10,400km -- the swimming distance from Taiwan to the major leagues
TOM HAUDRICOURT, Contributing writer
MILWAUKEE -- From the moment Asia's latest major leaguer arrived at the Milwaukee Brewers' spring training camp in Phoenix, Arizona, he understood the enormity of the task at hand.
Asked to describe the feeling of trying to make the unprecedented leap from rookie ball, about five levels below the major leagues, the 21-year-old left-hander said, "The feeling is like swimming from Taiwan to here, swimming in the ocean."
Apparently, Wang Wei-chung is a very good swimmer.
Against tremendous odds, the Taiwan native made the Brewers' opening day 25-man roster. No pitcher had ever made the jump from rookie ball to the major leagues, but Wang did it by impressing General Manager Doug Melvin, Manager Ron Roenicke and other Brewer decision-makers.
Wang's presence in the Brewers' bullpen makes him one of only two Taiwanese players active in the majors so far this year. Chen Wei-yin, a left-handed starter for the Baltimore Orioles, is in his third year in Major League Baseball.
A year ago, Wang was pitching in something called the Gulf Coast League, in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization. He had signed with the Pirates in October 2011 as an international free agent.
The Rule 5 draft
Almost four months ago, the Brewers surprised baseball by plucking Wang in a sort of draw that allows major league teams to dip into their rivals' minor league systems. The idea is to prevent clubs from stashing players with major-league potential in a lower league.
The Pirates were not exactly stashing Wang. Usually, a player must play three or four years in the minors before being eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but Wang, after only a matter of innings, was available because of a technicality. His lucrative deal with the Pirates was voided after a physical exam revealed a torn ligament in his pitching elbow that required reconstructive surgery. Because that original pact was reworked, Wang would become eligible for the Rule 5 draft after one season in the minors.
After sitting out all of 2012 to recover from the surgery, Wang last year was assigned by the Pirates to a rookie league club in Florida. In 12 games, he compiled a 3.23 earned run average. He struck out 42 and walked four in 47 1/3 innings. Opponents batted only .209 against him.
Despite showing impressive potential, Wang was not added to Pittsburgh's 40-man roster, which would have protected him from the Rule 5 draft. The decision was perfectly understandable. Who would gamble the $50,000 draft fee on such an inexperienced pitcher making such a gigantic leap to the majors? The drafting team is barred from sending a draftee to the minors. If he does not pan out, like most Rule 5 picks, he must be offered back to his original club.
The Brewers rolled the dice because one of their scouts reported that Wang's surgically reconstructed left arm was capable of throwing an occasional about 152kph fastball and an impressive changeup. The scout also noted Wang's outstanding control and his developing curveball.
The night before the Rule 5 draft -- held in December during the major leagues' annual winter meetings -- Melvin told pro scouting director Zack Minasian to "think out of the box." Minasian and special assistant Dick Groch did exactly that. When the young pitcher's name was announced, it got the conference room in Orlando, Florida, buzzing.
A month before spring training, Wang traveled from his home in Taitung to Phoenix, where 15 major league teams get ready for the season. He even brought a translator, Jay Hsu. Wang had never been to Arizona or experienced the hot, dry climate in that part of the U.S.
As spring training began, Roenicke was asked if he considered Wang a long shot to make the team. "I don't know if you'd really call it a long shot," the manager answered. "We thought enough of him to pick him; we thought there's a decent chance (for him) to make our team.
"I know it is (a long shot) if you look at where he pitched (last year). But we're hoping he can get relaxed enough to show us what he has."
Roenicke and his staff got their first look at Wang in action during an intrasquad game, Brewers vs. Brewers. Wang looked anything but relaxed. After a ground out and a walk, Ryan Braun, the Brewers' best player and the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, stepped to the plate.
Realizing who he was up against, Wang concentrated and got the Brewers' star to strike out swinging on a changeup.
"I wanted to strike him out," Wang said. "I felt so happy I had a chance to face him."
When the Brewers began playing some of those 14 other teams, Wang did not look nervous. And he didn't walk any more hitters. In fact, he turned in one impressive outing after another, and before long it became obvious that Wang had a real chance to make the team.
Wang had no idea who any of the hitters were, so he tried to keep things simple on the mound. He kept in mind the advice teammate Kyle Lohse gave him before his first outing. "He said, 'Just throw strikes,'" Wang related.
Wang did. With each sound outing, Roenicke and his staff talked more about ways to keep the pitcher on the team. Sometimes, major league clubs will "hide" a Rule 5 draftee on their roster, not play him much and hope he develops into a major leaguer in the years to come. But Roenicke made it clear Wang would be kept only if the Taiwanese could help the Brewers win.
"I don't see how we can hide somebody if we're trying to win," Roenicke said. "If he's getting people out, which we've seen all spring, throwing strikes, I don't think this is a guy we're going to hide."
As spring training progressed, Wang became more comfortable with his surroundings. His new teammates embraced him and made him feel welcome despite the language barrier that forced conversations to go through Hsu.
"I really want to learn English because I really like to talk," said Wang, who enjoyed his new experience more with each passing day. "In Taiwan, I can talk a lot with my teammates. Here, I have to be translated, and sometimes the meaning is not totally right."
As the days of spring training dwindled, it became more evident that Wang was going to make the club on merit. When he was officially given that news only a few days before the Brewers headed for Milwaukee to begin the season, Wang became emotional.
"It feels so good," he said. "I don't know how to say it. It's a dream come true.
"I'm the first one (to jump from rookie ball) but I've still got to keep the same feeling to do everything, not get too excited or screw up."
The day Wang received the news, he went out and had his worst game of the spring, allowing four hits and three runs in the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss to San Francisco. But that was almost to be expected. After weeks of pitching with an intense focus, Wang finally relaxed upon making the team and lost his edge. It happens.
By making the team, Wang will earn the major league minimum of $500,000 this season. While that pales to the $155 million the New York Yankees will pay Japan's Masahiro Tanaka over the next seven years, it is a jackpot compared to the $40,000 Wang would be making had he stayed with Pittsburgh and in the minors.
Wang was one of the big stories of Milwaukee's spring training. In nine appearances and 14 innings, he compiled a 3.86 ERA with no walks and seven strikeouts. He was one of three left-handed pitchers to make the bullpen, and the Brewers hope he will pitch well enough to stay in the majors all season, which opened March 30.
The long-term plan for Wang is not for him to be a relief pitcher, however. If they are able to keep him in the majors all season, as required, the Brewers will send Wang back to the minors in 2015 so he can work up enough strength to become a starting pitcher. Once he is ready to return to the majors in that role, the Brewers hope they will have a star in the making.
"He's throwing strikes," Roenicke said. "The biggest thing is if you've got some stuff, which he does, and you can throw strikes, you're going to get major-league hitters out."