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Jen-Ho Tseng might just be the pitcher the Cubs need

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This unexpected major-league debut could pay big dividends.

Jen-Ho Tseng pitches for the Kane County Cougars in 2014
Al Yellon

Did you hear the one about the minor-league pitcher who showed up to collect an award and suddenly got put in a major-league rotation?

No, it’s not a joke. It’s real life. Jen-Ho Tseng, at Wrigley Field to be honored as Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year, will start Thursday’s game against the Mets:

This isn’t the first time a Joe Maddon-managed team has thrust a young pitcher into the spotlight late in a season:

Maddon recalled the times rookies Matt Moore and David Price came up with his Rays in mid-September and made contributions in the postseason.

Price made his debut on Sept. 14, 2008 when he pitched 5⅓ innings of relief against the Yankees. He had five appearances down the stretch and five more in the postseason, including two in the World Series. Moore made his debut on Sept. 11, 2011, made three appearances and started a playoff game against the Rangers in the American League Division Series.

"Keep an open mind," Maddon said. "I'm keeping a very open mind. I'm actually very excited about seeing it. And I trust the people making these decisions."

Tseng, as a member of the Cubs organization August 31, is eligible for the postseason roster (if needed to replace an injured player only, as Raul Mondesi Jr. did for the Royals in the 2015 World Series). Maddon and Theo & Co. have often made unorthodox decisions that have worked out. Why not this one?

Three years ago, I was in Lansing, Michigan, to see the Cubs then-affiliate Kane County Cougars play the Lansing Lugnuts. Tseng was the Cubs starter that evening and, at just 19 years old, showed off the talent that’s brought him to the big leagues now. Here’s part of the recap I wrote about Tseng’s performance in that game:

Jen-Ho Tseng, who received a $1.625 million signing bonus from the Cubs just about a year ago, showed Friday night why the team was willing to invest that kind of money in him, even though he won't turn 20 years old until after this season ends.

Tseng threw six shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk. Meanwhile, his teammates were having a big night with the bat, and the Kane County Cougars crushed the Lansing Lugnuts 10-1, winning their three-game series and moving to a season-high 31 games over .500 (64-33 overall, 19-8 in the second half).

Tseng's pitching line doesn't even come close to telling you how dominant he was. He retired the first 14 Lugnuts he faced before D.J. Davis -- possibly the weakest hitter on the team -- bounced a ball that just barely evaded the diving try of Cougars second baseman David Bote. If not for that, Tseng might very well have thrown six no-hit innings. He's gone seven innings just once in his professional career and likely would have been removed anyway, especially because there were plans for Kyuji Fujikawa to throw another inning in his rehab assignment. Tseng hit 93 on the stadium speed-pitch meter, but also mixed up his pitches well, changed speeds, had excellent command and other than the single, allowed just four other balls out of the infield, all routine fly outs. After the fifth-inning single, he issued a leadoff walk in the sixth, which he immediately erased by inducing a double-play ball.

As impressive as Duane Underwood was Thursday night, Tseng was better. In my view, he's too good for the Midwest League. I doubt the Cubs will promote him this year as he's still just 19, young for that level, but I'd say he's got a chance to skip High-A and move to Double-A in 2015 if he keeps pitching this way.

Well, I wasn’t quite right about my conclusion. The Cubs took their time with Tseng; he checked all the boxes at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2015 and wasn’t promoted to Double-A until 2016. He wasn’t all that great last year, posting a 4.25 ERA and 1.500 WHIP in 22 starts at that level. Repeating Double-A to start this year, he was much better: 2.99 ERA, 1.140 WHIP in 15 starts there, and when promoted to Triple-A Iowa he improved on that by posting a 1.76 ERA and 1.127 WHIP in nine starts.

Here’s some video of Tseng from this past July, where he shows off a pretty good curveball:

I (and others) have made comparisons between Tseng’s style and Kyle Hendricks. Of course, Hendricks has a track record of big-league success and Tseng is just starting out. But Tseng’s game is the same — not issuing walks (2.1/nine innings career walk rate in 482⅔ minor-league innings) and inducing weak contact. If he can stay within himself and do that at the big-league level, he will be a very successful major-league pitcher.

Tseng will become the first Taiwan-born player to play for the Cubs and will wear uniform no. 39. He’ll turn 23 in about three weeks, October 3. That’s just about the time this year’s postseason will begin. Wouldn’t it be something if this kid from the Cubs farm system helped save the Cubs pitching staff this fall?