Then & Now is a weekly feature at Indians Prospect Insider during the offseason that takes a look at a prospect’s past and present while also offering a possible glimpse into the prospect’s future.
Everyone loves a right-handed hitting prospect. The same can be said for a catching prospect. But what about getting both at the same time?
The Cleveland Indians seemed to find just that in September 2007 when they signed Chun-Hsiu Chen out of Taiwan.
Since then, there is no disputing the fact that Chen has been one of Tribe’s most productive minor leaguers over the past few seasons. He’s steadily moved up through the farm system, and he has also hit at each stop.
Yet, despite his success, Chen has never really developed into the prospect that might be expected from a promising, offensive-minded catcher.
Chen is a native of Taiwan, so English is obviously not his first language. Considering all the various nuances in regard to the catching position, it is easy to see how the language barrier might make things somewhat difficult for Chen.
Furthermore, in Taiwan, Chen was a pitcher and a third baseman; he did not convert to catcher until he was signed with the Indians. So, essentially Chen was faced with a double whammy. In addition to having to learn a new language, Chen was tasked with learning a new position.
The results have been somewhat mixed. The bat has always been there, but the language barrier coupled with inexperience really seemed to make things difficult for Chen. He had struggled calling games and then, following the 2011 season, the Indians made the decision to abandon the Chen catching experiment and develop him as a first baseman from that point forward.
While Chen has really had a productive minor league career, it did not start out that way. The 6-foot-1 inch Chen made his debut at age 19 during the summer of 2008 in the Gulf Coast League. In 38 games with GCL Indians, Chen recorded a .261/.336/.409 line with three home runs and 15 RBI. Certainly, there were both positives and negatives that could be taken away from his numbers.
However, the only positive about Chen’s next season was when it mercifully came to an end. In 59 games with Single-A Mahoning Valley, Chen posted a .215/.328/.308 line with one home run and 19 RBI. Chen and his once promising prospect stock seemed to be falling at a startling level.
Though, there are other things to remember when analyzing Chen’s numbers from that 2009 campaign. He was, after all, only 20 years old, and he was still trying to fine-tune his skills at the catcher position. Perhaps he sacrificed his offensive skills to further hone his defensive ones.
That at least seems to be applicable, especially when you consider the season that Chen put together in 2010. Between Single-A Lake County and High-A Kinston, Chen hit .315/.404/.521 with 12 home runs and 69 RBI. At that point, Chen seemed to officially arrive as a legit prospect.
In 2011, he made the jump to Double-A Akron and while his overall numbers took a dip(.262/.330/.451), he also saw a boost in power numbers with 16 home runs and 24 doubles. Plus, he seemed to be getting more comfortable as a catcher as his .345 throw out percentage of base stealers ranked third in the Eastern League that year.
Some would argue that Chen seemed poised to take the next step. And there was a next step. It just was not the next step that fans and possibly even Chen were expecting.
Prior to the start of the 2012 season, Chen was converted to a first baseman. It seemed to be a questionable move, but there also seemed to be a plausible argument for it.
Chen’s catching had just not taken the steps needed to move further in the system. Yes, he had often displayed his strong throwing arm, but he still was a major work in progress in regard to calling games. Plus, Chen was coming off a career year in regard to power numbers, so there may have been some hope that his bat might translate to first base.
A different argument could also be made. What if Chen’s sudden power surge was smoke and mirrors? Additionally, while Chen was struggling as a catcher, he was making progress every year. Was it smart to erase that progress and essentially start over at a new position?
The Indians opted to go with the conversion, and, so far, the results have been encouraging for the most part. In 2012, it was evident that Chen was a ways down on the learning curve, but just as before, he seemed to get better from week to week. Chen’s bat also continued to impress as he it .308/.394/.426 in 108 games.
There was only one problem — power. Or, to state it more eloquently — lack of power.
On the year, Chen hit five home runs and drove in 43 RBI. If there was a silver lining, it was the 30 doubles, which is not too shabby.
Still, five home runs does not make for a Major League first baseman — it does not even make for a Major Leaguer period.
There is no easy answer to the question of what lies ahead for Chen. He simply does not have the bat to play first base in the Major Leagues, and his defense is far too green to warrant that as well.
He could be a designated hitter, but again, he does not have the power numbers to support such a move.
It’s hard to immediately write him off because the one thing that he does offer is offense. He may not be a double-digit home run threat, but he can hit and hit well. At this point, his bat is probably Major League ready, but it’s just a matter of the Indians deciding to call him up if they think he can help improve the ball club.
For an elusive call-up to occur, Chen is going to have to continue to hit but also show the power he displayed in 2010 and 2011. About to enter his sixth season in the organization, 2013 will be a critical year for Chen. He’ll likely start the year at Triple-A Columbus, so it’s probably now or never for Chen.
What is Chen’s destiny in the Indians organization? Ryan Garko? Jordan Brown? Jerad Head? Something else? Or Chen can make it really easy on himself and just go out and hit for power. In other words, control his own destiny.