SARASOTA, FLA. — China's most advanced baseball player is taking indoor batting practice.
The pitcher is flipping the ball underhanded toward the player, Orioles minor leaguer Xu Guiyuan, then ducking behind netting so he's not pummeled by line drives.
Rock music blares as the left-handed Xu strides into each pitch with a sweeping swing. He ends by pointing his left hand toward the ceiling like a jump shooter holding his follow-through after a shot.
The swing looks sound. But will Xu's talents – evident in the cages and against his peers in China – translate against American pitching? That is the big unknown.
There are questions about Xu, as there are for most minor league prospects. If the questions seem more pronounced, that's because of the attention surrounding Xu, the first player ever signed from one of Major League Baseball's three China development centers.
At 6 feet, 188 pounds, he's certainly large enough to play big league baseball.
But first base? Xu alternated fielding ground balls during the week with fellow first base prospect Seamus Curran, who dwarfed him.
Granted, Curran is large – 6 feet 6, 240 pounds. But there might be questions about whether Xu has the requisite power to play first base, or the speed and arm strength to be an outfielder.
The team does like his hitting.
After watching video on him from China, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said before spring training:
"It looks to me like he knows his way around the batter's box. He has some power. He uses the whole field. He's a pretty good hitter."
Xu might start in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and could end up this season at Short-A Aberdeen of the New York-Penn League.
Coaches have told him to be in the moment and not concern himself with where he'll end up.
If there are unknowns about Xu's baseball abilities, there are few concerns about his temperament. He is clearly a grinder.
In China, "he just kept working hard, working hard," said Jackson Zhuo, a coach in China who is in Sarasota honing his skills.
"He can handle it," Zhuo said.
From China to Birdland
Arriving at Orioles minor league spring training this week, Xu Guiyuan, a 20-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman, is trying to become the first player from mainland China to make it to the big leagues. He's already the first player signed from one of the major league's three youth developmental centers in China, a country that American baseball officials consider fertile ground to grow their sport. He has adopted the nickname "Itchy Shoe," a reference to his hero, Ichiro Suzuki, and the phonetic pronunciation of "Xu." The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Barker is following Xu's journey with daily reports and videos: Can he hit American pitching, much less navigate the pressure and cultural curveballs that accompany his 9,000-mile trip? Barker is involved in a documentary chronicling Xu and Major League Baseball's China push.