In 2002, former LA Dodgers and current La New Bears star Chen Chin-feng (陳金鋒) became the first Taiwanese baseball player to don a Major League uniform. Shortly thereafter, the first four Taiwanese players signed to MLB contracts — including Chen, Yankees starter Wang Chien-ming (王建民), Royals pitcher Tsao Chin-hui (曹錦輝) and Dodgers reliever Kuo Hong-chih (郭泓志) — all earned spots on professional clubs.
The success of the first four Taiwanese signings — with Dodgers shortstop Hu Chin-lung (胡金龍) following in their footsteps shortly afterwards — has resulted in a multiplying number of MLB scouts hired in the quest to recruit Taiwan’s next wave of talent. The Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers have all added part-time scouts within the last year, and more are likely on the way.
At least 10 of the 30 MLB teams now have part-time or full-time scouts residing in Taiwan, working on a continuing basis to try to find the next big signing.
These scouts are usually reinforced by international cross-checkers who come through periodically during major tournaments, as the MLB teams’ increasing scrutiny of Taiwan generates increasingly fierce competition for talent here.
In addition to growing competition from their US peers, Major League teams scouting in Taiwan have to contend with international competitors as well.
Japanese professional teams have far more flexible guidelines regarding free-agent signings under the age of 16, while MLB rules compel teams to wait until players are 16 (or in certain cases 17) before they can offer them contracts.
Rumor has it that certain Japanese teams begin scouting players as early as elementary school — especially in eastern Taiwan, where the majority of the nation’s baseball talent originates — and have signed a number of top Taiwanese prospects well before their 16th birthday.
Seattle Mariners scout Jamey Storvick, who began scouting Taiwan in 1999, said he believes he was the only scout living in Taiwan on a permanent basis when the gold rush started. When he started out, there were only six to eight teams scouting the country intermittently, with a few local scouts helping out here and there.
“In the late 90s, interest in Taiwan got hot as a group of three solid arms came out of here in a short period of time,” he said, referring to Wang, Kuo and Tsao, whose electric fastball drew huge attention from MLB teams.
The salad days of the late 90s appear to be over, however, forcing MLB scouts residing in Taiwan to dig deeper and become more resourceful in their search for prospects.
In certain instances, unfortunately, this has meant stretching the boundaries of acceptable protocol in order to remain competitive and ensure their prospects aren’t snatched up by other clubs.
Rumors of illegal signings, teams hiding players and hidden contracts abound, as well as whispers of a maze of secret arrangements between scouts and agents that further alter the landscape of negotiations and player signings.
To make matters more complicated, some scouts in Taiwan lament certain coaches’ overuse of pitchers, citing an increased risk of injury to their coveted prospects before they can make the jump overseas.
Despite these hurdles and strategic advantages held by Japanese clubs, Taiwan is still viewed as a top target for MLB scouting departments because of the high level of play and organization, and the passion for the game found among players, fans and coaches.