SURPRISE, AZ – When the Pirates traded Reese McGuire at the deadline, it opened up playing time for another catcher in the system, Jin-De Jhang. Prior to the trade, Jhang was no stranger to splitting time in the system, and having his development impacted by multiple catchers, specifically McGuire.
In 2014, Jhang was making the jump from Jamestown, the NYPL affiliate at the time. The natural progression would have been to send him to West Virginia, although the Pirates had McGuire making an aggressive jump from the GCL to West Virginia in his first full pro season. Rather than having the pair splitting catching duties, Jhang also received an aggressive promotion to Bradenton, jumping up to High-A in just his third pro season, with not a lot of baseball background prior to that.
Jhang’s offense, which was a highlight in the lower levels, struggled in 2014. That led to him returning to Bradenton in 2015, at which point his offense rebounded, but where he also found himself behind McGuire. He only had 46 games behind the plate that year, compared to 74 the year before, when he was splitting time with Jacob Stallings. Jhang spent over half of his season in 2015 as the designated hitter.
The Pirates moved Jhang and McGuire up to Altoona in 2016, with the same playing time expectations. Even though Jhang caught the final month as the starter after the trade, he still only had 48 games behind the plate, with McGuire having 73 in the first four months of the year. Jhang did briefly move up to Indianapolis, where he got five more starts, but he found himself with just 53 starts on the year, which was only slightly higher than his total of 45 in short-season in 2013.
Jhang was a pretty high profile signing out of Taiwan in 2011. His bonus of $250,000 was the highest bonus received by a position player out of Taiwan at the time. He immediately showed good plate patience, never going above a 12.3% strikeout rate, even in his 2014 season. He can draw some walks, but usually sits around 5.5%, as he makes good contact and can hit for a good average. He’s got some power potential due to his size, and while that hasn’t fully shown up, there’s the potential for double-digit homers one day.
One issue with the lack of playing time is that it has impacted Jhang’s development. That hasn’t seemed to hurt him as much offensively, as his hitting coach in both Altoona and in the AFL noted.
“I think that can be challenging for any player,” Altoona hitting coach Kevin Riggs said about his lack of playing time. “He knows what he needs to do before the game, so he gets his work in for when he’s called upon. He’s a true professional as far as that goes.”
The defense is where the lack of playing time really hurts. McGuire was always ahead of Jhang because he was one of the best defenders in the minors, and that defense will eventually get him to the majors in some role. His future hitting ability would eventually determine the role. In Jhang’s case, he’s got the hitting ability to at least be a backup in the majors, but the defense is a question for the long-term.
“He gives you a good at-bat, a professional at-bat,” Riggs said. “Controls his strike zone. Really doing an unbelievable job behind the plate as well.”
Jhang plays defense well enough to stick behind the plate, with a strong arm, good work with his pitching staff, and good agility for his size. The work with the pitching staff is impressive, as Jhang was already communicating without a translator in 2013, his second pro season in the US.
His size isn’t as much of an issue right now, but will be something to watch going forward. He entered pro ball with a lot of weight, and he’s always going to be a big catcher. He trimmed down after his first full season, but it will be an effort to maintain that weight as he gets older, which could be the biggest thing preventing him from being a catcher one day down the line. For now, he moves surprisingly well for his size, and that doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue.
Jhang just needs more practice behind the plate, which he didn’t see much of the last two years. Now that McGuire has been traded, that should create an opening for him to get more time.
“For me, I can play more, catch a lot,” Jhang said of the impact of the trade. “I just want to play. I just want to catch.”
The upside here probably isn’t more than a backup catcher, as Jhang might not have the defense to justify being a starter, unless his power potential really takes off and makes up for the average at best defensive upside. He could end up a strong offensive backup, with defense that won’t take away from the offensive value. In the short-term, he might have to return to Altoona for another season to get playing time, as he’d be blocked in Indianapolis by Elias Diaz. But that playing time should help him get the work he needs behind the plate, making it more likely that he reaches the majors.