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International Free Agent Profile: Hung-Wen Chen, Relief Pitcher

Former Cubs farmhand Hung-Wen Chen is currently a free agent and will be pitching in the World Baseball Classic. Could a strong performance translate into a contract with the Mets for 2013?

Wei-Yen Chen and Chien-Ming Wang have hit the big time in the Big Leagues. Could the same be in store for Hung-Wen Chen?
Wei-Yen Chen and Chien-Ming Wang have hit the big time in the Big Leagues. Could the same be in store for Hung-Wen Chen?
Victor Decolongon

In 2007, the Chicago Cubs signed seven international amateurs to contracts of varying worth. One of the young amateurs, given a $200,000 bonus, was a right-handed pitcher out of Taiwan by the name of Hung-Wen Chen. Born February 3, 1986, Chen hails from Hualien, Taiwan, home of a handful of fellow Taiwanese players who have made it to North America: Che-Hsuan Lin (Astros outfield prospect, acquired in 2012 from the Red Sox), Chun-Hsiu Chen (Indians catching prospect), Kuo-Hui Lo (former Mariners farmhand), and Chin-Hui Tsao (Rockies pitcher who, some may remember, spoiled Steve Traschel’s no-hit bid on August 18, 2003 with a double to center field in the sixth inning.

Of note, Hung-Wen Chen is the nephew of Taiwanese pitcher Yi-Hsin Chen, one of the best Taiwanese pitchers of the twentieth century — 92-52 with a 2.82 ERA and two MVP Awards in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, 49-49 with a 3.45 ERA and one MVP Award in the rival and now defunct Taiwan Major League.

The then-21-year-old attracted attention while playing for his college team and the Chinese (Taiwan) National team. He was assigned to the Cubs’ rookie and Low-A affiliates in 2007, but his career began in earnest in 2008, when he pitched his first full season in their system.

Standing at 5’11", and weighing 210 pounds, Chen is a bit pudgy, and this might be one among many reasons why he is just an average fielder on his best days. He throws from a ¾ delivery, and like many Asian pitchers, he has a slight hesitation in his delivery, specifically when he raises his glove over his head in the wind-up, which is reminiscent of Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Chen's fastball sits between 89 and 92 miles per hour, and according to Mark Riggins — the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator at the time — it has good tailing movement to it. Chen augments his fastball with a splitter and a slider. The splitter has generally been a consistent plus pitch, while the slider has only flashed potential. The run-of-the-mill fastball, combined with only one real out-pitch, has resulted in Chen needing to rely on control to either get batters out, or put the ball in a position for them to hit it and get themselves out. Fortunately for him, he has demonstrated an adequate degree of control over his career. When batters get on base, they can be something of a problem, as his pick-off move is definitely below average, partially because of his wind-up and possibly partially because of his nonathletic build.

The footage above, captured by YouTube poster 용민 김, shows Chen pitching in an exhibition game against Team Korea.

MiLB Stats

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 22 3.38 3.85 128 6.0 1.8 8.2 0.8
2009 23 4.48 3.81 142.2 6.2 2.0 10.5 0.8
2010 24 3.98 4.95 147 5.9 2.1 9.4 1.3
2011 25 3.51 4.40 35 8.6 4.1 10.5 1.2

Mexican League Stats

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2011 25 1.82 1.53 34.2 11.9 1.6 7.3 0.3

As is typical for a prospect rising through the minor leagues, Chen played for multiple teams throughout the course of a single season. In 2008, he pitched 71.1 innings for the Peoria Chiefs (Single-A, Midwest League) and 56.2 for the Dayton Cubs (High-A, Florida State League). In 2009, he played the entire season with the Tennessee Smokies (Double-A, Southern League). In 2009, he pitched 97.1 innings for the Tennessee Smokies and 49.2 innings for the Iowa Cubs (Triple-A, Pacific Coast League). In 2010, he played the entire season with the Iowa Cubs. In 2011, he pitched 29.0 innings for the Tennessee Smokies and 6.0 innings for the Iowa Cubs.

Level ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
A 3.15 3.23 71.1 5.6 1.5
A+ 3.65 4.47 56.2 6.7 2.1
AA 3.88 4.07 269.0 6.0 2.2
AAA 4.49 5.15 55.2 8.7 3.3

Appearances by Season

Hung-Wen also had his pitching role changed from starter to reliever.

Year Team SP RP
2010 Iowa (AAA) 5 11
2011 Tennessee (AA) 4 11
2011 Iowa (AAA) 0 5
2011 Piratas de Campeche (Mex) 3 16

In June 2011, Hung-Wen was ‘loaned’ to the Piratas de Campeche, much like former Met Raul Valdes was loaned to the Mets from the Olmecas de Tabasco. He returned to the organization in late August, threw six innings for Triple-A Iowa, and was demoted back down to Double-A Tennessee, where he pitched an additional 7.2 innings.

Apparently frustrated by being lent to Campeche, not being afforded opportunities, and his own lack of progress, Chen did not report to spring training in 2012, and the Cubs cut him. He returned to Taiwan, and was named a member of the 2013 Chinese Taipei World Baseball Classic team. In the qualifiers, Chen appeared in one game and pitched 1.1 innings in relief. In the eighth inning, with inherited runners on second and third and two outs, he struck out the batter to end the threat. In the ninth inning, he fanned two of the three batters he faced and successfully finished the game.

Does He Make Sense For The Mets?

It’s no secret that the Mets are going into 2013 with a lot of holes, and that the bullpen is one of them. Bobby Parnell and Frank Francisco are the only locks. Josh Edgin can be assumed to have a spot as the strongest left-handed candidate, but nothing can be fully certain. Like most other teams, the Mets have a plethora of theoretical bullpen options, some good and some bad.

Unlike a lot of other bullpen options the team has available, Chen has no major league experience. His minor league experience at the upper levels is iffy, at best. He showed some promise when he pitched in Mexico in 2011, but the quality of competition is obviously not as high as that of MLB. The upcoming WBC tournament might be a showcase for him to demonstrate that his foray into Latin America and his sabbatical back home have given him the necessary tools and mindset to be a quality reliever, at the upper minors or major league level. But, until then, there simply are too many questions surrounding the Taiwanese right-hander.

At the end of the day, at best, Chen might receive a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Whether or not he accepts that, I do not know. For what it's worth, Chen is currently wearing number 99. The last time the Mets had a reliever who wore that number, things worked out well for him.