One of the trends early in Dan Duquette's tenure with the Orioles was a focus on acquiring players from the Asian professional ranks. Along with the one success in Wei-Yin Chen, there was a lot of time and money wasted on other players, including one low-level international incident that's still murky on whether it was ever resolved. With several Korean players set to try to make the jump over to Major League Baseball this offseason, this could be a good time for the O's to try to dip back into that market for talent.
We already know that the Orioles gave at least some thought to jumping in on a Korean player this offseason. The O's are known to have put in a bid for the right to negotiate with first baseman Byung-ho Park, though they were not the winning bidder. A quartet of other Korean-born players are also on the way, likely helped in part by the 2015 success of Jung-ho Kang with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which showed that Korea's best can compete over here.
As luck would have it, two of those players, Ah-seop Son and Hyun-soo Kim, are left-handed hitting outfielders. We all regrettably witnessed the Orioles attempts to find those in 2015, which ended up costing them three pitching prospects in trades. Son and Kim, both 27 years old, will only cost money. So would a couple of older players who competed in Korea's KBO before jumping to Japan's NPB league. Those are first baseman Dae-ho Lee and closer Seung-hwan Oh.
These are all just a bunch of names that mean nothing to you or I. Here's a little bit more about each player and what they could bring to the Orioles if signed.
Son, like Park, has to go through the posting process. That means his Korean team, in this case the Lotte Giants, still controls his rights. MLB teams must submit blind bids and Lotte will accept or decline the top bid without knowing to whom it belongs. If the bid is accepted, Son will then have 30 days to negotiate a contract with that team.
What's attractive about Son is obvious: he has posted on-base percentages of .421, .456, and .406 over the past three seasons. That included a .362/.456/.538 batting line in the 2014 season. Plate discipline is nice because, pitch framing excepted, a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike.
It's fair to say that the 5'9" Son has faced lesser competition in his home country. When Park was posted recently, Park's outrageous batting line was bandied about, along with the fact that MLB washout Eric Thames batted .381/.497/.790 in the most recent KBO season. Even a Barry Bonds-like performance in Korea only goes so far for showing what someone might be able to do in MLB. Son was not Bonds.
The gap in quality of competition creates uncertainty about how players will perform here, which in turn tends to depress the salaries they are given. The O's have taken advantage of this in the past in getting Chen for four years and about $15 million. Even before Duquette's tenure, they got a good bargain for being willing to roll the dice on Koji Uehara.
Here on Youtube, an Ah-seop Son highlight reel put together by his agency. Apparently, "sliding catch" and "diving catch" need no translation between languages.
Kim, who like Son is a 27-year old lefty-batting outfielder, will not be subject to the posting process because he has played enough seasons to be a free agent. That means the O's wouldn't have to go through the extra expense of paying for the right to negotiate with him, but it also means that every other team will be free to negotiate with Kim as well, which could potentially create more competition and drive up the price of his contract.
In the 2015 KBO season, where Kim was on the Doosan Bears, he batted .326/.438/.541 in 141 games. That included 101 walks (!) and 28 home runs, and Kim only struck out 63 times all season. The Orioles haven't had a 100-walk season since Albert Belle walked 101 times in 1999. It's a longer season here compared to KBO's, as well. Kim, 6'2", was mostly a left fielder for Doosan.
A short Kim highlight reel from two years ago shows what I would call a lot of Royalesque contact. The O's could use a player like that, though there are the questions of whether better fielders in MLB catch some of these balls, and whether Kim's batting ability will be the same against better pitchers.
Those questions along with the number of proven MLB corner outfielders on the market could be the kinds of things that would make Kim into a potential bargain who would interest the Orioles.
Lee, at 33, is several years older than either Son or Kim. He is Korean-born but he has spent the last four years playing in Japan after a long KBO career. Japan's league is seen as a step up in quality over KBO, though still not as high as MLB. So, having had success in both leagues is a plus for Lee. In the 2015 season for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the 6'4" righty batted .282/.368/.524 with 31 home runs in a 144-game season.
Along with the fact that he's coming over from Japan and Korea, Lee's contract would likely be shorter in duration and cheaper due to his age and the fact that he's a first baseman who, well, looks like this. That's a big dude and maybe only a designated hitter, which does not necessarily preclude him from mashing taters.
In 2012, Lee hit 24 home runs for Japan's Orix Buffaloes, and you can watch them all on Youtube. One thing I'm learning from this exercise is that I need to watch more baseball that's not being broadcast in English. These announcers are great.
The appeal of having a player named Oh on the Orioles is immediately apparent. Aside from that, the 5'10" right-handed Oh bears the excellent nickname of "The Final Boss." Awesome. You don't have to spend very long looking at his career statistics to see why. After nine years playing in Korea, Oh made the jump to NPB two seasons ago, where he's continued his excellence for the Hanshin Tigers.
Whether there should be anything read into the fact that his ERA was a full run higher this year compared to last, or into his strikeout rate dropping precipitously, are questions MLB teams who think about signing him ought to ask themselves. They probably also want to ask questions themselves: Did a better league adjust to his arsenal? Did Father Time start to catch up to him at age 33? Does it matter that he's had two elbow surgeries, the most recent of which was in 2010?
Those questions will likely keep teams from going crazy in trying to sign Oh, as well. When you're not a sure thing, you don't get as much money. The bargain potential is again there because the bust potential is also present.
The cheapest option isn't always the best option, as the 2015 Orioles are well aware, but even in an offseason where they have some significant resources available, they still need to find bargains where they can. The O's might not end up signing any one of these players. and it could be that none will turn into successful major leaguers. They should and likely will at least check in on them.
If any one of this quartet does succeed in MLB, they'll probably do so while costing much less than a comparable MLB free agent from this offseason. That's going to remain a tantalizing possibility for a team like the Orioles who have multiple holes to fill on the roster. It's been a while since Duquette has looked to the Korean or Japanese professional ranks. One of this group of Korean players could be the one to draw him and the O's back into that market.