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.
No longer than one year ago, Chen-Chang Lee was regarded as one of the more exciting arms within the Indians system.
Armed with an electric fastball that could sit in the mid 90s, Lee had established himself as a pitcher with the ability to play in late, key game situations. In fact, many believed that Lee was the overall best relief pitching prospect in the system. That says a lot when you consider some of the bullpen arms currently playing for one of the Indians minor league affiliates.
Yet, like so many other players profiled this year for Then & Now, Lee too is now a question mark and not the top prospect he once was. It’s really none of Lee’s own fault, but he also serves as further evidence as to how injuries can affect a player’s game.
Will Lee eventually take his rightful spot as the setup man for the Major League club? Perhaps that’s a question that can only be answered in time.
Lee joined the Indians in September of 2008 when the team signed the right-hander out of Taiwan. As a former member of the Taiwanese National Team, there was a lot to like about what Lee could possibly bring to the table.
But of all his attributes, none were more attractive than his four-seam fastball. Because of his sidearm slot, Lee is a nightmare for right-handed hitters. They do not know how to approach the pitch, and his delivery creates deception and makes the pitch look even faster than it actually is.
Lee showed that fastball off when he made his stateside debut by joining Single-A Kinston for the 2009 season. Lee was especially impressive that season. The 5-foot, 11-inch right-hander posted a 3.35 ERA in 83 1/3 innings of work. He also recorded an impressive 97 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) while only walking 28 batters (3.0 BB/9). All in all, it turned out to be a splendid professional debut for Lee. Though the next season would be even better.
In 2010, Lee made the jump to Double-A Akron. He did not disappoint.
In 44 games and 72 2/3 innings with the Aeros, Lee posted a 3.22 ERA, a WHIP of 1.115 and recorded 82 strikeouts (10.2 K/9) against only 22 walks (2.7 BB/9). All of his numbers were either equally as strong as they were the previous season or better. Thus, it was easy to see why the Indians had become quite enamored with Lee. With only one season of American professional ball under his belt, Lee was able to already compete at the second highest level of the minors. But the remarkable thing is that he didn’t just compete — he excelled.
Lee started the 2011 season back in the bullpen at Akron. As one would expect, he picked up right where he left off. In 23 games with the Aeros, Lee posted a 2.50 ERA and struck out 12.7 batters per nine innings. The numbers improved when he was promoted to Triple-A Columbus midway through the season.
In 21 games with the Clippers, Lee posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings. For anyone that saw Lee pitch that season, it was clear that he was essentially a finished product. This was a player that could have joined the Major League roster on a moment’s notice and have success.
Of course, the thinking was that that moment’s notice might occur during the 2012 season…
Lee never got his chance to join the Indians during the 2012 season. In fact, he was fortunate that he got a chance to play any baseball at all.
The side-armer only appeared in five games with the Clippers this past year before ultimately deciding to have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. It was a shame that Lee was not healthy during the year as he was a player that could have certainly helped impact the Indians roster.
Aside from the back of the bullpen, the Indians really struggled as a pitching staff. Perhaps Lee was a potential bullpen arm that could have come in and offered some more stability to the staff. Though that day never came, and Lee spent much of the year rehabbing from the surgery.
While Lee’s future is somewhat uncertain, it still seems quite likely that he will play in the Major Leagues. It’s just too hard to believe that an arm as talented as his would not be able to come back better than ever from Tommy John surgery.
Further evidence of Lee’s strong future can be found by perusing through the Indians’ 40-man roster. Low and behold, Lee’s name remains on the team’s 40-man roster, which seems to be indicative of how the Indians think of him.
The Indians chose to add Lee to the 40-man roster in late November in an effort to protect him from possibly be selected in the Rule 5 Draft. This speaks volumes in regard to how the Indians think of Lee and his abilities. For instance, at the earliest, Lee can probably begin pitching again this May, but the Indians obviously understand his upside and would rather have an injured Lee take up a roster spot than no Lee at all.
Tommy John surgery is still very serious though, so Lee also should not be immediately ticketed for Major League success either. However, it does appear as if he’ll get ample opportunities. Prior to Tommy John surgery, he’s made the most out of every opportunity that he’s been given. Why should this be any different?
Previous Then & Now profiles:
- Jan. 10, 2013: Austin Adams
- Jan. 5, 2013: Rob Bryson
- Dec. 26, 2012: Giovanni Soto
- Dec. 18, 2012: Thomas Neal
- Dec. 11, 2012: Chris McGuiness
- Dec. 8, 2012: Trey Haley
- Nov. 27, 2012: Adam Abraham
- Nov. 20, 2012: Jesus Aguilar
- Nov. 15, 2012: Cord Phelps
- Nov. 6, 2012: Tim Fedroff
- Nov. 2, 2012: T.J. McFarland
- Oct. 27, 2012: Chen-Hsiu Chen
- Oct. 16, 2012: Danny Salazar
- Oct. 10, 2012: Paolo Espino
- Oct. 5, 2012: Jared Goedert
- Sept. 24, 2012: Hector Rondon
- Sept. 17, 2012: Nick Weglarz