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Yankees opening route to China

Bombers making inroads in world's most populous country

Left-handed Yankees prospect Liu Kai pitched for China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Kathy Willens/AP)

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The idea of baseball in China may still seem a bit foreign to many people, though watching the Chinese National Team play at the Olympics in Beijing last summer made it seem a little less strange.

That being said, there are no players from China knocking on big league doors. A quick scan of the Chinese provisional roster for this year's World Baseball Classic -- the team went 0-3 and was outscored 40-6 in the 2006 Classic -- shows just three players affiliated with Major League organizations.

Two of them -- pitcher Liu Kai and catcher Zhang Zhenwang -- are in the Yankees system. (The third is Ray Chang, a Pirates Minor Leaguer who was born in Kansas City). The pair signed with the Yankees in June 2007, and it looked like the start of a very interesting relationship between the Yankees and the world's most populous nation. The signings stemmed from a visit by a group of Yankees executives -- including Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Mark Newman, Assistant General Manager Jean Afterman and now special Assistant to the GM Gordon Blakely -- to see the national junior championships in China.

"It was our intention to be engaged actively over there from a scouting standpoint and just in general baseball development," Newman said. "We haven't done much lately. I think Major League Baseball is trying to figure out how to approach [China] from a global standpoint. We certainly have interest and want to be involved in the future."

Since signing the Chinese battery -- the first players born in the People's Republic of China to sign with a Major League club with prior permission from the Chinese Baseball Association -- the two have yet to play any regular-season ball for a Yankees affiliate. Liu, 21, and Zhenwang, 20, have participated in instructional league play as they adjust to the game in the United States.

"They're behind kids in the United States and Latino kids because they haven't played as much," Newman said. "We understood that going in. The game is not as developed there. We want to see how they can catch up and what we can do to help them catch up."

International competition certainly doesn't hurt. Zhenwang was on the Chinese Classic roster at age 18 in 2006, though he barely saw action. Liu was on the Chinese Olympic team, where he undoubtedly benefited from having manager Jim Lefebvre and pitching coach Steve Ontiveros to mentor him. China went 1-6 in the tournament, beating Chinese Taipei. Liu appeared in two games and allowed four earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.

Liu's biggest plus is his breaking ball. He knows how to spin a curve. How his other pitches develop will determine what kind of future he may have. Zhenwang is a defensive-oriented backstop, a good catch-and-throw guy who puts the ball in play offensively.

"They've got a ways to go," Newman said. "They have a lot of work to do. They're working out, so we'll see."

The Yankees are likely to see how they fare in the upcoming Classic. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Chinese Baseball Association wouldn't want two players who have been learning the game in the United States to help the national team improve its standing in the international game. From the Yankees standpoint, it would be a bonus for their players get the chance to compete on such a stage.

"It gives them a sense of where they want to get," Newman said. "The higher levels of competition will be difficult. It will be a challenge, but they can learn from it."

Other Yankees on Classic rosters
RHP Alfredo Aceves was placed on Mexico's provisional roster, but recently announced that he did not want to participate, instead choosing to focus on making the Yankees' 25-man roster.

C Francisco Cervelli was born in Venezuela, but is on the Italian provisional roster thanks to his lineage. The 22-year-old missed much of the 2008 season with a broken wrist, but managed to make his big league debut, appearing in three games at the end of the season.

1B/OF Jahdiel Santamaria, 21, made his United States debut last summer with Staten Island in the short-season New York-Penn League. The Panamanian spent three seasons in the Dominican Summer League and has hit a combined .300 (.250 last summer with Staten Island) over 646 at-bats.

1B Jorge Vazquez is a veteran of the Mexican League who signed with the Yankees this past winter. The 26-year-old has hit .321 to go along with a .593 slugging percentage over his career in that league. He's on Team Mexico's provisional roster.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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