The curious case of Chun Chen

For the last couple of seasons, one of the most intriguing prospects within the Indians’ farm system has been Chun-Hsiu Chen. Recently converted to first base by the Indians, the Hulian County, Taiwan native has had quite the ride since signing in September 2007 as an undrafted minor league free agent.

Chen had been a third baseman and pitcher in Taiwan, but the Indians made the decision to move him to catcher once he joined the organization. On paper, it seemed like a great move. Chen had always possessed patience, great gap power and a strong work ethic. While he was certainly a project player, Chen appeared to have the perfect skillset to one day develop into an above average offensive-minded catcher at the Major League level.

After a slow start to his professional career, Chen’s breakthrough came in 2010 when he combined to hit .315/.404/.521 between Low-A Lake County and High-A Kinston. Even more impressive was the great plate discipline that Chen displayed as he drew 38 walks compared to just 36 strikeouts in his 52 games at Kinston.

Let’s fast forward to 2011.

Chen got promoted to Class AA-Akron and continued to hit well but at a slightly less productive clip. In his age-22 season, he hit .262/.330/.451 with 16 home runs and 70 RBIs in 113 games at Akron.

Certainly, there’s a lot to like about his 2011 campaign — but there’s also a lot to dislike.  Chen’s plate discipline essentially evaporated as he walked just 43 times and had 122 strikeouts. Also, Chen’s defensive reviews remained quite mixed. Because English is not his native language, Chen often struggled with calling games, and his blocking was average at best.

The disappearance of his plate patience combined with the lack of defensive improvement led to the Indians at least temporarily pulling the plug on the Chen catching project this past offseason. Chen has since been converted to a first baseman where there will be far less defensive pressure placed on him. The hope is that Chen can get back to focusing on hitting and recapture the above average skills that he displayed in 2010.

So far, it seems as if Chen is not disappointing. In his first 11 games of 2012, he has hit .317/.417/.366 at Akron while walking seven times with 12 strikeouts. Again, there is a lot to like about those numbers, but certainly some room for improvement; Chen has yet to hit a home run or drive in a run during the 2012 campaign.

So where exactly does this position change leave Chen? Is it reasonable to think that he could possibly be the Indians’ first baseman of the future?

It is somewhat difficult to suggest with certainty that Chen might ever have the bat that is capable of playing first base in the Major Leagues. Chen has never hit more than 16 home runs in a professional season, and remember that he is now on his fourth position since 2007. In other words, Chen is not going to become a defensive wizard overnight.

Also, the abundance of first basemen at the Class AAA level is not helping Chen’s chances. But if he continues to display plate discipline and hit at his current rate, a promotion to Class AAA should definitely be in the cards. However, Columbus is currently stockpiled with a plethora of first basemen, including Matt LaPorta, Beau Mills and Russ Canzler.

There is still reason to believe that Chen might have the chance to eventually surpass the Columbus trio and earn an opportunity to eventually man the not so hot corner at Progressive Field. After all, he does not possess the organizational player tag that dogs Canzler, and he has not yet lost his prospect shine as Mills and LaPorta have.

Only time will tell if Chen is to have a major league future and whether it will be as the Indians’ regular first baseman. But there will still always be the question as to whether or not the Indians gave up too soon on the Chen catching experiment.

Imagine the catching duo of Carlos Santana and Chen in Cleveland. The two could rotate between catcher and designated hitter, which would ensure their bats remain in the lineup each day. With the switch-hitting Santana and the right-handed Chen, the Indians would almost certainly set a new franchise record for home runs in a season from the catcher’s position.

*Sigh*

It is an interesting proposition but sadly one that will likely never come to fruition. Nonetheless, I know I’ll always be curious as to what could have been.

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