Spring training means the start of a new season. While fans catch glimpses of their favorite players, there are also new players teams and fans get to know as the spring unfolds. For the Indians, Giljegiljaw Kungkuan is a player already making noise.
On Saturday, the Cleveland Indians‘ first game in 2020 was postponed for rain. That lineup featured something close to what we may see on Opening Day. Leading off was Francisco Lindor, with Oscar Mercado, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana following.
Because of the rain, a much different lineup on Sunday would be our first preview for the Indians. One name clearly stood out, and it was catcher Giljegiljaw Kungkuan.
On Sunday, he recorded the Indians’ first RBI of 2020 by driving in fellow Taiwan native Yu Chang on a double to left field in the third inning. As I watched him play, I decided I wanted to learn more about him as a player and a person.
First let’s get his name pronunciation figured out. Thanks to Zack Meisel for this one.
An interesting note on Kungkuan is that he is tri-lingual. For a catcher in particular, this can be paramount in having the ability to communicate with pitchers from multiple cultures and backgrounds. In addition, being a popular player in the clubhouse is always a good way to move up the roster should injuries start taking place. Being a clubhouse favorite makes him one of the potential mid-season sparks the locker room would rally around if he got called up.
He was signed by the Indians in 2012 as an international signing. A Taiwanese native, he changed his name from Chu Li-Jen to Giljegiljaw Kungkuan, which is his Taiwan aboriginal name. The tribe he belongs to is the Paiwan tribe, which is one of 16 tribes still in Taiwan. To learn more about the Paiwan tribe, feel free to follow this link.
Over the last two seasons, the 25-year-old catcher has begun climbing through the Indians’ system. While he has spent most of this time with Akron, Kungkuan did receive a brief call-up to Columbus in 2018, where he logged four plate appearances before returning to Double-A.
This spring he is joining Beau Taylor, Cameron Rupp, and Gavin Collins as camp invitees who are not on the current 40-man roster. With the Indians’ depth at catcher, it would be shocking for a non-roster invitee to supplant Roberto Perez or Sandy Leon on the MLB depth charts.
Perez and Leon are not just the only MLB catchers, but also the sole catchers on the Indians 40-man roster. Any injuries at catcher would require a 40-man roster decision to add to the MLB team.
However, a strong spring could make Kungkuan a threat to break camp with a promotion to Columbus. None of the catchers in camp as non-roster invitees played for Columbus last season. Both Rupp and Taylor have briefly appeared in the majors with other teams, but as the homegrown player, Kungkuan may be deemed more worth developing in Triple-A.
Of course, he’ll look to improve upon a tough 2019 season in which he slashed .229/.290/.357 over the course of 60 games with Akron.
Regardless of where he ends up, Kungkuan is a great story from Taiwan. He’s played for the Taiwanese national team, and is the first aboriginal Taiwanese player to be in the MLB system. Potentially he would be the first to make an MLB roster.
Making the majors in 2020 isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Kungkuan. The Indians are set with Roberto Perez starting, but have now moved to their second different backup in two years, with Leon replacing Kevin Plawecki. A long-term backup solution is definitely desired, and Kungkuan is close to becoming that. If he can outplay the two invitees that have MLB experience, he can realistically be starting at Columbus over Taylor or Rupp.
The rest of the spring will help sort Kungkuan’s path out for 2020. But on Sunday, it was just about the game at hand: seeing one Taiwan native drive in another Taiwan native for the Cleveland Indians’ first run of 2020 is a very awesome sight to see. Kungkuan has come a long way, and he’s only a short way from MLB.