Brewers leading chase for Chinese prospects

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The Milwaukee Brewers introduced three signees from the China MLB Development Center system at a Wednesday media event in Beijing. Wearing the team jersey are (from center left): pitchers Jolon Zhao and Ian Yi and infielder Coco Kou. It marked the first time a Major League Baseball team has signed three Chinese players at the same time. CHINA DAILY

The Milwaukee Brewers have pulled off a historic triple play by signing a trio of Chinese teenagers.

The deal for right-handed pitchers Jolon Zhao and Ian Yi and infielder Coco Kou - all born in 2001 - was announced on Wednesday in Beijing and marks the first time an MLB team has signed three Chinese players at the same time.

Their signings take the number of China MLB Development Center graduates on pro payrolls to seven, joining Itchy Xu (Baltimore Orioles), Sea Gong (Pittsburgh Pirates), Justin Qiangba (Boston Red Sox) and Bruce Wang (Philadelphia Phillies).

Jim Small, senior vice-president of MLB's international business, said the signings underline the success of 12 years of player development efforts in the world's most populous nation.

"China has always been one of our most important markets," said Small. "Baseball is a sport that requires both tactics and techniques, which is very suitable for Chinese.

"I hope these teen stars will become ambassadors for baseball's development in China and make more people here know and love the sport."

The Brewers, who compete in the National League (NL) Central Division, are currently in spring training in Arizona.

Zhao - aka 'Bulldog' at the development center in Nanjing - took part in the MLB Play Ball! tournament as a student at Beijing Dacheng School, where his pitching prowess earned an invitation to the development center training system.

He represented China in the Asia-Pacific Youth Championship in 2016 before attending the national team training camp for the 11th Asian Youth Baseball Championship.

Last summer Zhao made two appearances for the Alexandria Aces in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League in the northeastern US, pitching three shutout innings while striking out five of the 14 batters he faced. His classic three-pitch repertoire - fastball, curveball and changeup - was impressive enough to earn a two-week stint with the Brewers' Pioneer League affiliate in Helena, Montana.

"Playing in the big leagues is the ultimate dream of every baseball player," Zhao said on Wednesday.

"Now is just the beginning. I'm waiting for a higher-level challenge. I have to keep improving and moving forward to realize my goal of playing in the major leagues."

Taylor Green, who serves as supervisor of scouting for the Brewers, said Zhao's athleticism and work ethic made him stand out as a 16-year-old at the development center.

"We've always focused on global talent development," Green said. "It's impressive to see the number of talented kids with solid fundamentals and excellent game-reading ability emerging in China. In the future, we hope to have more Chinese players join us."

Rick Dell, MLB's general manager of baseball development in the Asia-Pacific region, said: "Over the past 10 years we have been nurturing the student-athlete concept with the goals of creating opportunities for DC players to continue their education and baseball careers after graduation.

"We now have seven student athletes that have signed contracts with MLB clubs. That is the best endorsement we can have for our training and education philosophies."

While the list of Chinese prospects playing in North America has grown steadily, most of them are pitchers. Dell believes the success of position players like Xu and Kou indicates that overall coaching in China is improving.

"When MLB develops baseball in a country, the first talent that usually rises is pitchers. Seeing us have two catchers, an infielder and a handful of pitchers is very rare. It's really fun when you see catchers, infielders and pitchers being signed. It really underlines the athleticism of the Chinese athletes."

Dell said baseball must continue to strive for mainstream status on the national sporting landscape in order to get more Chinese to experience the game.

"We need to launch. We need to have bats and balls in the hands of young kids as well as the adults," he said.

Since the establishment of its China office in Beijing in January 2007, MLB has built a baseball ecosystem centered around education.

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