Chinese Taipei Heavy Favourites to Reach 2013 World Baseball Classic

Second in a series of World Baseball Classic previews

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)

MARYVILLE, Tenn. – Chinese Taipei, ranked eighth in the world in baseball, are the overwhelming choice to emerge from the fourth qualifying bracket for the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC).  Their global ranking is due to a number of factors, all of which have other teams in the tournament aiming for an upset.

First is their level of collective experience. Along with South Africa and Canada, they are the only countries in the qualifying rounds to have participated in the first two World Baseball Classics.  They also compete at a high level in Asian baseball tournaments.  Less than five months after their humiliating exit from the 2009 WBC, they squeaked by South Korea 5-4 at the Asian Championships before losing 6-5 to Japan in the final round.  The second-place finish was their 10th in 26 appearances (they also have two gold medals and 10 bronze). In 2010, they took second place behind South Korea at the Asian Games, beating Japan in the semifinals.

Second is their level of individual training.  Of their 28-man roster, 26 play professionally, with many also having experience in the aforementioned tournaments.  The nation has produced eight players who have appeared in MLB, including three verifiable stars: pitchers Chien-Ming Wang, Wei-Yin Chen, and Hong-Chih Kuo.  The latter will not be playing for Chinese Taipei, and it is unclear whether Wang will pitch, though he has expressed interest.  The Baltimore Sun reported that Chen will also sit out at least the qualifying round, a blow for Chinese Taipei after his successful debut with the Baltimore Orioles this year.  Chen was 12-11 with a 4.02 ERA in almost 200 innings.  Thanks to Chen and others, Taiwanese pitchers have been successful in the majors, as five pitchers have combined for 90 wins, 18 saves, and a 4.19 ERA.  No batters have yet to distinguish themselves.  Still, considering the other teams in their group can claim only a handful of domestically trained minor league players, Chinese Taipei’s pedigree is hard to ignore.

The final factor, and not one to be understated, is Xinzhuang Stadium, in heart of Chinese Taipei’s capital.  The capacity has gradually increased to 12,500 and hosted the Baseball World Cup in 2007.  It is also the site of Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) games, and will be quite familiar to the players, most of whom have experience in the CPBL.  It features a retractable roof with unique ground rules and is larger than any of the stadia in the Philippines, Thailand, or New Zealand.

Chinese Taipei will look to use all these factors to their advantage and improve on their performances in the last two WBC events.  In 2006, they had a very difficult pool, squaring off with South Korea in their first contest, losing 2-0 to the eventual third place finishers.  A day later, they faced Japan and over 31,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome and took a tough 14-3 shelling from the nation that would claim the first WBC title.  The team ended on a good note, crushing China 12-3. Leadoff hitter Yung-Chi Chen, still with the team, had four hits, including a grand slam.

Three years later, the team had an inauspicious performance, again travelling to the Tokyo Dome.  They opened with a tough 9-0 loss to South Korea, who would later take second place, but hoped for a rebound against lowly rivals China. Instead, their opponents took a 3-0 lead and held on for a 4-1 win, their first ever over their island neighbours.  The loss relegated Chinese Taipei to the qualifying rounds for 2013 along with Canada, South Africa, and Panamá, who were also all winless.

Despite the lack of players with MLB experience on the roster for the qualifier, the blue-and-white has a number of experienced athletes.   The projected starting lineup is mostly in its late-20s and early-30s, while the pitching staff is young, raw, and talented.  The strongest positions for Chinese Taipei are at the infield and outfield corners, though they have the deepest catching roster of almost any country, including those in the main draw of the WBC.

Manager Chang-Heng Hsieh explained his selections to the International Baseball Federation, remarking, “We have selected those who are in good form this season. Our aim is to win the qualifier round, and we expect them to perform to their best standards.”  Were Chinese Taipei to advance to the main WBC draw, reinforcements from MLB might be a possibility.

The star and leader of the team will be first baseman Cheng-Min Peng.  In almost 1100 career CPBL games, he is a .348/.452/.535 hitter.  He has led the league in hitting five times, including a national record .391 in 2008.  In his career, Peng has 151 homers and 179 stolen bases.  The Gold Glove-winner may also want to make up for his 1-for-6 performance in 2009, in which the heart of the order failed to produce for Taiwan.  Peng should receive protection in the batting order from Yi-Chuan Lin, a corner infielder, and shortstop Chih-Sheng Lin.  The former is a .343/.394/.512 hitter in four CPBL seasons, but was hitless in eight WBC 2009 at bats.  Chih-Sheng Lin did little better, accumulating one hit in eight times to the dish, but in nine domestic seasons has a .314/.383/.535 line.

Manager Hsieh will likely name Yung-Chi-Chen as the leadoff hitter again.  Chen has the best WBC performance for Chinese Taipei yet, hitting .357 in 2006.  In the team’s final contest, he notched five RBI on a home run and three doubles to almost singlehandedly defeat China.  Chen had a solid minor league career for the Seattle Mariners, hitting .287 with an OPS of .744 and 84 stolen bases while collecting time at second, short, and third.

Taiwan will carry only one backup infielder and two extra outfielders, but three superb backstops have been selected to the roster.  The likely starter is Chih-Kang Kao, a 12-year international veteran.  Kao is known as a strong defensive catcher in the CPBL, throwing out a whopping 38 per cent of runners.  He is a career .282 hitter.  Ta-Hong Cheng may also see playing time as a career .300 hitter, but also one with surprising speed.  In 2010, he set an international record when he became the first catcher among Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, or American leagues to lead the circuit in steals.  Also donning the mask is Hong-Yu Lin, a .309/.359/.483 hitter in the CPBL. He has caught 27 per cent of runners stealing in his career.

Based on previous WBC lineups and the results of the most recent season, the following is a possible starting nine against New Zealand:

Yung-Chi Chen – 3B
Chien-Ming Chang – RF
Yi-Chuan Lin – DH
Cheng-Min Peng – 1B
Chih-Sheng Lin – SS
Wu-Hsiung Pan – LF
Chih-Kang Kao – C
Yen-Wen Kuo – 2B
Tai-Kang Yan – CF

The nation should have a deep pitching staff, if one that lacks a true ace.  Unlike the Taiwanese batsmen, the majority of the team’s hurlers compete in foreign leagues. At least half the hurlers can hit the mid-90s on the radar gun, which should be an enormous advantage in the fourth qualifier.

The most experienced pitcher is Hong-Wen Chen, who has five minor league seasons under his belt.  Chen did not pitch in the United States in 2012 for undisclosed reasons, but had a pair of scoreless appearances for Taiwan against the USA and the Netherlands at the annual Haarlem Baseball Week tournament in July.  The right-hander, still only 26, has thrown almost 500 innings, mostly with Chicago Cubs’ affiliates, registering a 3.84 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.  His most recent campaign, 2011, was his most impressive, as he finished 4-3 with a 2.84 ERA and struck out 9.7 batter per nine innings.  Like many of the other pitchers for Chinese Taipei, his fastball sits around 94 to 95 mph.

Another Cubs prospect is Yao-Lin Wang, who might be in line for a start after transitioning to the rotation to end the year at Daytona.  Wang, only 21 years old, mixes a curveball and changeup with a 92-94 mph fastball.  He had a 3.94 ERA and struck out 9.5 per nine innings, in line with his career average, recording nine starts and 12 saves.

Five members of the staff have seen time in Japan’s Nippon Baseball League, though most have alternated between the minors and majors in Japan.  The most noteworthy has been Yao-Hsun Yang, who features a 96 mph fastball and good slider. Yang put up a 3.47 ERA for the Softbank Hawks in parts of six seasons, with even better numbers in the minors.  Yi-Hao Lin could feature prominently in the pen after dominating for the Yomiuri Giants’ farm team, totalling 21 saves and an ERA under three the past two campaigns.

Only three members of the pitching staff have seen action in previous Classics. Sung-Wei Tseng is the only one to have much success, throwing two shutout frames with four strikeouts against China in 2009.  After tossing 72 games in the Indians minor league system, he returned to Taiwan in 2011 and has seen action in relief the past two seasons.

Chinese Taipei will face Cuba in the annual Thunder Series in Taichung, Taiwan today (Nov. 10) and take part in several other exhibitions before hosting the fourth qualifying pool for the 2013 WBC from November 15-18.  Their first contest against the Diamondblacks of New Zealand is at 10:30 a.m. GMT on Nov. 15, before taking the field at the same time a day later against a to-be-determined opponent.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
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