By Troy Stangarone and Christopher Hurst
Last season, a record setting five South Koreans made their professional debuts in Major League Baseball (MLB). They joined established stars such as Choi Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not all of last year’s rookie class transitioned to the majors as well as Choi and Ryu did, but Oh Seung-hwan, “The Final Boss,” ended the season strong as the St. Louis Cardinal’s closer.
As teams continue to look overseas for talent they have also looked to South Korea for prospects, signing players before they enter the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). The following is a look at the three South Koreans signed by the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, as well as established KBO star Hwang Jae-gyun who signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants but has a good chance of making the team out of spring training.
Park Hyo Jun
SS, New York Yankees
Park Hyo Jun is one of the younger Korean player in the minor leagues and has never actually played professionally in Korea. Signed by the New York Yankees for $1.2 million at the age of 18, he made his professional debut with the rookie development league Pulaski Yankees in 2015. He did well enough in Pulaski to be promoted to Class A ball with the Charleston River Dogs in 2016. Known as an athletic shortstop with a strong arm, Park has also spent some time at second base because of the surplus of shortstop prospects in the Yankee system. During the 2016 season he batted .225 with an on .336 OBP. One reason for his low batting average are the 120 strikeout he accumulated at the plate. However, when Park gets on base, pitchers need to pay attention as he stole 32 bases out of 35 attempts last year. Coaches this year are focusing on him using more of his lower body on defense and becoming more patient at the plate. Currently he is expected return back to Charleston at the end of spring training, though there are plenty of trade rumors with the Yankees glut of strong shortstops in the minor leagues.
3B, San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants signed the 10 year KBO veteran Hwang Jae-gyun to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training this past winter. As part of his preparation for the MLB last year, Hwang had to learn how to control one of the most exciting parts of his game; his ability to flip a bat. Hwang become a minor YouTube celebrity in the summer of 2015 with this epic flip. Knowing that he wanted to play in the majors Hwang stopped the bat flips and brought the focus back to his power last year. He hit 26 homeruns while batting .330 for the Lotte Giants. This spring he is batting .313 with 2 homeruns in 16 Catcus League at bats. Hwang will have to continue to show the same power that made him feared in the KBO if he wants to make the Giants roster. He is currently seen as potential pinch hitter/backup utility infielder. If Hwang doesn’t make it on the 25 man roster with the S.F. Giants, he has said he will consider joining their minor league club. However, a bigger paycheck in the Japanese Nippon league might call him away from his MLB dream.
OF/1B, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs signed Kwan Kwang-min out of Jangchung High School in Seoul as part of their 2015 July 2 international free agent class for $1.2 million. The 19 year old Kwan is the most recent Cubs signee from Korea, a market where they have been relatively active. The left handed Kwan is an athletic outfielder with speed, raw power, and a good work ethic, but at 6’2’’ and 210 lbs he may be destined for first base. If that is the case, it will increase the pressure on his bat. While Kwan has a good feel for the strike zone, he has had difficulty making contact so far in his career. In 2016, he only played nine games for the Cubs Arizona league team and struck out in just shy of 30 percent of his at bats. Though this is an admittedly small sample size, the Cubs are working with Kwan on cutting down on his swing to help him get to that power more often. Look for Kwan to stay in extended spring training to continue to work on his swing and get additional playing time in the Arizona league later this summer.
P, Chicago Cubs
If Kwan Kwang-min is the Chicago Cubs power hitting prospect, the 21 year old Son Ho-young is their hard throwing Korean pitching prospect. Previously a promising shortstop, Son was signed as a speedy, defensively oriented prospect. After two seasons on the Cubs Arizona league team in and the rookie league team in Eugene, OR, his inability to hit resulted in his conversion to a pitcher to take advantage of his strong arm. It is still early in Son’s conversion to pitcher. He only pitched 3.1 innings for the Cubs Arizona league team last season, striking out three, but also giving up three runs. With Son already being 21, if he takes to pitching in the Arizona league this year, look for the Cubs to push him to their rookie league team in Eugene and perhaps further to accelerate his development.
Last season, Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins and Choi Ji-man of the Los Angeles Angels won jobs out of spring training. Both struggled during their rookie seasons in the majors and are fighting for jobs this spring, and Choi is now with the New York Yankees. We’ll preview them in our upcoming look at South Koreans in the major leagues.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Christopher Hurst was previously an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
Photo from Dave R’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.