MLB hopefuls may struggle to find a new home in the major leagues

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MLB hopefuls may struggle to find a new home in the major leagues

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Two former Korean baseball MVPs, pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun and outfielder Kim Jae-hwan, are harboring dreams of playing in the MLB next year and beyond.

And the two, who have been made available by MLB for its 30 clubs through posting, are likely in for a long waiting game in the next three weeks or so, amid uncertainty surrounding the open market and mixed reviews of their performances.

MLB posted the two players last Thursday. The 30-day negotiating period for any interested clubs began at 8 a.m. the following morning and will end at 5 p.m. on Jan. 5.

The annual MLB Winter Meetings, a gathering of baseball executives, agents, media and job seekers, are under way in San Diego this week. Some huge free agent deals have been signed during Winter Meetings in the past, but in recent years, major league clubs have become increasingly reluctant to shell out big bucks for 30-something free agents, most of whom have already peaked and are on the decline by the time they reach the open market.

Against this backdrop, international free agents such as the two Kims face even more of an uphill battle than their predecessors. That both are 31 years old won’t help, either.

From teams’ perspective, it’s no small gamble to bet on unproven international talent whose stats in their original leagues may not translate to success in the majors.

One thing that works for Kim Kwang-hyun, at least, is familiarity.

This is Kim Kwang-hyun’s second crack at posting. After the 2014 season, the left-hander was posted under a different system. The San Diego Padres won the silent auction with $2 million, earning the exclusive right to negotiate with the pitcher for 30 days. The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, but Kim at least made his presence known in the big leagues.

And his starts during the 2019 season often attracted a dozen or so MLB scouts, with works for Kim Kwang-hyun expected to once again test the open market via posting after the end of the season.

Kim Jae-hwan is a different story. He wasn’t even in line to be eligible for posting this year. KBO players must complete seven full seasons or their equivalent to be posted, and Kim Jae-hwan had fallen 47 days shy of his seventh full season at the end of 2019.

Kim Jae-hwan received 60 bonus days of service time after playing at the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Premier12 tournament last month.

After the news broke, multiple MLB scouts told Yonhap News Agency that they had no idea Kim Jae-hwan would have qualified for posting in the first place. Unlike Kim Kwang-hyun, there was never much buzz surrounding Kim Jae-hwan’s desire or intention to play in the majors. Plus, KBO and individual clubs don’t make announcements on players’ service time, and MLB scouts wouldn’t have known about Kim Jae-hwan’s availability unless they were so keen on the player that they were calculating his service time.

Some big league scouts said they were following Kim Jae-hwan during his MVP season in 2018. But this year, when Kim Jae-hwan didn’t even hit 20 home runs, the scouts gradually lost interest.

His agency in Seoul, Sportizen, said it has been preparing for the player’s posting for a couple of years and that the work picked up speed once Kim Jae-hwan earned his eligibility at the end of the Premier12.

Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency (CAA) Sports has signed a deal with Sportizen to co-represent Kim Jae-hwan, and the U.S. firm will handle negotiations with MLB teams.

While big league clubs may not have detailed scouting reports on him, Sportizen said CAA Sports has compiled enough data on the player to send to interested MLB clubs.

“We feel like we have a chance to get a deal done this year,” said Sportizen’s vice president, Kim Pyung-ki. “As important as scouting reports are, I think the key is to put the right people in place to negotiate.”

Kim Jae-hwan has drawn comparisons to a posted player from Japan, Yokohama DeNA BayStars slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.

Both Kim Jae-hwan and Tsutsugo have a 40-home run season to their credit, and both profile as power-hitting corner outfielders with on-base skills but limited defensive upside. Both have some experience playing first base, though Kim Jae-hwan’s last game there came in 2016 and Tsutsugo hasn’t played there since 2014.

Tsutsugo is three years younger and has been facing better pitching in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) during his 10-year career there, so Kim Jae-hwan is viewed in some quarters as the cheaper, older version of Tsutsugo.

One MLB scout based in Korea went so far as calling the Korean slugger “a defensive liability.” Another talent evaluator said he offers “plus power” but little else.

“He’s a question mark in all other aspects,” the scout said on the condition of anonymity. “He also has had trouble catching up to fastballs in the KBO.”

As for the starting pitching market, Stephen Strasburg’s monster contract has already been trumped by Gerrit Cole, who set a new record for a free agent pitcher.

Very few teams can afford, or are willing to pay for, the kind of deal that Cole commands. Others will be battling for pitchers in tiers below. And who wouldn’t want pitching in that price range?

Among those sitting just below the Strasburg-Cole stratosphere is another Korean left-hander, Ryu Hyun-jin, the 2019 major league ERA leader and the National League (NL) Cy Young Award runner-up. And Kim Kwang-hyun is at least another notch below that level, where he is joined by the 2019 KBO MVP Josh Lindblom and a few other major league veterans like Tanner Roark and Wade Miley.

Kim Jae-hwan hasn’t exactly set the MLB on fire - other than the news of his posting, there hasn’t been much speculation about his potential landing spots.

But even before Kim Kwang-hyun was officially posted, a handful of teams emerged as interested clubs: the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Chicago Cubs, the Kansas City Royals, the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Padres, who couldn’t get Kim Kwang-hyun to sign five years ago, are reportedly in the mix as well.

One major league scout said he and other evaluators consider Kim Kwang-hyun to be a better pitcher than Lindblom and noted that there will be “more than enough teams who will put him in their starting rotation.”

Another big league scout rated Kim Kwang-hyun’s slider as “filthy,” just about the best compliment you can give to a pitcher on his arsenal, and gave Kim’s four-seam fastball a 55 in the MLB scouting grade of 80, or slightly above average.

Yonhap

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