Looking for an outfielder? Korea’s Hyun-soo Kim could be a bargain
The greatest free-agent value this offseason might end up coming from South Korea. Hyun-soo Kim, a 27-year-old left-handed hitting left fielder, is an unrestricted free agent and is likely to sign with a Major League Baseball team this winter. The team that scoops him up could be getting the steal of the offseason.
Jung Ho Kang has already answered the question of whether a KBO hitter can succeed in MLB. The longtime stigma among major-league teams was that South Korea was heavily scouted at the amateur levels only. If a player reached the professional ranks of the KBO, it was too late to look at him as a prospective MLB player.
Kang’s .816 OPS and 15 homers and well-regarded defense at both shortstop and third base in 126 games played last season quickly erased that old stigma, and teams have been playing much closer attention to KBO players.
Kang has proven to be a steal. A player who posts a 4.0 bWAR player in his first season after signing a four-year, $11 million contract (plus an option year) is a great value. Even when you add the $5 million posting fee, the Pirates are in for four years and $16 million, an AAV of $4 million, which is just below the average salary in the major leagues.
And Hyun-soo Kim could be next.
Like Kang, Kim put up some numbers in KBO that must be taken in context. KBO pitchers yielded a 4.90 ERA and 5.5 runs per game in 2015. It is a league that lends itself to offensive production, especially the long ball, with many of the stadiums smaller than the average MLB park. Kang hit 40 home runs his last season in Korea and just 15 in nearly the same amount of at-bats as a Pirate in 2015.
For Kim, though, the advantages of the KBO don’t distort what he did offensively, especially when trying to predict what he should be able to do in the majors.
The contact numbers are staggering — 101 walks to 63 strikeouts in 630 plate appearances. No hitter in MLB came anywhere close to what Kim did in 2015 when it came to walks and strikeouts. Of the nine major leaguers who walked 90 or more times last season, the fewest amount of strikeouts among that group was 106 by Jose Bautista. The last time an MLB hitter walked more than 100 times with 63 or fewer strikeouts like Kim did in Korea was in 2008, when Albert Pujols walked 104 times and struck out 54 times.
No one mistakes KBO pitching for MLB pitching, but Kim posted a .326 batting average and a .438 on-base percentage to go along with 28 homers in 2015. The numbers are going to come down. Kang’s strikeout percentage remained the same from his last year in Korea compared to his first year in MLB (21 percent). His walk rate, however, dropped significantly from 14 percent to 6 percent.
Predicting how the offense will translate is always difficult, but contact plays at any level and concerns about Kim being overwhelmed by MLB pitching are minimal. Kim is considered a pure hitter with good eyes who makes consistent, solid contact.
So what can Kim do in the major leagues? I played with and against Kim in 2009 and 2010, and I talked to a scout who has seen him extensively recently, as well as other players who have played against him. And while drops in what he produced in KBO are certainly to be expected, a .275 batting average with a .350 on-base percentage, 10-12 homers and 60 walks are all reasonable expectations for Kim in 2016, his age-28 season.
After searching outfielders who put up all those numbers or better in 2015, I was floored at what I found. Just four outfielders in MLB hit .275+/.350+OBP/10+HR/60+BB. They were Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Shin-Soo Choo. Of all position players in baseball last season, that number jumps to 18. These are very reasonable benchmarks for Kim to achieve in MLB.
There are the intangibles that matter here as well. First, from the financial side. Kim is an unrestricted free agent, so there is no posting fee. This plays well to his advantage as he is free to negotiate with all 30 teams. This also frees up teams from the hassle of trying to be the highest bidder for Kim’s rights.
The other is the person. Kim is a great teammate. A player who loves the game, has an insatiable appetite for success and an infectious personality that is fun to be around. He is well respected and has been highly marketable in South Korea. His personality is an important factor that will help him adapt well to life in MLB. Combine that with the bat, and Kim should be headed for MLB success.
His defense in left is average and Kim can also fill in at first base.
The contract won’t be overwhelming — three years and an average annual value of $3.5 million to $5 million could be expected, with a potential option year on the back end. The total package will likely be less than what any top slugger will get as an AAV on the free-agent market this winter.
Teams that lose out on Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon could find a gem in Kim. The Orioles, Tigers, Angels, Giants and Diamondbacks could all be fits.