MLB

MLB free agency: Korean star shortstop Ha-Seong Kim posted for MLB teams; here’s everything you need to know

The MLB offseason has moved at a snail’s pace these last few weeks, but things may soon heat up. The Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization posted star shortstop Ha-Seong Kim for MLB teams this past Wednesday, adding another talented player to the free agent pool. Kim’s 30-day negotiating window closes at 5 p.m. ET on Dec. 25.

“Since there are quite a number of veterans trying out for the MLB [in 2019], I meant to say I could go if I play well [in 2020],” Kim told So-Young Park and Yoo-Rim Kang of Korea JoongAng Daily last December. “But it seems like my decision has already been finalized so I feel a little overwhelmed. I’m not there yet. Some of the fans doubted me by saying, ‘Can Kim Ha-Seong do it?'”    

Kim turned 25 in October and he has been arguably the best player in KBO the last four seasons. He authored a .306/.397/.523 batting line with a career-high 30 home runs in 138 games in 2020. Kim also went 23 for 25 stealing bases. Here are his last four seasons:

2017

601

.302/.376/.513

23

16-8

9.7

10.8

2018

576

.288/.358/.474

20

8-2

9.4

14.1

2019

625

.307/.389/.491

19

33-4

11.2

12.8

2020

622

.306/.397/.523

30

23-2

12.1

10.9

Kim’s production was about 40 percent better than the average KBO hitter the last two seasons. The pitching in Korea is inferior to the pitching in MLB and, for what it’s worth, the ZiPS projection system pegs Kim’s 2020 season as equivalent to a .274/.345/.478 batting line in the big leagues. Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson hit .274/.345/.464 in 2020, for reference.

The free agent class is deep in middle infielders — our R.J. Anderson ranked five middle infielders among his top 20 free agents — but none are as young as Kim, who still has many prime years remaining and may not yet be at his peak. His age makes him very attractive. Here’s everything you need to know about the newest free agent on the market.

How good is he, exactly?

Quite good, obviously, though there will be questions about Kim’s ability to handle MLB-caliber pitching (MLB-caliber velocity in particular) until he shows he can do it. Back in May, Baseball America wrote Kim will “likely to face an adjustment period at the plate when he first arrives in the U.S., but he has the athleticism and twitch to adjust and eventually hit major league velocity.”

Here’s a little more of their scouting report:

He is a good athlete with good instincts at (shortstop) and has the average arm strength to stay on the left side of the infield. He projects to be an above-average hitter and has enough power to hit 12-15 home runs per year in the majors … He is a plus runner who adds value on the bases as well.

Baseball America adds Kim will be considered a top-100 prospect as soon as he signs, though it’s important to note there is quite a bit of variance even within top 100 prospect lists. A top-10 prospect is much more valuable than a prospect in the 80-100 range, for example. That said, Kim is clearly talented and he’s produced at the highest level available to him. Here’s some video:

For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects Kim at roughly .270/.344/.490 with 23 homers and 15 steals annually over the next five seasons. With average defense at shortstop, that’s pretty darn close to a 4 WAR player. Projections are not predictions, they are an attempt to estimate a player’s true talent level, and at least one projection system is really high on Kim. ZiPS sees an impact player.

Jung Ho Kang, the only notable Korean middle infielder to jump to MLB, had immediate success, hitting .273/.355/.483 with 36 home runs in 229 games with the Pirates from 2015-16 before legal issues effectively ended his career. Other star KBO hitters to jump to MLB include Hyun Soo Kim (some success), Dae Ho Lee (minimal success) and Byung Ho Park (a total bust).

“Byung-Ho told me that not many players can actually do it,” Kim told Korea JoongAng Daily last December. “He encouraged me by telling me that I should give it a try if I can get that chance, and that helped me gain confidence. Even if it’s not an easy path, I’m the one going down that path, so I’m going to care less about [any criticism] and go my own way.”  

How does the posting process work?

MLB and the KBO modified the posting schedule this offseason to account for delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Kim, the modifications don’t mean anything. He was posted well before the Dec. 14 deadline and now has until Dec. 25 to sign with an MLB team. The entire process (agreement, physical, signing, etc.) must be complete by Christmas Day.

Under the old posting system, teams would submit blind bids and the high bidder won the player’s negotiating rights. That changed a few years ago. Players are now free to negotiate with any and all MLB teams and pick their destination. The team that signs the player then pays his former team a “release fee.” Here is the release fee structure:

  • $25 million contract or less: 20 percent of contract guarantee
  • Contract larger than $25 million: $5 million plus 17.5 percent of amount over $25 million

The posting fee is not included in the contract. It’s a separate expense. So, for example, if Kim signs a $30 million contract, he gets the $30 million and his former team, the Kiwoom Heroes, get a $5.875 million release fee ($5M plus $875,000 that is 17.5 percent of the $5 million over $25 million threshold). His new MLB team is on the hook for $35.875 million total.

Players posted from Korea (or Japan) will typically visit the United States and meet with teams face-to-face and listen to their sales pitch before making their decision. Kim’s process figures to be quite different because of the ongoing pandemic, however. He may be limited to virtual meetings, or perhaps have to whittle his list down early in the process to limit in-person meetings.

What could his contract look like?

A just turned 25-year-old shortstop who projects to roughly 4 WAR annually over the next half-decade is easily worth $100 million. Kim won’t get $100 million, though. Not with teams cutting costs amid the pandemic and not with the uncertainty surrounding his move to MLB. The risk will be baked into the contract. Kim will get something much less than $100 million.

The largest contract an MLB team has ever given a KBO player is the six-year, $36 million deal the Dodgers gave Hyun-Jin Ryu in December 2012. It’s not close either. The second largest is the four years and $12 million the Twins gave Park in December 2015. The Pirates gave Kang four years and $11 million in January 2015. Last offseason the Cardinals gave Kwang Hyun Kim two years and $11 million.

Kim’s age and skill set make him a unique free agent and, even with payrolls set to come down, he is poised to set a new contract record for a KBO player. A six-year contract in the $7 million to $10 million range annually is not unrealistic. Two Japanese players signed contracts last offseason that may be more relevant to Kim than anything signed by a KBO player:

Both were several years older than Kim when they signed (Akiyama was 32 and Tsutsugo was 28). Japanese players have a better track record in MLB than KBO players, though that’s selection bias more than anything given how few KBO hitters have made the leap, and Kim’s age makes him very desirable. Six years and at least $7 million annually is the bet here.

Which teams could be interested?

MLB teams of course scout Korea (some more than others), so Kim is a known entity. The pandemic made scouting a challenge this year but teams know who he is and have evaluated him to some degree. No MLB club had to hit up Google to begin research when Kim was officially posted.

It is fairly early in the game but already there have been rumors connecting teams to Kim. The Rangers have interest in him, reports MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi says the Blue Jays have closely evaluated him and The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans reports Reds scouts have seen Kim as well. Surely more rumors are coming.

Given his age, Kim will appeal to all teams. Contenders will see a player who can help them win now and rebuilders will see a player who is young enough to be part of their new core. You don’t have to try hard to see all 30 MLB teams as a potential suitor, really. These nine teams stand out as possible landing spots for Kim (to be clear, this is my speculation):

  • Angels: Andrelton Simmons is a free agent and the Halos are desperate to win right now. They could try to sell Kim on a great supporting cast (Shohei Ohtani, Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, etc.) and a beautiful locale.
  • Athletics: Marcus Semien is a free agent and the middle infield in general is unsettled. The A’s have made surprising splashes on the international free agent market in the past, most notably with Yoenis Cespedes.
  • Blue Jays: Bo Bichette is penciled in at shortstop but there have been rumblings about moving him to third base to clear a spot for a star shortstop (Francisco Lindor, mostly). What about Kim instead?
  • Cubs: Payroll is coming down, that much is clear, but it’s not often you can add a 25-year-old infielder with high-end tools for nothing but cash. Kim could be part of the next contending Cubs team.
  • Phillies: Didi Gregorius is a free agent and Jean Segura’s and Scott Kingery’s versatility allow Philadelphia to easily open an infield spot for Kim while keeping everyone in the lineup.
  • Rangers: The Elvis Andrus-Rougned Odor double play combination is an expensive disaster (minus-1.4 WAR in 2020 and owed a combined $56 million from 2021-22) and Kim would be a building block for the future.
  • Reds: The shortstop position is wide open — Nick Senzel is versatile enough to play just about anywhere — and the Reds have spent aggressively in free agency the last two offseasons, including internationally with Akiyama.
  • Tigers: Willi Castro fits better defensively at second base than shortstop, so there’s an obvious opening for Kim. Detroit has a ton of young pitching and now needs to fill out the lineup to complete the rebuild.

I wouldn’t rule out the Nationals (if their reported pursuits of Kris Bryant and DJ LeMahieu fall short), Red Sox (second base is wide open) or Yankees (if LeMahieu leaves) either. I wouldn’t rule out any team, really. Talented 25-year-olds are hard to acquire, so when one hits the market, teams will do what they can to make it work. If nothing else, all 30 teams will do their due diligence.



 

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