The award for most miles traveled to get to Pirates instructional league play goes to Hai-Cheng Gong. Gong was signed by the Pirates out of China in May. The 18-year-old right-handed pitcher just got to Bradenton, Fla. right before instructs began and his work there is his first official time on the mound as a Pirate.
China is an international market that Major League Baseball is trying to tap into, and Gong represents the second player signed out of MLB's development centers in China (outfielder Xu Guiyuan signed with the Orioles in 2015.). Gong pitched for China in this year's World Baseball Classic and the 6-foot-2, 165-pounder speaks English, having travelled to the U.S. previously. That will undoubtedly help his transition, but there's no question he'll have a long way to go.
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"Major League Baseball is doing a great job of expanding to tap into other markets, to spread the game," Larry Broadway, the Pirates' director of minor league operations said. "Mainland China is obviously a gigantic place with a gigantic population and we want to help spread the game there. The chance to sign him excited us.
"We want to make him a Pirate. We want to see how he grows and matures. There are no false expectations off the bat. We want to get him in and see how he progresses."
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The Pirates' experience in mining talent in unusual places -- the first African-born (Gift Ngoepe) and first Lithuanian-born (Dovydas Neverauskas) in the history of Major League Baseball debuted with the Pirates this season, not to mention the pair of Indian pitchers signed a few years back -- certainly helps inform the organization how to proceed with someone like Gong, who was throwing strikes, competing well and fitting in with his teammates during instructs, which runs through Oct. 14 for the Pirates.
"We're here to give them what they need, not what we want to give them," Broadway said. "We'll stretch them, grow their capacity and challenge them. That's the approach with some more 'crude' guys, from non-baseball playing countries, that don't have a good foundation from a baseball standpoint."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.