Every ball player has a different journey. For Robert Charles Orlan, who goes by R.C., it started in Pennsylvania. Born in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia, his family moved to Houston, Texas, and it was there that baseball became a part of his life.
“I had this plastic tee growing up, basically a big wiffle ball attached to a piece of string so I could hit all day, my parents didn’t have to do anything,” he said in a kind of self-deprecating tone of voice.
Imagine traveling over 8,000 miles away from home for your career. Beyond the distance, you learn a new language, you must become exceptionally proficient at your job, and when the journey began, you were only 18 years old.
This is the odyssey of High-A Lynchburg Hillcats catcher Li-Jen Chu. A native of Taichung, Taiwan, he has been playing baseball as a professional since signing with the Cleveland Indians organization in 2012. Now 24 years old, Chu shows signs that his performance is catching up with his talent.
The Indians snuck in a second deal prior to the trade deadline on Tuesday afternoon, acquiring outfielder Oscar Mercado from the St. Louis Cardinals for a pair of outfielders in the Cleveland farm system.
If you meet the 6’0″, 170 lb. Ernie Clement out of uniform, you might not know that he is one of the Cleveland Indians’ Top 30 Prospects, as determined by Baseball America. He came in at 24 in their preseason rankings. Currently, MLB Pipeline has him in the number 28 spot.
Raised in Rochester, New York, the 22-year-old has been playing baseball since the age of three. His parents encouraged him to play other sports – he excelled at hockey – but he always returned to his first love, baseball.
“I love the team aspect and everybody coming together for one common goal,” said Clement about his deep passion for baseball. “All of my friends played baseball so that made it really fun.”
It was a great week for Li-Jen Chu, as the 24-year-old catcher of the Lynchburg Hillcats was named the Carolina League’s Player of the Week for games played between June 16 and June 22.
Chu’s big week included appearances in six games – four behind the plate and two at designated hitter. In his six starts, he combined to go 12-for-20 (.600) at the plate with two doubles, two homers, and six RBI while drawing five walks to post a .680 on-base percentage. He used a pair of three-hit games and a four-hit effort to tally his extensive hit total, going hitless in just one game during the week.
Right-handed pitcher Eli Morgan began his professional baseball career a little more than one year ago. Now the number 29 ranked Indians prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is in his first full season. Morgan has reached the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats working as a starting pitcher. This path to a career in baseball is a recent development.
“Through high school, I wasn’t even sure about college baseball,” said Morgan. “I wasn’t getting looked at.”
Dalbert Siri is a solidly built right-hander out of Moca in the Dominican Republic. The 6’2”, 190 lb. 22 year-old reliever, signed when he was 19, rather late for players coming out of the Caribbean. The strongest prospects usually ink a contract the day they turn 16, the earliest legal age they can sign with a Major League organization.
Those top international signings often have the benefit of playing at one of the various training centers where they go to school, play ball, and get exposure to one or more Major League organizations. Siri, on the other hand, only started to play baseball at the age of 14 in Little League.
“I had to do a lot of hard work to get noticed,” Siri said. “My mother paid to have someone teach me baseball, so I took it seriously and played every day.”
It is not often that a player marks two rare baseball achievements before becoming a professional. For High-A Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Zach Plesac, this happened in high school. The nephew of former three-time All-Star reliever Dan Plesac went to the mound for the first in-conference game of the 2012 season for Crown Point, Indiana, High School. In the ninth inning, their opposition, Chesterton, led 2-1 from a combination of a hit batter and errors, but had no hits.
“I came to bat in the bottom of the ninth and hit a three-run homer over the left field wall,” recalled Plesac. “It was just incredible. It was one of those things you dream about.”
At first glance, second-year High-A Lynchburg Hillcats first baseman Anthony Miller appears to be your stereotypical corner infielder. He is big, standing 6’5” tall, and weighing in at 240 lbs. You would be wrong in assuming he is a slow, classical power hitter.
“Defensively, he’s very good,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor. “He’s done a good job and just needs to continue to improve his at-bats, making sure he gets good pitches to hit.”
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, is only a few hours east of Lynchburg. It features the Loch Ness Monster, a roller coaster built in 1978 and still the only coaster featuring two interlocking loops over water and a helix tunnel between the two loops. The loops and helix tunnel make for an exhilarating ride, much like the ride dedicated fans of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats experienced in the season’s first half.
Early season games were marked by temperatures around freezing, while rainouts contributed to the team having four scheduled doubleheaders between June 6 and June 13 – three of them on the road, including back-to-back nights in Frederick. Even with a seven-inning limit imposed by Minor League Baseball rules, that is a lot of innings. Of the eight games in these doubleheaders, the Hillcats lost six. They dropped both games on June 6 in Wilmington, and four games in two days at Frederick. The only victory was a home game against Potomac, where starter Zach Plesac earned his fifth victory on the season, his fourth in a Lynchburg uniform. That night’s second game was washed out by rain.
“Yeah, we haven’t been able to work like we would like to, but there is nothing we can do, it’s just Mother Nature,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor about the team’s weather misfortunes. “When it’s raining we go inside to the cage and do the best to prepare to go out and play the game.”
They may have come away on the losing side of the final score, but the three members of the Lynchburg Hillcats selected to participate in the Carolina League’s All-Star Game on Tuesday chipped in with solid individual performances.
Outfielder Conner Capel, starting pitcher Sam Hentges, and reliever Dalbert Siri made the three-hour trek south to Five County Stadium in Zebulon, North Carolina, for this week’s battle between the Northern and Southern Divisions of the Carolina League.
You won’t find the name James Karinchak listed at Cleveland’s MLB pipeline page, or see it included in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook coverage of the Cleveland Indians. It is likely he will join those ranks next year. Since the start of the season Karinchak has significantly improved his pitching and on May 3, he earned a promotion from Low-A Lake County to High-A Lynchburg.
The numbers between his first season as a professional and those of his second season are radically different. The 6’3” power right-hander out of Bryant University began his professional career with the short-season Mahoning Valley team after being a ninth round selection in 2017. In ten games, six as a starter, he posted a 5.79 ERA over 23 1/3 innings, with a 2-2 record.
These are not the numbers you want to post to move up into prospect status, but Karinchak bore down and made some adjustments on the mound.