Yesterday was the last Cubs EXST game for two visitors from another country, two aspiring baseball players who have been working out with the Cubs Extended Spring Training contingent at Fitch Park in Mesa the past couple of weeks.
The National Baseball Team of the Peoples Republic of China arrived at Scottsdale Community College for Spring Training last month, led by head coach (and ex-Cub manager) Jim Lefebvre
and pitching coach (and ex-MLB LHP) Bruce Hurst
. They played games against various minor league ST squads and college teams in Arizona, before having their team split up and sent to various MLB EXST camps, with the team's players (and Chinese translators) assigned to the MLB clubs who expressed an interest in the program.
The Cubs EXST contingent at Fitch Park was lucky enough to get two of China's better players, outfielder Qi Ze (pronounced "Chee") and catcher Hao Guo-chen (they call him "How").
A 22-year old lanky left-handed hitter who reminds me a LOT of Tyler Colvin, Qi Ze is probably the best prospect in China, and I can see why. He is fast and a good base-runner (although he almost got himself killed in collision at 1st base the other day while hustling to beat out a grounder to third), with a strong arm and plus-power. He has a lot of trouble tracking and catching line drives and fly balls, however (not that the Cubs would necessarily think that's a bad thing), but he is a converted first-baseman learning a new position. Besides his outfield defense, Ze needs to work on his hitting and pitch selection, but he looks like he could be a fine multi-tool MLB player some day.
Nimble and athletic, Hao still needs to work on his set-up and catching machanics, but he is cat-quick with a strong arm, and (like Ze) has plus-power. If he were a member of the Cubs organization, he would probably immediately become the Cubs #1 catching prospect.
China played in the World Baseball Classic last year, and they got smoked by Korea, Japan, and Taiwan by a combined score of 40-6. Then I saw a younger Chinese National team play in the Arizona Instructional League last October, and they played somewhat better than the WBC team, although still not great. And now I have seen the two Chinese players the Cubs had in their EXST camp the past couple of weeks, and I am impressed. They are raw, but have tremendous potential.
Having a chance to play with and against young U. S. and Latin minor leaguers has really seemed to help the Chinese players develop their skills, while also helping them learn how to act like professional baseball players. (KEY PHRASE: "Please pass the sunflower seeds")
The Chinese National Baseball team is preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and while the Chinese players have a strong allegiance to their country, and while China's ambition is to develop the pre-eminent national baseball team in Asia, it's also true that (barring a reprieve) 2008 is the last year that baseball will be an olympic sport. So it's possible that Chinese officials might allow some of the better Chinese players to get a shot at playing professional baseball in Japan or in the U. S. in 2009.
Hopefully somebody with the Cubs has been on the horn with Pacific Rim Scouting Coordinator Steve Wilson, suggesting he might want to maybe look into establishing and developing a positive relationship with China's Minister of Baseball. "Chee" and "How" would look great in Cubs uniforms (well, actually, they already HAVE looked great in Cubs uniforms!).
There is raw baseball talent in China. It just needs to be acquired, developed and refined. Obviously, it's not Japan or the Dominican Republic, or even Korea or Taiwan. At least not yet. But the next new thing in MLB might be the mining of baseball talent from the People's Republic of China. And I hope the Cubs get their foot in the door before other clubs get ther first.