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PAWTUCKET ‚Äď Without hesitation, Kyle Weiland knew that if an opposing hitter‚Äôs fly ball to center field could be caught, it would.
Che-Hsuan Lin is that reliable.
But when Weiland began the 2011 season with Triple-A Pawtucket, the right-hander was separated from his security blanket, the vacuum cleaner of an outfielder he had played with since 2009.
Much to Weiland‚Äôs delight, they were reunited May 21, when Lin was promoted to Pawtucket from Double-A Portland.
‚ÄúWe love him in the outfield,‚ÄĚ Weiland said of the 22-year-old Lin, a six-foot, 180-pound prospect out of Taiwan who is widely considered the top defensive outfielder in Boston‚Äôs farm system. ‚ÄúThe plays he makes, it speaks for itself how good he is out there.‚ÄĚ
And while Lin is still learning the English language, more than a few people are willing to rave about Pawtucket‚Äôs new center fielder and leadoff hitter ‚Äď chief among them his current and former manager, PawSox skipper Arnie Beyeler.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a pretty good player,‚ÄĚ said Beyeler, who also managed Lin in Portland last season. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs a good defender, he can play all the outfield spots and he‚Äôs getting on base, setting the table for guys. He‚Äôs a good baserunner, can steal bases. He‚Äôs got a lot of ability. As you guys will see, it‚Äôs pretty fun to watch him play.‚ÄĚ
Beyeler certainly enjoyed watching Lin a season ago, when he racked up 15 outfield assists and was named the Red Sox‚Äôs 2010 minor league Defensive Player of the Year, not to mention being rated by Baseball America as the top defensive outfielder and having the best outfield arm in Boston‚Äôs farm system.
Five games into his Triple-A career, Lin had reached base safely in each, hitting .421 with a .478 on-base percentage and a .899 on-base plus slugging percentage through 23 plate appearances. This after posting a .268/.373/.706 line with 12 stolen bases in 34 games with the Sea Dogs, for whom he batted .275 with two home runs, 34 RBIs and 26 steals in 119 games last year.
Yet for all the accolades Lin has received for his defense, his offense remains a work in progress.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm focused on hitting right now, trying to get on base as much as I can and finding a good pitch to swing [at],‚ÄĚ Lin said through translator Mickey Jiang. ‚ÄúI want to be more aggressive and hit a ball instead of just taking it if it‚Äôs right down the middle.‚ÄĚ
After watching Lin register a solid .386 OBP last season, Beyeler has noticed an even more patient hitter in 2011.
‚ÄúIt looks like he‚Äôs a little more disciplined at the plate,‚ÄĚ Beyeler said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs driven some balls, squared some balls up. His approach has gotten a little more disciplined, maybe knowing his strengths a little bit better.‚ÄĚ
Lin has quite the baseball r√©sum√© for a player who hasn‚Äôt yet reached the major leagues. He earned Most Valuable Player honors at the 2008 All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium, represented Taiwan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and suited up for Chinese Taipei during the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Each of those achievements came as a member of the Red Sox organization, which signed Lin as an undrafted free agent on June 8, 2007. Several other teams showed interest in Lin‚Äôs services, but he chose Boston ‚Äď and its $400,000 signing bonus ‚Äď in part because of his familiarity with a Red Sox scout who had watched him play for years.
Weiland has seen plenty of Lin in recent seasons, having played with him at Class A Advanced Salem in 2009 and in Portland last year. Simply mention Lin‚Äôs name to Weiland and a brimming smile crosses the pitcher‚Äôs face.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm extremely confident having him out there,‚ÄĚ Weiland said. ‚ÄúIt gives you the freedom to not be so picky, I would say. You don‚Äôt try to change your approach as a pitcher, but when you know you have a guy who can track balls down like that, and maybe with a guy on second base he‚Äôs going to throw him out or have a really good chance to throw him out at the plate, it helps your confidence.‚ÄĚ
The key to Lin‚Äôs defensive brilliance stems from his ability to make sharp reads off the bat.
‚ÄúI just try to get a good first jump and try to catch every ball I can,‚ÄĚ Lin said. ‚ÄúI usually get a quick first jump and just try to use my instincts.‚ÄĚ
Lin has spent the past four years making adjustments ‚Äď both mechanical and cultural. Day by day, he believes he‚Äôs inching closer toward the player and teammate he desires to be.
‚ÄúGreat teammate,‚ÄĚ Weiland said. ‚ÄúHis first year, he was pretty quiet because obviously he was learning the new language, but he‚Äôs definitely gotten a lot better. It‚Äôs easy to communicate with him because if he doesn‚Äôt understand you, he‚Äôll say, ‚ÄėI don‚Äôt understand,‚Äô and you explain it to him and it‚Äôs like he stores it in his brain right away. I‚Äôm very impressed with how quickly he‚Äôs adapted to playing over here.‚ÄĚ
Said Lin, ‚ÄúBack in ‚Äô07, it was hard for me to get used to the culture, language, food. But as time goes by, I‚Äôm getting better and better at talking to my teammates and the coaching staff. I‚Äôm working on my English-speaking ability. I feel more comfortable.‚ÄĚ
More comfortable than Weiland with Lin patrolling center field? Don‚Äôt count on it.
‚ÄúHe brings everything he has, every day,‚ÄĚ Weiland said. ‚ÄúEveryone gets tired, it‚Äôs a long season, but you know he‚Äôs not going to cut corners or give half efforts. He always gives 100 percent, which, if you‚Äôre a pitcher, that‚Äôs the guy you want in the outfield.‚ÄĚ