HOUSTON -- Just one year after general manager Ed Wade indicated his desire to search new parts of the world for talent, the Astros signed a closer from Taiwan.

On Friday, 22-year-old right-hander Chia-Jen Lo signed a Minor League contract with the Astros worth $250,000.

Lo is the first product of Houston's new Pacific Rim scouting program, led by former Major League outfielder Glen Barker.

Lo was born in Pingtung, a city of 210,000 in southern Taiwan, but moved to Tainan to go to school and play baseball.

"I'm really excited and happy to be here to join the Astros team," Lo said through an interpreter on Friday at Minute Maid Park.

Barker said that the Royals, Red Sox and Marlins also were interested in Lo.

Lo said through the interpreter that he had never met Chien-Ming Wang, the New York Yankees pitcher who is also from Taiwan, but that Wang is his role model.

Although he is part of the organization, Lo probably won't be pitching for the Astros in 2009.

"He's two or three years away," Barker said. "It depends on how he adjusts to playing in America."

Barker said that Lo could begin next season as high as Double-A, but Wade indicated that might be reaching too high.

Barker first saw Lo pitch in a tournament that served as a pre-Olympic qualifier and realized right away he wanted to keep an eye on him. Lo pitched for the Chinese Taipei team in the Beijing Olympics.

"The last three years he's been used as a closer," Barker said. "He did start at one point in his career. We're going to evaluate him in Spring Training and start him in the role he feels comfortable in as a closer. "He really likes the closer role, and he has that look in his eye [on the mound]. He's really shy in person. But when you see him on the mound, he has that aura of a closer, 'Give me the ball, let's go.'

"He'll challenge you. He likes to come at you with his fastball. His fastball ranges anywhere from 92-96 mph. I think he has the opportunity to move up in our organization pretty rapidly."

Barker said Lo throws four pitches, including a devastating splitter, so there's a chance he could start one day.

Lo will report to the Astros' Spring Training camp in Kissimmee, Fla., and the club is hopeful he'll be successful from the start, since pitchers from the Far East have had more success in the U.S. than position players.

Hot Stove

"I think the pitching can grow faster," Barker said. "A lot of Asian countries teach a different style of hitting than we have here."

When Wade joined the Astros from Philadelphia, he moved Barker from pro scout to director of Pacific Rim scouting.

"This sends a clear signal we weren't paying lip service to the Pacific Rim a year ago," Wade said. "Glen spends a lot of time on airplanes and in a lot of countries. He did a great job in getting his presence known there and getting the Astros footprint established in the countries over there. The signing of C.J. is a great first step for what we hope will be an ongoing opportunity for us."

Barker said he saw quite a few prospects in Taiwan, Japan and Australia.

As a Minor League player in the Detroit system, Barker spent two months playing for the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese League in 1998 and played two years of winter ball in Australia.

"It was a great time," Barker said of living in Japan. "I liked the culture. That's what got me interested in going over there."