Lo's stuff on mound speaks volumes
First Astros signee from Asia has been impressive
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The biggest adjustment Astros pitching prospect Chia-Jen Lo has had to make since moving to the United States from his native Taiwan is trying to communicate with his coaches and managers, which is why the Astros hired an interpreter and set Lo up with English lessons.
"English is the hardest," Lo said through his interpreter "Justin" Pei Yuan Wei.
Lo has had little trouble translating his arsenal on the pitcher's mound since the Astros made him the first player they signed out of Asia, late in 2008. The right-hander dazzled in his pro debut last year at Class A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, earning a trip to his first Major League Spring Training camp.
Astros general manager Ed Wade wouldn't rule out Lo winning a spot on the Opening Day roster, though it appears more likely he'll begin the season in Triple-A Round Rock considering how many established relievers are in camp.
"He's got a good arm and good stuff and has good poise on the mound and doesn't seem to be in awe of the fact he's playing in a foreign environment, and I think he's put his best foot forward," Wade said. "I think he grasps enough on his own that some point in time he may not have Justin all the time with him, and that's why at some point we think it's important for him to establish some greater foundation of English, because that will help him progress even more rapidly."
Lo, 23, was the first player signed by Pacific Rim scouting directory Glen Barker. Lo said seven Major League teams were competing for his services before he signed with the Astros. He was no secret to scouts, because he had pitched in several international tournaments for Taiwan, including the 2008 Olympics and the 2008 World University Championship.
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"A lot of teams had seen him in international play because he had performed on center stage in that respect, but Glen had indicated to us there were a number of other clubs in play on him," Wade said. "We were fortunate that Glen Barker stayed on him and was able to get it done."
Lo throws a fastball in the mid-90s with a curveball and changeup, but he said his fastball is his best pitch. He was a combined 1-2 with a 2.10 ERA last year in 39 innings, with 39 strikeouts and 20 walks. He went to the Arizona Fall League, going 1-0 with a 3.48 ERA in six games.
"I'm not sure the development guys have really gotten their arms around whether starting is eventually going to be the thing for him," Wade said. "It may be more of a bullpen role, and it could be a significant bullpen role."
Though he reportedly got a $250,000 bonus, Lo said he signed with the Astros in part because of the city.
"The weather is warmer, and I can get used to the environment faster because there is a large Chinese community over there," said Lo, who grew up in Pintung County, Taiwan.
Lo had to serve a 12-day military commitment in December, in which he helped clean camp grounds and assisted senior military officials with paperwork. Because he had represented the country in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic, he didn't have to serve the typical one-year commitment of most Taiwanese males.
Pei Yuan Wei, a former tax preparer who got his MBA at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, has been with Lo since he answered an Internet ad for a translator a year ago. Wei's in the middle of the Astros' workouts, translating instruction from the coaches. But he can't assist during games.
When Lo pitched an inning in the Astros' "B" game last week in Lakeland, Fla., pitching coach Brad Arnsberg tried to communicate with a struggling Lo while on the mound without the help of a translator. Lo retired the next three batters in order.
"I had to go ask Arnie, 'How many languages do you speak anyway?'" Astros manager Brad Mills said.
The Astros have tried to enhance their presence internationally, whether it's with Barker in Asia or Felix Francisco, the director of Latin American scouting. Those were two of the first hires Wade made when he took over as general manager in 2007. Last year, the Astros signed 18-year-old Korean infielder Chan Jong Moon, and Wade hopes there's more international signings to come.
"You could have a gangbuster Draft, but then to be able to augment what you're getting domestically through your Latin American program or our Pacific Rim program, it just accelerates the program even more," Wade said. "I kid around and say we basically handed Glen a radar gun and a world atlas and told him to go find us players, and he's done a really good job. It's a tough go and I'm sure it gets lonely out there for him to be working in that vein, but he's accepted the role and done a really good job."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.