With the big spending approach having failed to get the Cubs past the NLDS in recent years, let alone to the World Series, there is some question so far during the early stages of this free agent period as to how the Cubs will approach the construction of their rosters going forward. One approach would be to almost start from scratch and build the MLB roster from the minor leagues up, which Tom Ricketts has been quoted as considering as they decide how to divide what funds are available between free agent spending and developing the farm system. The money invested in the minors can range from expanding the budget from which the front office can withdraw from to give higher signing bonuses to top international prospects (who do not have to enter the MLB draft the way American high school and college ball players have to) to investing and developing scouting efforts and facilities in these international regions. What may come to your mind right away when you hear this are the baseball academies set up in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries. But where the Cubs have been very productive in recent years has been the Far East, specifically in South Korea.
Unlike the Japanese imports brought across the ocean as free agents who have already gained experience in the Japanese pro league, the Cubs have been scouting and mining Korea at the amateur level to look for prospects to supplement the kids drafted in the States. Generally speaking, it is safe to say the free agent Asian imports brought over to MLB have ended up being busts more times than not. Part of the reason is the hype that follows these free agents who have achieved All Star status in the pro leagues back in their home land with the assumption that their skills should translate fairly well in MLB. But the main reason is a combination of the Asian style of conservative small ball witnessed in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic and the fact that these smaller Asian countries and leagues do not quite have the depth in overall player talent as you see in the 30 team MLB.
As a result, names such as Hideki Irabu, for example, heads the list of imports that have failed to continue their success from their home leagues to the MLB while Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the only well known names that stick in the minds of baseball fans as having been able to consistently cut it at the Major League level. In contrast, a couple names fans may be familiar with right now in Chan Ho Park, Shin Soo Choo, and Chen Ming Wang, have been able to have productive careers after having signed with MLB clubs as amateurs and working their way up through the farm systems to the Majors. The Cubs did try their hand at the free agent method when they signed Kosuke Fukudome over from Japan, but like most of the free agent imports, the signing has not panned out.
The jury may still be out on how well the Cubs will be able to develop the Korean prospects currently in their minor league system, as Hee Seop Choi and Jae Kuk Ryu were the only one to have had made it to Wrigley so far (which as we know did not turn out so well), but the Cubs investment to develop these prospects within the American style of baseball early on is bound to pay dividends really soon. Cub fans should already be familiar with the name Hak Ju Lee, a slick fielding SS who has been mentioned by Cubbies Crib writers in past posts. Scouts believe his glove alone may be enough to supplant phenom Starlin Castro from SS to 2B and along with Castro could not only form a middle infield double play combo to build on for the next few years to come, but also a nice 1-2 combo at the top of the Cubs line up to set the table for the middle of the order.
But HJ Lee (no relation to Derrick Lee) is not the only one.
Jae Hoon Ha Peoria (A) had a well balanced, productive 2010 season where he flashed signs of some power and speed, who early on is looking to shape up to be a player similar in the mold of the previously mentioned Choo of the Cleveland Indians. Pitcher Su Min Jung, OF Kyung Min Na, starting pitcher Dae Eun Rhee, and OF Dong Yub Kim round out the rest of the Korean prospect contingent in the Cubs system. And the Cubs just this past February added to that list with the signing of right handed pitcher Jin Yeong Kim.
Starting pitcher Hung Wen Chen is the furthest along in terms of being at AAA Iowa, and he is joined by fellow Taiwanese prospects Pin Chieh Chen (2B), Yao Lin Wang (P), and Tzu An Wang (P).
Our Minor League Contributing Writer Luke will surely fill you in on the best names of the bunch, but it will only be a matter of time before the Cubs investments in the Far East will pay dividends on the Major League roster. A true rebuilding plan will require time before the Cubs will realistically be battling for the elusive World Series title, but with a few of the above names teamed with rookies like Castro, Tyler Colvin, and Andrew Cashner, along with Cubs farm system products Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Geo Soto, and Carlos Zambrano, the home grown talent is bound to finally bring the championship to the North Side sooner rather than later. And that will have the loyal Cub fans feeling fly like a G6.