Are these the next Korean stars headed to MLB?

The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) is still using the same old posting system with Major League Baseball that Japanese professional baseball used until a year ago. The pre-Masahiro Tanaka posting system if you will, is still in place in Korea. That means that any player posted from the KBO can only negotiate with one team, the highest bidder, assuming that player’€™s KBO team accepts the bid.

This really wasn’€™t an issue prior to the 2013 season because every Korean player that signed with an MLB team did so as an amateur free agent out of high school or college. None had gone through the posting system — and none had played in the KBO — until Hyun-Jin Ryu did so with the Dodgers.

Ryu’€™s success has Major League scouts paying much closer attention to the KBO and not just to amateur players in Korea as they had done for so many years. Two players that have their sights set on being posted and hoping to be the next great MLB imports from Korea are two former teammates of mine, shortstop Kang Jung-Ho of the Nexxen Heroes and left-handed pitcher Kim Kwang-Hyun of the SK Wyverns.

Kim Kwang-Hyun –€“ LHP,  26 years old, 6’2”€, 194 lbs.

Kim Kwang-Hyun.

Kim has been a starter throughout his career in Korea and is considered to be the country’s ace. Ryu’€™s success and financial windfall in MLB (6 years, $36M) has Kim’s eyes set on American dollars.

His salary last season was approximately $230,000, just off his career high of $240,000. You can understand the motivation to want to pitch in the major leagues. When I played with Kim he was just 21 years old, but you could see the upside. He was a confident kid with a good live arm and the long, lanky body with some strength scouts like to see from pitchers.

Kim’s numbers from last year though were not overly impressive. In his 28 starts he posted a 3.42 ERA, his best in four years. His 9.2 hits per nine innings, 7.5 strikeouts per nine and 4.2 walks per nine are all concerning, especially when you consider the level of competition in Korea. While Korean baseball is very much on the rise, overall the professional league there is considered a step below Japan.

Kim’€™s numbers versus Ryu’€™s in his last year in Korea pale in comparison. Ryu posted a 2.66 ERA in his 27 starts to go with 7.5 hits per nine, 10.3 strikeouts per nine and 2.3 walks per nine. While still very good, Ryu’€™s hit and strikeout rates both got worse in MLB, and that is a reasonable expectation with Kim. His starting point though is not as good as Ryu’s.

Kim’€™s repertoire as it is right now is probably not enough for him to start in MLB. In 2014 the fastball sat 91-93 and at times saw 95. He only throws a four-seam fastball and the life on it is considered average. The velocity this season has also raised a few eyebrows. Through most of his career, including last season, Kim would sit 87-90 mph.

His best secondary pitch is his slider. He will throttle the velocity on it and you’€™ll see it anywhere from 82-88. The harder he throws it the more it becomes like a cutter. Right now he is essentially a fastball/slider pitcher who could overpower most Korean hitters.

He tried to mix in a changeup this season, if for no other reason than to bring something new to the table to show MLB scouts. Ryu has used his changeup 21 percent of the time in his two seasons with the Dodgers, Kim is well aware of that and its value. He rarely threw his though, and it is a pitch that needs significant work.

The same can be said for his curveball. The velocity on the curveball was 75-76 but he telegraphed the pitch as he struggled to maintain the same tempo in his delivery and arm speed when throwing the pitch. There was a significant change in his mechanics when trying to throw the curveball and hitters were able to pick up it early.

That being said, his best fit may be as a reliever, and he has said he is open to a move to the bullpen. Kim has never been a full-time reliever though, and that is not necessarily an easy adjustment. On the flip side, if he can learn either a changeup, curveball or split-type change in a short amount of time in Triple-A, then you might have a very usable fourth or fifth starter.

Kim has been very adamant about his desire to be posted and his team has agreed to the process. The hang-up could be the posting fee. The SK Wyverns are rumored to want a minimum of $10 million for Kim. That is a high asking price for a two-pitch lefty who has a history of arm issues (2011-12 were shortened seasons), has never thrown 200-plus innings (Ryu did it twice in Korea) and might be better suited for the bullpen.

Kang Jung-Ho –€“ SS, 27 years old, 6′, 212 lbs.

Ryu vs. Kim

Stat Hyun-Jin Ryu Kim Kwang-Hyun
Last season in KBO 2012 2014
Age 25 26
Starts 27 28
ERA 2.66 3.42
IP 182.2 173.2
K/9 10.3 7.5
H/9 7.5 9.2
BB/9 2.3 4.2

Kang Jung-Ho.

Kang Jung-Ho is going to be the Korean player you’€™ll hear about the most this winter. He is attempting to become the first KBO hitter to make the jump to MLB. We haven’€™t seen very many impact hitters come out of the Far East. Up to this point, Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki have been the best hitters Asia has sent to MLB.

Kang potentially brings something from the KBO that is missing in MLB these days — power. He slugged 40 homeruns this season, a career high, while posting a .356 batting average and .459 OBP, also career highs.

The numbers are eye-popping but again, you have to consider the competition. I pitched in Korea for two years and at one point was a Game 1 starter at age 36. That’€™s not meant to be a knock on the league — I loved my time there — but more to give you a gauge of the level of pitching Kang has seen over his career.

Defensively, whether or not Kang can play shortstop in the big leagues is a question. An MLB scout told me he has more range than Hanley Ramirez, which is an interesting comparison when you consider the Dodgers need for a shortstop. The arm is plenty strong for short and the hands are good enough. He won’t be spectacular defensively, but if he can give you 15-20 homeruns, the tradeoff is probably worth it.  

He could be a better third baseman than shortstop if a team had a need there. First thought is, does he have enough power to play third base? This is a different era — in 2014 only five third basemen had 20 homeruns or more. Kang runs rather slow, so speed is not part of his game, but don’€™t confuse that with lack of range. He is very similar to Brett Boone in that regard.

Kang has some edge to him, which I always like to see from imported players. He was a good teammate but at the same time is sure of himself. He won’€™t be intimated when coming to the States.

Signability won’€™t be an issue either. Kang made $400,000 this past season and his team, the Nexxen Heroes, won’€™t be as steadfast as SK might be with Kim when it comes to a posting fee. He could come rather cheaply, potentially in the $5-8 million range for posting and would likely take any reasonable big-league contract.

He’€™s been linked to the Dodgers, but they may be just because the Dodgers appear to have a need at shortstop. It could also be because the Dodgers have the only other player to play in the KBO on their roster in Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Ryu may be making the push to Dodger personnel.

At the time when Ryu posted the Dodgers did seem to overpay for the lefty, handing the Hanwha Eagles $25.7 million in posting. But in two years so far, it’€™s turned out to be a smart move. There is a new regime in charge now in Los Angeles, one that is used to being thrifty, but no longer has to be as they get to play with Guggenheim money. We’€™ll see if they beat out everyone else for Kang, a player whose numbers are tantalizing, but whether or not they correlate to major league success remains a mystery.