pirates were very active in the opening days of the 2022-23 international signing period, which began Jan. 15. As of Monday, they had signed 19 players, the vast majority coming from Latin America.

However, one signing on the other side of the globe continued a strong trend for the Pirates.

The club inked Hung-Leng Chang, a 20-year-old right-hander, out of Taiwan. Pittsburgh’s signing of Chang to begin the 2022-23 international signing period puts them in a very small group of teams to sign an amateur player from Asia so far. The only other clubs to officially sign a prospect from Asia in the current signing period as of Monday were the Cardinals (Won-Bin Cho, South Korea) and the Dodgers (Kosuke Matsuda, Japan).

Even though amateur signings out of Asia are a smaller occurrence league-wide, they are not a new trend for the Bucs. Not nearly. The club has established itself as a leader in scouting and signing talented players from Asia. In each of the past four years, the Pirates have signed an amateur player from the continent: Chang, Po-Yu Chen (2020, Taiwan), Tsung-che Cheng (‘19, Taiwan) and Ji-Hwan Bae (‘18, South Korea).

A big reason the Pirates feel compelled to dip into this base of amateur players when others often don’t is in part due to the club’s stayed focus on developing a sturdy base of talent in the Minor Leagues; as assistant director of player personnel Max Kwan told MLB.com, “We have to explore every avenue.”

One avenue to explore with respect to Asian talent is the posting system, which allows players to be acquired from Asian professional leagues like Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan) and Korea Baseball Organization (South Korea). But this group of players, which included last season’s second-half hero for the Pirates in Yoshi Tsutsugo (a former NPB star), warrants heavy competition for services due to their established professional careers to that point and their peak age of performance.

Snagging a player early on who could be talented enough to reach that posting system later in his career and instead developing them in its own farm system would be huge for a club like the Pirates. To oversee the region and try to unearth some gems on the diamond, Kwan said the Bucs’ Pacific Rim team has scouts in Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as a few associates. Plus they have translators for South Korea and Taiwan when interest intensifies into conversations between the larger club and the player.

“It’s fairly robust, the support that we have,” Kwan said. “And like I said, not only with identifying, evaluating and acquiring, but thereafter in the development phase, everyone that’s out there in the Pacific Rim stays with these kids all the way through – during the season and after the season – to make sure everything is taken care of for them.”

Kwan also pointed out that Asian players are often more familiar with the day-to-day grind of organized baseball, having played a ton of games somewhat similarly to American MLB Draft prospects.

That’s true for Chang, who spent the 2020 season with the semi-pro Taiwan Power Company in the Industrial League before working out with the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s CTBC Brothers last year. But Chang was not as vaunted in his early years as the other Asian prospects the Pirates have signed over the past few years.

“This is a kid that was never really on all the national teams like Po-Yu Chen and Tsung-Che Cheng,” Kwan said. “He was a little more of a late developer, and what we saw in 2019 was a lot of positive characteristics, and as we continued to follow him, he got better and better and better.”

Now, the Pirates will bring him into their system and get him ready to enter a new organization and a new country. On the field, that transition has gone well in recent years: Bae (Pittsburgh's No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline) hit .323 in his first full season, Chen pitched a 2.47 ERA in his first taste of Minor League competition last season and Cheng hit .311 in the Florida Complex League in 2021.

But beyond games, Pittsburgh’s staff is also focused on making sure their players from over the Pacific Ocean are assimilating well in a new area.

“Wherever they're from, we need to have the internal infrastructure to support that player’s transition into pro ball – the onboarding, certainly their early part of the coaching process and development process. We are equally excited about that,” GM Ben Cherington said. “We’re not just going out and finding these players, but we are building a team of people with the Pirates that can really support that transition and onboarding into the Pirates, whether that's where they live now or when they get to Pirate City.”

In the long run, signing as many players from Asia as the Pirates do helps them further their goal of creating a more diverse farm system.

“Diverse in being from all over the globe, I think spanning six countries,” Sanders said of this year’s signing class. “Diverse in a pretty impactful mix of position players and pitchers. Different skill sets. Different ages. Guys at different parts of their developmental progression. I think we feel really good about that.”