Report: Kia Tigers may post lefty Hyeon-Jong Yang

The following is a post from Sung-Min Kim (@sung_minkim), who has also written posts about Kei Igawa, Hyo-Jun Park, and Kwang-Hyun Kim.

Yang at the 2014 Asian Games in September. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Yang at the 2014 Asian Games in September. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

On Tuesday, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reported the Kia Tigers of KBO are going to post ace lefty Hyeon-Jong Yang. That was odd to me. Usually, when it comes to news about Korean players being posted or ML teams expressing desire in one, Korean media has the first official report. I had read an article or two about Yang being scouted by both major league and NPB scouts, but there didn’t seem to be any strong interest from any teams from either league. Another odd thing about the Daily News report is Yang being evaluated as a possible No. 3 starter in the majors — that’s quite high even for a lot of the Korean fans. But because his name has started to bounce around around the major league writers and fans, I decided to write up Yang.

Unlike Hyun-Jin Ryu or Kwang-Hyun Kim, Yang does not have much of a superstar pedigree in KBO, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance. The lefty broke out in 2009, his age 21 season, by going 12-5, 3.15 ERA while punching out 139 in 148.2 IP. He had an okay 2010 by putting up 4.25 ERA and winning 16 games. However, allowing 98 walks in 169.1 IP was worrying and that amplified the season after. In 2011, Yang lost his command (69 walks and 74 strikeouts in 106.1 IP with a 6.18 ERA) and spent a chunk of the season in minors. Things weren’t too better in 2012 — he went 1-2, 5.05 ERA in 41 IP while recording more walks (31) than strikeouts (26). By the end that season, he was known as the “forgotten ace” of the Tigers who once showed brilliance but was ruined by command problems. However, Yang came back big in 2013. Given another chance to stick at rotation after the spring training, the lefty posted a 3.10 ERA in 104.2 IP while posting a much-improved 3.70 BB/9 and striking people out (8.17 K/9).

Yang had a bit of a mixed 2014, but mostly positive. He put up a 4.25 ERA in 171.1 IP — hardly a sexy figure from a pitcher that is being rumored to advance from KBO to MLB. But, as I’ve said in the Kwang-Hyun Kim post, the Korean Baseball Organization experienced an extraordinarily offense-friendly season like never before. As a matter of fact, according to peripherals, he was the best Korean-born starter in KBO in the season, leading in FIP (4.19), WAR (5.24) and K/9 (8.67). (Best starter in KBO altogether? Either Rick VandenHurk or Andy Van Hekken.)

According to Feinsand’s article, a scout that has seen Yang said the lefty “sits between 92-95 mph” with his fastball. Well, from what I’ve seen in multiple games, it’s more like high-80’s-to-low-90’s. Here’s a video of him pitching from an April 2014 start. In the video, he’s around mid-140 kmph (approx. 87 mph) with his fastball while generating swing-and-misses with his slider. His slider has been praised as a plus pitch by the Korean media but it remains to be seen how it would translate in the majors, or even in NPB. While his array of stuff has worked well in Korea at striking out hitters, a pitcher that sits 88-92 mph with stuff that has not been particularly praised by ML scouts a la Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka is not exactly the sexiest target.

Here’s a Korean article from Oct. 21 about Yang being scouted by ML and NPB teams. In his last start of the season, scouts from Red Sox, Cubs, Rangers and the Yomiuri Giants of NPB attended the Kia Champions Field in Kwangju to watch him. According to a ML scout quoted in the article, around “three to five” teams from MLB and Japan have been monitoring the lefty throughout the season. No word on a strong interest from any ML team, but it does show that there is some interest. It will also be up to the Kia Tigers to see if they want to lose their No. 1 starter. The team had lost out their previous ace, RHP Suk-Min Yoon, to the Baltimore Orioles before the 2014 season. After finishing with a dreadful 54-74 record (8th out of the 9-team league), will the team want to lose their best pitcher? According to the article, the team will let him go if they receive the compensation they are willing to accept (a.k.a not a small posting fee).

Even though he has pitched better and more consistently in the previous two seasons, Yang’s command remains a weak spot. In 2014, he posted a 4.04 BB/9 — the same clip that A.J. Burnett had this year. Unlike Ryu, Hyeon-Jong Yang was never known as a control savant in KBO — as I’ve mentioned before, his career was almost ruined by command problems. I see Kwang-Hyun Kim as a pitcher who’s comparable to Yang since both lefties with fastball around low-90’s with less-than-ideal command. Of course I am not saying that they are the same pitcher, but I am skeptical of both of their chances of being successful as starters in ML as much as Ryu has been. The scout referenced in Feinsand’s article must have seen something he liked that lead him to believe his skillset would translate well in the majors. Otherwise, based on Yang’s history and attributes, it’s hard to think why he would be a potential “No. 2-3 starter” in ML right away.

For 2015, I expect Yang to pitch similar to his 2013 and 2014 level, which may not be good enough to survive in the bigs. As of this writing, there still isn’t an official team statement from the Tigers about posting the lefty to majors. We might see one soon — I doubt Feinsand pulled the information out of nowhere. Yang’s team, like Kwang-Hyun Kim’s team, failed to qualify for postseason baseball in Korea (which is still going on by the way — they just finished the Game 2 of Korean Series) and they can post him anytime that they wish to. It’s unclear if the pitching-needy Yankees have interest.

Reports: Korean left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim to be posted, Yankees have checked in

The following is a guest post from Sung-Min Kim, who has also written guest posts about Kei Igawa and Hyo-Jun Park.

Kim at the 2014 Asian Games last month. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Kim at the 2014 Asian Games last month. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

According to Eun-Byul Park of eDailyStar, left-handed pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim of the SK Wyverns in Korea will have a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the “pursuit of going over to the Major Leagues.” The article also states that the Wyverns’ general manager and main representative will also be present. All signs point to the team posting their star pitcher.

Kim, 26, is one of the most popular players in the Korean Baseball Organization. He was drafted by the Wyverns in the first round in 2006. By the end of 2007, Kim had already posted 3.62 ERA in 77 IP as a 19-year old. His rise is very storied among Korean fans. The Wyverns were down 1-2 to the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series and the manager decided to start the teenager to save their season. The starter for the Bears was one-time Yankee Danny Rios, who later went on to win the league MVP after having a phenomenal season with 2.07 ERA in 234 IP and 22 wins. Undaunted by the task, Kim threw a 7.1 IP gem with only one hit allowed while striking out 9, earning the win for the Wyverns that later went on to win the Korean Series title. Here’s a Korean television segment about the fateful game.

From 2008 to 2010, his ages 20 to 22 seasons, Kim rivaled Hyun-Jin Ryu as the most talented young lefty in the nation. He went 16-4 with 2.39 ERA in 27 starts in 2008, winning the league MVP, the gold medal for Team Korea in the Beijing Olympics, and another Korean Series trophy as the Wyverns won consecutive titles. He went 12-2 with 2.80 ERA in 2009 and 17-7, 2.37 ERA in 193.2 IP in 2010 (and another Wyverns title). By the end of 2010, there wasn’t much doubt about his place as one of the best lefties in the history of Korean baseball. However, starting in 2011, Kim became plagued by slumps and injuries. From 2011 to 2013, he posted 4.84, 4.30 and 4.47 ERAs, respectively, with worse control (4.64 BB/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 3.64 BB/9 in 2008-2010) and strikeout numbers (7.10 K/9 from 2011-13 as opposed to 8.11 K/9 from 2008-10).

The 2014 season was not his best year, however he came back as a healthy, full-time starter who finished second in the league in ERA (3.42) and home run rate (0.52 HR/9) and seventh in strikeout rate (7.51 K/9). His fastball hit as high as 96 mph, which is around where he topped when he was a younger ace. His 3.42 ERA in 173.2 IP may not be impressive for a pitcher that is pitching at a well-below NPB’s level, but KBO experienced a historical offensive explosion this summer.  The ex-San Francisco and Lotte Giant Ryan Sadowski describes it the best:

“As of September 10th, we have seen 5,762 runs scored over the course of 505 games. There have been about 11.4 runs scored per game or 5.7 runs scored per team. We have witnessed about a 40% increase in runs scored from the 2012 season. We have also seen 1,047 home runs during the 505 games that have been played.  In 2014, we have seen an 80% increase in homeruns produced in comparison to the 2012 season.”

That is insane. There were only SIX starters in KBO with ERA under 4.00 and Kim is the only Korean-born pitcher in that group. The other five: Rick VandenHurk (3.18), Andy Van Hekken (3.51 and the first 20-game winner in KBO since Rios), Charlie Shirek (3.81), Dustin Nippert (3.81) and Cory Riordan (3.96).

A huge knock on Kim’s 2014 numbers is that his walk rate remained mediocre at 4.20 BB/9. There have been Asian imports, or just pitchers in general, that had less-than-ideal control and pitched decently in Majors, but for every Kaz Ishii there are names like Kei Igawa and Ryota Igarashi — pitchers you did not want anywhere near the 40-man roster. The lefty was also one of the luckiest pitchers with runners on base: 74.6 LOB% is the second in league (though one can argue that Kim bumps up his velocity a notch in dicier situations). I would say this video summarizes Kim’s season in a nutshell: showing some control hiccups to get into trouble but using his upside to get outs and out of the trouble.

My assessment: I do not see Kim being a full-time starter in the Majors unless there is a major improvement in command. It would be a wishful thinking for him to be an “effectively wild” pitcher a la early-2002 Kaz Ishii. I don’t know if Kim would post walk rates as abysmal as Ishii’s (6.19 and 6.18 BB/9 in his first two seasons with the Dodgers) but what mattered was that he was a pitcher expected to start in every five games for three Major League seasons. I think a lot of Korean baseball fans would more than gladly take that for Kwang-Hyun Kim.

If Kim were to sign with an ML team, it’s because they would be sold by his stuff. His fastball usually plays around high-80’s-to-low-90’s. He is able to bump it up to mid-90’s but don’t expect a first-grade heat from the lefty. According to a big league scout quoted in Global Sports Integration, Kim has “big league stuff. Definitely a big league slider.” The scout adds “Kim’s raw stuff is electric. If he were a raw prospect with low mileage, he would be the best prospect in Asia. But he has injury history and isn’t 21 years old.”

Some fans may remember RHP Suk-Min Yoon, who signed a ML contract with the Baltimore Orioles in the previous winter. The deal, however, has not gone well at all for the Birds. Yoon, who was also one of the best young starters in KBO along with Kim and Ryu, was trending downwards with health and performance when he signed with Baltimore. Ryu, who had showed endurance in Korea, came off one of his best seasons in 2012 before he signed with the Dodgers. Kim, I would say, is somewhere in between those two. He has his share of injury history but he’s trending upwards in stock – definitely not at Ryu’s level but enough to maybe give some team to take a flier or two.

As for the Yankees, I doubt that they will look at Kim as a rotation option. First off, there are other names in the free agency that could possibly woo the team to spend bigger money on (Jon Lester, James Shields, Brandon McCarthy, etc.). The team also has in-house rotation candidates and pieces that delegitimize a need for a risky signing like Kim. There have been reports that Yankee scouts have checked on him and some think a posting fee between “$10 to 12 million” is “not a stretch.” But then again, I will believe what the ML teams actually think of his value when I see it. All indications say Kim will be posted and it will be interesting to see how a pitcher from Korea with less-than-optimal history would be seen among the teams.

Guest Post: The ultimate Kei Igawa retrospective

The following is a guest post from long-time reader Sung-Min Kim, who you can follow on Twitter at @SungMinKim116.

(Yahoo)
(Yahoo)

I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of the offseason of 2006~07, I always think “what if?” the Yankees had signed Ted Lilly. Theodore Roosevelt Lilly, as you may recall, was a Yankee long time ago until the trade that brought Jeff Weaver to Bronx (“Lilly had cried the day in 2002 when Cashman traded him.”) The lefty went on to have few solid seasons with the Athletics and the Jays – 9.7 cumulative fWAR from 2003-06 – until he hit free agency for the first time after the ‘06 season. Lilly strongly wanted to be a Yankee again but the team let him take the Cubs’ offer. Actually, they had someone else in mind by the time Lilly agreed with the Cubs – on November 29, 2006, the Yankees had won the bidding to talk with the Japanese lefty, Kei Igawa. Lilly signed for a four-year, $40 million contract and the Yankees spent a total of $46 million dollars ($26 million in bidding, and $20 million in 5-year contract) for Igawa.

Safe to say, the Bronx Bombers probably should have gone the other way. During the four-year contract with the Cubs, and later the Dodgers, Lilly compiled 12.8 cumulative fWAR — a top 30 figure among the starters who pitched between 2007-10. Igawa, on the other hand, made only 16 total appearances during the five-year contract while compiling an abysmal -0.2 fWAR. Looking at it any shape or form, the Yankees lost out pretty big on this one. While in the Yankee organization, Igawa became the laughingstock of the fans, toiling in the minors for the most of his contract. But before the ill-advised decision by the Yankees front office, what got Igawa the Yankee attention? Who was he?

[Read more…]

Guest Post: Everything you need to know about Yankees target Hyo-Jun Park

The following is a guest post from long-time reader Sung-Min Kim, who you can follow on Twitter at @SungMinKim116.

(Sports Q)
(Sports Q)

As many of us know, the Yankees are set to pour a lot of money into international signings come July 2nd. The reports say they already have come to an agreement with three big-name prospects in Latin America and there is possibly one more coming from Korea. On Tuesday, it was reported that 18-year old SS prospect Hyo-Jun Park will sign with the Yankees and it sounds official — his parents have quipped on it as well. What does this signing mean and what kind of talent is he?

In terms of the Asian market, the Yankees have a richer history with signing Japanese and Taiwanese players, but not much with Koreans. In the 2004-05 offseason, the team was actually strongly linked to LHP Dae-Sung Koo (who, by the way, was a beast in KBO in the 90’s and did a decent job in Japan as well. At the age of 44, he was the saves leader in the Australian league in 2013-14) and reportedly came to an agreement, but the lefty ended up signing with the Mets and this ended up happening. Before the 2010 season, the team signed veteran RHP Chan-Ho Park, who had rejuvenated his career as a reliever, but he proved to be ineffective (5.12 FIP in 35.1 IP) for the Bombers and was DFA’d within few months.

Well, the reports strongly indicate that the Yanks are an official announcement away from sealing Park as their farm commodity. The bonus amount is reported to be around $1 to $1.2 million and the team is ready to supply Park a good amount of accommodation for his adjustment to the new culture, including a full-time translator, a “hotel-quality dormitory,” etc. He would be the first Korean IFA ever to sign with the Yankees.

As a junior of the Yatap High School of Kyung-gi province, the shortstop is tearing the cover off the ball in the Gogyo Yagu Jumal League (high school weekend league), hitting for a .467/.614/.967 slash line in 44 plate appearances in 10 games. Out of his 14 hits, 7 of them are extra-base hits with three homers. Considering that Park’s been considered a cream of the crop tier prospect since his sophomore year, when he hit .371/.475/.557 with 1 HR, his offensive performance so far this year has put him into a formidable prospect status. Another note about his power performance is that he’s done it all with a wood bat in a league that banned the use of aluminum bats back in 2004. Also, he has shown a good eye throughout his high school career. For example, during his freshman year, even when he hit for only .256 avg., he managed a .468 OBP. So far in 2014, he has a 13-to-4 BB-to-K ratio in 10 games.

Garnering attention since his sophomore year, a lot of Korean scouts have pegged Park as the possible No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 KBO Draft. At this point, it’s unlikely any KBO team will choose Park. Back in 2006, the Kia Tigers selected RHP Young-Il Jung, who had already generated strong ML interest, and the righty ended up signing with the LA Angels and the Tigers ended up wasting their 1st-round pick. The team with the first pick on the upcoming KBO Draft, the KT Wiz (an expansion team that will make its debut in KBO next season), has already announced their first two picks they received as an expansion team (RHP Sung-Moo Hong and RHP Kwon Joo). Many speculate that had Park not maintained a strong connection with the Yankees, the shortstop would have been the Wiz’s pick.

According to this article, before this winter Park looked forward to being selected in the KBO draft. “I was approached by the Yankees during the sophomore year of high school,” Park said, “my parents liked the idea of going to ML but I wasn’t sure what to expect so I declined their offer at the time.” Park’s decision changed when he trained in Los Angeles over this past winter. “I played with American players few times then and I felt they had better power and basics,” said Park, “despite all that, I felt that I played very well against them, so I started to feel confident about (playing in America in the future).”

(dearsanta.tistory.com)
(dearsanta.tistory.com)

The Yankees were not the only team that showed an interest in Park. The San Diego Padres reportedly made a $1 million offer and their scout said that “(in his sophomore year) Park was a $500K-worthy player and after I saw him in Los Angeles, he was more of a $1 million-worthy talent.” The Padres are not alone. According to Chi-Hoon Lee, Park’s agent, seven ML teams, including the Yankees, have shown interest in the shortstop, but the link also states the Yankees are Park’s sole priority.

The $1.2 million bonus is not as high as what the Yanks are giving to few other IFA signees but it’s still a lot of money. In fact, it rivals the top-tier annual salary of KBO. The highest-paid player of the league, 1B Tae-Kyun Kim, is set to receive $1.403 million for 2014. For another point of reference, OF Hyung-Woo Choi, a 30-year old proven offensive commodity, gets paid only $421K for 2014 season. A 18-year old prospect Park has a chance to receive 3x the money that an offensive star Choi is – who is hitting for a 1.074 OPS so far this season. It is suffice to say that the amount is too good to easily pass up on.

The biggest Korean IF prospect to have signed with an ML team prior to Park is SS Hak-Ju Lee for the Rays farm system. Park has gotten comparisons to Lee for both his offensive and defensive game. This would have been a more thrilling thought last year, before Lee tore his ACL while hitting for 225 wRC+ for the Durham Bulls in AAA level. He has yet to find his offensive groove so far this season (73 wRC+) but he is still only a 23-year-old in AAA and have some time to work himself into position to be a future SS for the Rays. Lee was signed by the Cubs as a 17-year-old back in 2008 with a $1.15 million bonus. Park may get around that figure (or a little more). In six minor league seasons, Lee has hit for a .285/.360/.380 line overall.

Here’s MLB.com’s scouting report on Park – he ranks #12 in the overall list (also the site misspelled his name as “Hyu-Jun Park”).

Scouting Grades: Hit: 60 | Power: 45 | Run: 60 | Arm: 55 | Field: 60

Park and his teammates from Yatap High School in South Korea spent more than a month in the United States playing against top high school teams from California earlier this year. There’s a real possibility the young infielder will get a chance to see a lot more of the country in the near future.

A legitimate shortstop prospect, Park has the tools to stay at the position as he develops. What’s more, some scouts think he has the potential to be above average in every facet of the game, except for power. That said, there’s the belief that he could still hit at least 10 home runs when he gains strength. He can also spray the ball to all fields.

Scouts view him as a good defender with solid fundamentals and compare him to Tampa Bay infield prospect Hak-Ju Lee. Park has been scouted heavily by the Yankees.

Based on what I hear about Park, the scouting grades and report sound about right. Personally, I’d like to see Park fill out his frame and have a better power display than projected (because power is sexy), but he’s still projected to show plus hit, run and field tools. If his high school slash lines are any indication, he also has some plate discipline.

Of course, the tools translating in pro ball are all big ifs. He could develop as well as Lee or he could be a costly flop like Kelvin De Leon. The odds for the latter is much bigger than the former — especially considering the cultural adjustment and language issues — it won’t be an entirely smooth ride for Park. Rangers OF Shin-Soo Choo is the main example of a Korean position player who enjoyed success after years of toiling in the minors and going through cultural and language adjustment as a teenager. However, for every Shin-Soo Choo, there are a bunch of failed prospects who never adjusted to the American lifestyle and English language and returned to their home country.

Lee started out at a low-A level instead of any short-season leagues and, according to reports, Park may start at the same level as well. The shortstop himself said he wants to be a ML regular in “three years” but I think it will take longer. The tools and the hype are there. Will he be the next Shin-Soo Choo or the next Carmen Angelini? Too early to speculate what will he be like in 3-4 years, but as a Korean and a Yankees watcher (who wanted to see Choo sign with the Yankees over the offseason), I’m looking forward to seeing his development in the system.