With Adalberto Mejía, The Fubon Guardians Add Both Pitching Strength and Roster Flexibility

(As with the rest of the CPBL coverage on the site, we’ll be using the Taiwanese order for player names as is standard across CPBL English-language broadcasts and websites such as CPBL Stats. For example: Jhang Jin-De was known as “Jin-De Jhang” while playing in Minor League Baseball.)

In the time following the April signing of Eduardo Núñez, the Fubon Guardians have mostly kept on their original 2021 path when it comes to foreign players.

Sure, the original plan had Henry Sosa as a part of it, but after an early-season injury to the right-hander, they’ve held steady with Mike Loree, Manny Bañuelos, and J.C. Ramírez as their active trio. Núñez was their “we’ll try him out when one of the three starters needs some rest” guy, and Yomar Concepcion was their “something’s gone wrong, he’s already in Taiwan” option.

It was a reasonable plan.

Actually, it remains a reasonable plan. Loree and Bañuelos both have ERAs under 3.00. Ramírez has a 3.43 ERA, and local starter Chen Shih-Peng has been right there with them all – his ERA is 3.47. Things are going well on the pitching side.

Yet, as of the league’s COVID-19-related pause in mid-May, the team sits in fourth at 19-23, four-and-a-half games back of the lead. And well, after last season was so dramatically altered by mid-season foreign pitcher acquisitions, it makes sense that teams are jumpy and willing to take a gamble on an improvement.

Even the Uni-President Lions, who benefitted the most from that aggressive mid-year strategy in 2020, added a fourth foreign arm (Félix Doubront) to manage the workload for their three incumbent starters (Brock Dykxhoorn, Teddy Stankiewicz, and Tim Melville).

So, it’s possible that the Fubon Guardians, by reportedly adding Adalberto Mejía (according to ETToday), are just following the strategy that seems to be working so well for the defending champions. Mejía could be added to a roster rotation soon, where one of Ramírez, Bañuelos, or (most likely) Loree get sent to the second team for mid-season rest to preserve innings ahead of a second-half playoff run. The logic in adding the 27-year old lefty works out.

The Guardians plan isn’t very subtle, but it follows the most obviously logical path that’s been visible so far in 2021 – the one set out by the first-place Uni-President Lions.

  • Much like with the Uni-Lions, the local starters for the Guardians have talent but are inconsistent. Let’s talk more on this in a moment.
  • Much like with the Uni-Lions, the foreign pitchers are very good but could use rest at some point through the season, so it makes sense to have four.
  • Much like with the Uni-Lions, they’re adding higher-profile names with recent experience in either the top levels of Minor League Baseball (Stankiewicz, Dykxhoorn, Mejía) or even in Major League Baseball (Doubront, Melville, Bañuelos, Ramírez). Loree doesn’t fit this, but he’s been in the organization forever at this point and been brilliant this year – they can work with that.

There’s no other obvious comparisons within the league to what the Guardians are doing.

  • The CTBC Brothers have opted to mostly continue with their 2020 arms (Mitch Lively, Esmil Rogers, and José De Paula) and then sign a couple of lottery tickets (Gabriel Ynoa, Evan Grills, Takano Keisuke).
  • The Rakuten Monkeys have gone with two guys who have been effective in KBO or CPBL already (Deck McGuire, Ryan Bollinger) and, somewhat curiously, bullpen help (Bradin Hagens, Dillon Overton). They’re signing former MLB starter Dylan Covey, which means one of Hagens (possible) or Overton (likely) is likely to lose their roster spot in the coming days.
  • The Wei Chuan Dragons have an extra foreign player spot that they’re using on a hitter, and they’ve already seen their top starter leave for the KBO in Jake Brigham. Life as an expansion team isn’t always the easiest!

So, it’s pretty clear that they’re following the template set by the first-place Uni-Lions. That makes sense. What doesn’t fit into that is April’s Núñez signing – or, it does, but there’s a pretty big risk involved.

Yu Ting-Wei is the Key For Making the Eduardo Núñez Idea Work

In a world where both Loree and Bañuelos need to rest across the mid-season in preparation for a playoff push, it’s reasonable that the Guardians could call on Mejía and Núñez to replace them on the roster. That would leave J.C. Ramírez as their only first-half arm for a while, and set Ramírez/Mejía as the active foreign player duo. Not terrible on paper, but the decreased rotation depth will bring an increased focus on how effective the Guardians local starters can be.

The big step to mimicking the Uni-Lions plan effectively: have two local pitchers that give you a chance to win most of the time. The Lions have Gu Lin Ruei-Yang (a talented young flamethrower) and Chiang Chen-Yen (a streaky left-hander that succeeds when limiting fly balls). The Guardians have three names here.

  • The aforementioned Chen Shih-Peng has been excellent in his eight starts, leading all qualified non-foreign starters in ERA across the league. That’s one.
  • There’s Chiang Kuo-Hao, who’s only started three games across both the first and second teams this season. He’s dealt with injuries, so it’s tough to put too much into his stats so far, but he’s looked unimpressive through all of his appearances to this point. Even in 2020, his ERA was 5.12 – there’s a “juiced ball” asterisk there, but it’s still not enough to consider that much better than average. He can’t be counted as “two” in this scenario quite yet.
  • Yu Ting-Wei has been the other consistent starter for the team in 2021, and he’s been more average than impressive. Occasionally, he’s looked really solid (March 31st). At other times, he’s looked pretty bad. They’ll need more consistency from the 23-year old if they’re going to be comfortable using a foreign hitter for an extended period of time. His ERA is currently 5.19, but it was 2.76 until that May 9th start – a disastrous outing against the CTBC Brothers and Cheng Kai-Wen.

So, it’s up to Yu Ting-Wei, then. They can potentially make this work and see how Núñez looks for the team without too much of an interruption – a unique scenario. But they can only do it if Yu Ting-Wei is a consistent arm for them. It’s a bet they might be willing to take; Núñez didn’t come to Taiwan to sit on the bench or play for the second team.

What does consistent look like, though? Well, this is mostly based on league context, rather than individual trends. The system you’re trying to mimic on the path to success places Chiang Chen-Yen in the same position as Yu Ting-Wei. Both pitchers have talent but lack consistency; if Yu can pitch at a similar level to Chiang over an extended period of time, that should work.

If Yu can’t figure it out, they’ll have to really hope that Chiang (Kuo-Hao) is both healthy and was affected a lot by the hitter-friendly ball last year.

They’ll also be drafting Chiang Shao-Ching (not a certainty, but it might as well be), which will be incredibly important for 2022 and beyond. 2020 second-rounder Kuo Chun-Lin is also making his way back from Tommy John Surgery, so that could be an option as well. It would be wise to shift focus to 2022 for those two, though.

Pushing all of a team’s hopes on two mid-season additions (one of whom, Kuo, is recovering from a major injury) who don’t have any league experience could be too risky to fully embrace. It’s also worth noting that Chiang (Shao-Ching) has needed several starts to adjust to the farm league, with an ERA of 7.27 over his three starts there. They’ll be expecting a lot from these two down the road, but for 2021, the three current options will likely remain crucial for the team.

Why Eduardo Núñez Instead of Some Other Pitcher?

In Early April, that was a very good question. It seemed like it would be hard to justify having the foreign position player, and to an extent, it still is; that’s why it takes so much faith in Yu Ting-Wei to do it.

But man – that Guardians lineup isn’t hitting very well. They have one elite hitter to this point in Kao Kuo-Lin, and a bunch of guys who are doing fine in various ways but aren’t playing to their peaks.

2020 leadoff man Lee Tsung-Hsien is currently on the second team roster, Lin Che-Hsuan has struggled with contact to open the year (again), and it’s just been an underwhelming start to the season for several members of the team. Núñez’s experience could work wonders in revitalizing the offensive atmosphere – as long as expectations are kept in check when it comes to his actual performance; good luck with that.

How much of a chance will he get? Well, Rosell Herrera is hearing rumours of a replacement, and he’s got a team-leading .386 OBP for the Dragons. If that’s anything to base off of, and it seems consistent with other recent foreign hitters, standards are high for foreign hitters in this league.

They’ve had several rough stretches at the plate already, and they seem to be setting up for a Núñez audition. Everyone will see the answer on whether it’s the right idea soon enough.

What Does Adalberto Mejía Bring?

So, after establishing that a fourth pitcher’s got a logical spot on this team in a similar way that Doubront does for the Lions, it’s time to ask whether Mejía’s the guy to fit that role. In summary: he should be a good fit for this role, and he might even compete with Ramírez by the end of the season.

The lefty has a few stat lines between the start of 2017 and now that are notable to me. Firstly, his 3.46 ERA in 2019 across 20 games with the Los Angeles Angels. He was with three teams that year, and the other appearances were nothing special, but the Angels outings were actually really solid.

Perhaps even more relevantly, he’s been great across both LIDOM and AAA in every year since he turned 24.

Baseball-Reference

Considering he’s only 27 (soon to be 28), it feels reasonable to expect that level of performance from the left-hander. Also, since he is a lefty, it will mean there’s a chance to keep a left-hander in the rotation even if Bañuelos needs some of that mid-season time to rest.

According to Brooks Baseball, Mejía will throw a four-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and a sinker as well as an occasional curve. As of 2019, 93 MPH / 149 KPH appears to be his top speed. Once again, this is a very similar pitcher profile to the one the Uni-Lions have modelled their pitching staff with – and that’s a very good thing. There’s a small chance that stamina could be an issue, but he’s been a starter at every level except MLB – he should be fine in that regard as well.

Overall, Mejía should be a strong foreign pitcher for the Fubon Guardians; he should fit comfortably in a similar tier to Bañuelos and Melville – and it’s not a stretch to suspect he might be better. It would make sense to use him in that roster rotation role I keep mentioning across the middle of the season, but if he’s pitching well by the end, don’t be surprised to see him higher on the depth chart than you might think right now.

Notes

  • It’s really sad to see 2021 CPBL games postponed due to COVID-19. I hope everything is sorted out quickly and as many people avoid exposure to it as possible. Baseball can wait.

Photo: “Spring Training Glendale 3-2016” by daver6sf@yahoo.com is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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