Blue Jays have intriguing opportunity in dynamic, versatile Ha-Seong Kim

South Korea's Ha-Seong Kim rounds bases after hitting a two-run home run off Japan starting pitcher Shun Yamaguchi in 2019. (Toru Takahashi / AP)

Amid the stubborn gridlock of MLB’s off-season, in which teams have more reasons not to make a move — budget uncertainty, lack of buyers, reluctance to set the market, NL clubs unaware of the positions they’ll be required to roster come opening day — than they do to make one, there is at least one player group in which we have a guarantee of activity in the coming weeks: posted free agents from Korea’s KBO and Japan’s NPB.

That includes Ha-Seong Kim, the 25-year-old Kiwoom Heroes shortstop who’s widely considered one of the 10 best free agents available this winter. There’s also Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants right-hander and two-time winner of NPB’s Sawamura Award as Japan’s best pitcher. Plus the pair posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters: outfielder Haruki Nishikawa, a three-time NPB gold glover and two-time all-star, and Kohei Arihara, a 28-year-old command-and-control right-hander.

The great thing about the markets for those players is that they come with a built-in deadline. The posting period lasts 30 days and if the player doesn’t come to agreement on a contract with an MLB club in that span he’s returned to his NPB or KBO club for another season. Unlike the rest of the free-agent market, clubs will be forced into decisions on these players before long.

"That kind of defines the market in some ways with those players," Blue Jays assistant GM Joe Sheehan said Tuesday. "You can't slow-play it that long."

The most intriguing option for the Blue Jays is Kim, whose age, talent and versatility make him a rare commodity on the open market. Blue Jays scouts have been watching Kim for some time in anticipation of his posting and have continued to do due diligence on him this winter. They believe Kim’s athleticism could allow him to play all over the diamond, an obvious benefit for an organization that values versatility. And the bat certainly seems legit:

Kim’s authored a stellar KBO career since debuting as an 18-year-old, posting OPS’s north of .830 each of the last six seasons. He flirted with a .400 on-base percentage in 2020, hitting 30 homers in 138 games and walking more often than he struck out. No matter what level of North American play you compare KBO competition to — somewhere between double- and triple-A is the general consensus — it’s extremely solid production from a shortstop.

Mix in Kim’s speed (he’s gone 56-for-62 on stolen base attempts the last two seasons) plus a quick-twitch athleticism that ought to allow his defence to translate well to MLB, and you’re looking at an undeniably useful player — one that may still be getting better considering he’s six month’s younger than Cavan Biggio. It’s a rare commodity on MLB’s free-agent market.

"He's in that infield mix," Sheehan said. "The performance in the KBO has been quite strong. And just looking at players that have come over, he fits into that infield market really well."

Where things get tricky with a player like Kim is arriving at the contract value a club would be willing to offer him. Kim’s track record is obviously strong — but front offices don’t pay for past results, they pay for expected future performance. They use projection systems and historical comparisons to try to arrive at as realistic of an expectation as possible, using that to inform their offer.

Problem is, there just aren’t many comparisons for a young, versatile KBO crossover like Kim. Jung-Ho Kang might be the closest — he hit .298/.383/.504 over nine KBO seasons, which lines up fairly closely with Kim’s .294/.373/.493 career line. But Kang was three years older when he made the jump to MLB and hadn’t demonstrated anywhere near the same contact ability, with strikeout rates nearly double what Kim’s are.

Still, it’s the best we’ve got and teams will no doubt consider how productive Kang was in his first MLB season — he hit .287/.355/.461 with a 123 OPS+ while splitting time between third base and shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates — before a Chris Coghlan double play takeout slide fractured his left leg and tore his MCL. Kang returned from injury in 2016 and more or less repeated his production (.255/.354/.513, 129 OPS+) before a slew of off-field issues, including a sexual assault claim and a DUI conviction, put his career on hold again. He’s currently a free agent.

So, there’s that. You could also look to Byung-ho Park, the two-time KBO MVP whose MLB career lasted only 60 games in which he hit .194/.275/.409, and Dae-ho Lee, the two-time KBO triple crown winner who didn’t fare much better making the jump in competition and returned to Asia after 104 middling MLB games, if you’re seeking cautionary tales.

Clearly, there is greater margin for error in any Kim projection than there would be for a player with an MLB track record. Still, ZIPS projects Kim to hit .274/.343/.477 in his first MLB season which is essentially what 26-year-old Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson (.274/.345/.464) batted in 2020. If you could add a younger, more versatile Swanson to your team right now with the only acquisition cost being money, would you do it?

Of course you would. And the Blue Jays would, too, at the right price. But due to all of the above, Kim’s value could vary wildly from team to team depending on how they weigh comparables vs. raw data vs. subjective scouting vs. the risk of an athlete not adjusting well to an increase in competition. That means Kim’s ultimate value could land anywhere from the five years, $40 million MLB Trade Rumors predicted to the five years, $60 million FanGraphs pegged him at. That’s a not-insignificant difference of $4 million per season.

“Trying to appropriately account for the margin of error, trying to evaluate those players, it's not the most precise thing we have in the world,” Sheehan said. “It's trying to balance that risk and that reward.”

But the reward could be pretty great, which is why the Blue Jays will closely monitor Kim’s market. And it is at least notable that, according to ESPN’s Daniel Kim, Blue Jays ace Hyun-jin Ryu recently met with Kim at the Korean shortstop’s request:

What can we take from that? Well, for the Blue Jays, it can’t hurt. Ryu’s a venerated figure in Korean baseball and a strong endorsement from him of the Blue Jays as an organization would certainly hold substantial weight. Thing is, we don’t know what they talked about. It’s just as possible that Kim was picking Ryu’s brain about what it’s like playing for his former employer, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or what to expect from MLB life in general. Maybe they didn’t talk business at all.

But in comparison to the alternative — not having a perennial Cy Young candidate and Korean baseball icon potentially help pitch your franchise to his fellow citizen — the Blue Jays will take it. Asked whether Toronto’s front office requested Ryu’s help in a recruitment effort, Sheehan declined to get into specifics, but did offer: “Ryu’s really good. And I think him being a big player in KBO’s history is really good.”

Of course, clubs do this all the time – and the Blue Jays are no different. They’ve asked current players like Randal Grichuk, Bo Bichette and Biggio to participate in pitches to free agents in the past. If there’s a prior connection between a player Toronto’s pursuing and one the club already rosters, it’s not uncommon for the front office to ask the current player to put in a good word. That’s continued this winter.

It makes sense. Athletes trust one another more than they do front office executives, and a strong endorsement of a team’s culture and atmosphere from a player participating within it carries more weight than the sales pitch of a GM or club president. Front offices will obviously paint glowing portraits of the experience a free-agent signee would have with their organizations. But a friend in the game has no incentive to overstate or exaggerate what life is actually like within clubhouse walls.

“It’s like anything else — if you’re going to work somewhere and you talk to somebody that works in that office, and you know them somehow, that's going to be a potential help as far as you making your decision,” Sheehan said. “And I think it's a well-received thing because, hey, there’s nothing to hide. This is what you’re signing up for. If you like these conversations, it's good. If you don't, it's probably not going to be a great fit.”

It’s also worth noting the Blue Jays have invested more time and resources into Pacific Rim scouting in recent years, anticipating future opportunities to add international talent like the ones this off-season presents. That led to Shun Yamaguchi’s signing last winter through the posting system, as well as the addition of Rafael Dolis, who had been closing games for NPB’s Hanshin Tigers.

Yamaguchi’s first season with the Blue Jays left something to be desired, as he struggled to adjust to his new environment and ultimately pitched to an 8.06 ERA in 25.2 mostly low-leverage relief innings. But at a price of only $6.35 million over two years, it’s not like the Blue Jays tied up significant resources in him.

Sugano, who’s pitched to a 2.20 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 since 2015, would require a more significant commitment and is likely to attract a larger market than Yamaguchi did last winter. The Blue Jays have interest there, too, thanks to Sugano’s exceptional command, how well he holds his fastball velocity throughout his outings, and the strong spin rates he possesses.

But ultimately, it’ll come down to value. The Blue Jays have one in mind before they engage any free agent, domestic or international. And they know the price at which they’ll walk away from a negotiation. The only difference with posted players is that there’s a built-in deadline, which is good news for fans eager to see MLB’s stagnant off-season get moving. Kim’s is coming at the end of the month; Sugano’s in early January. Which means it won’t be long until we find out where those values fell — and whether the Blue Jays clubhouse is about to become even more diverse.

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