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Cubs mining Korean baseball riches

Cubs mining Korean baseball riches

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CHICAGO -- Almost every Major League team has scouts in the Dominican Republic. Many go to Venezuela. More players are coming over from Japan. The Cubs have expanded their search, and when Spring Training opens in a couple of weeks, they will have four players from South Korea in the Minor League camp.

Last season, one of the quartet, Dae-Eun Rhee, pitched for Class A Peoria, and was 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 10 starts. Rhee will be joined in the Cubs' camp this spring by pitcher Su-Min Jung, outfielder Jae-Hoon Ha and infielder Hak-Ju Lee.

Why South Korea?

Part of the lure is that the country has become much stronger in the sport. At the Summer Olympics in Beijing, South Korea's baseball team beat perennial power Japan in the semifinals, and then edged Cuba, 3-2, for the gold medal. The team was a perfect 9-0 in the Olympics.

In 2000, South Korea won the bronze at the Sydney Games. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the team lost to eventual champion Japan in the semifinals.

"Not only did the Koreans last year win the Olympics, but they also won the 18-and-under World Championships against the better U.S. kids," said Paul Weaver, director of international scouting for the Cubs. "Essentially, what we did was sign the three top players in the world [in Jung, Ha and Lee]. They just happen to be from Korea."

Rhee signed with the Cubs in August 2007. Weaver said if the four Korean players were eligible in the First-Year Player Draft, they would have been drafted in the top five rounds. Rhee would've been a first-round pick.

"This is a good way to supplement the Draft," Weaver said of the international additions. "Picking where we're going to pick every year in the Draft, hopefully -- which is the bottom of the first round -- you're going to add depth to the farm system.


"In Asia, it's all relationships. You develop relationships with the coaches. It gets back to relationships and friendships and information gathering."
-- Paul Weaver, Cubs director of international scouting.

"I'm really excited about some of the young Dominican players we signed recently," he said. "But you can never have too many players. It allows us to do more things. It's nice because [Cubs chairman] Crane [Kenney] and the Tribune realize you still have to build from within. You can only spend so much money to sign guys."

Steve Wilson, a former Cubs pitcher, is the Pacific Rim supervisor of scouting for the team and based in Taiwan. He did most of the legwork for the Korean kids, but Weaver made sure he saw them as well and made four trips there last year. It helps Weaver to compare the players in South Korea with the talent in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"I get to see a lot of the kids in the States and in Latin America, and I can say, 'Here's a list of the top four, five pitchers I've seen and here's how they stack up against the kids in the U.S.,'" Weaver said.

Rhee may be one of the Cubs' best pitching prospects. Last year, he gave up one run over 16 innings in his first three starts for Peoria. He has an above-average Major League changeup and good arm action.

A multi-tool player, Lee is a left-handed hitter who can play shortstop. It's a good thing Weaver had GPS to help him find Lee -- he was discovered in the middle of rice paddies.

Jung, who just turned 18, has a good changeup to go with a power pitcher's body. If he had been in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, he could've been picked as high as the third round. Jung could open the 2009 season with Peoria.

Ha is an outfielder, but also will get some work at catcher. He's an above-average runner with an above-average arm.

"To me, he reminded me of when I saw Craig Biggio play when he was a kid," Weaver said.

It's an expensive investment, and not just because of the airfare.

"It's not like going to the Dominican, where you can sign 15 kids for $500,000," Weaver said. "We're real excited -- they're committed and we're committed."

It's one thing to check out a players' statistics. It's the job of the scout to do character checks, and dealing with players from another country and culture makes the task even more challenging.

"It's hard, but that's why you try to go over more than once," Weaver said. "In Asia, it's all relationships. You develop relationships with the coaches. It gets back to relationships and friendships and information gathering."

One thing Weaver has noticed is the work ethic of the Korean and Japanese players is on another level compared to kids in the U.S.

"They'll go out and do plyometrics for one hour before they start practice," Weaver said. "The Koreans work hard. The Koreans, compared to the Japanese, are bigger, stronger and more physical."

The Cubs also have added some players from Australia, including Ryan Searle, who pitched for the Mesa Rookie League team and Class A Boise last year. He'll be joined this spring by two other Australians left-handed pitcher Cody Hams, a converted cricket player, and right-handed pitcher Adam Spencer.

Scouting worldwide will help the Cubs find talent in unexpected places.

"You just can't do it one way anymore," Weaver said. "You look at the clubs spending money internationally and it's the Rangers, Boston and the Yankees. We need to get players."

All the travel has kept Weaver on the road quite a bit. He's got two empty pages remaining on his passport.

"Last year, I was in China, Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Dominican, Germany, Italy, Netherlands," Weaver said. "It's fun for me. You walk out in the middle of nowhere and there's a 6-foot-4 kid throwing."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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