By Troy Stangarone
With opening day less than two weeks away, we continue our look at South Koreans playing baseball professionally in the United States in the major leagues and the minor leagues. Last season saw a significant influx of new talent from Korea into Major League Baseball (MLB). This season, that is unlikely to be the case. Only Hwang Jae-gyun, a non-roster invitee for the San Francisco Giants who we profiled in our minor league preview, is in a position to make a major league roster out of spring training.
After a tough 2016 for Koreans in MLB, players such as Choo Shin-soo and Ryu Hyun-jin will be looking to come back after an injury-marred season, while Park Byung-ho and Choi Ji-man will be looking to put difficult seasons behind them and try to establish themselves as permanent fixtures in the major leagues. The following is a look brief look at each player’s 2016 and prospects for the new season.
OF/DH, Texas Rangers
Perhaps the most well-known of the Korean stars in MLB, Choo suffered through an injury-marred 2016 that saw him spend time on the disabled list due to a fracture in his left arm, a strained calf and hamstring, as well as lower back issues. As a result, Choo only played in 48 games, hitting .248 for the year with 7 home runs and 6 stolen bases. As Choo looks to bounce back, look for the Rangers to play Choo less in the outfield and to get more time at DH. Limiting his exposure to the field will help to keep his bat in the lineup and create playing time for Delino DeShields, Jr. and Jurikson Profar, who are both playing well in the spring. If Choo is able to stay healthy, projections have him hitting in the .260-.270 range and getting back to mid-high teens in home runs.
SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ryu Hyun-jin was stellar in his transition to the majors in 2013 and followed it up with a strong 2014 season in which he won 14 games, struck out over eight batters per nine innings, and had a 3.38 ERA. That season he was worth 3.8 WAR (wins above a replacement level player). Then shoulder troubles hit and he missed all of the 2015 season and only made one start in 2016. Now healthy, Ryu is looking to regain his spot in the Dodgers’ rotation, but is unlikely to start the season in the rotation due to the Dodgers starting pitching depth and a fastball that is only averaging around 87 mph so far this spring. However, if he can maintain his health and get his velocity back up to his pre-injury average of just over 91 mph he should be able to return to form.
3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
Setting aside doubts about the ability of his game to translate in the major leagues, Kang Jung-ho had a strong rookie campaign in 2015 hitting .287 with 15 home runs for a 3.9 WAR season. Much like Choo and Ryu, Kang began 2016 with a knee injury and only played in 103 games, but boosted his power for 21 home runs in his return. Kang has proven he can hit in the majors, but his off-the-field behavior is marring the beginning of his 2017 season. In December, he was arrested for his 3rd DUI in Korea and received an eight month suspended sentence. At the moment, he is still in South Korea waiting for his new work visa to be approved and there is no timetable for his return to the United States. Once he is able to return to the Pirates, Kang is projected to again hit in the .260-.270 range with a home run total in the high teens to low twenties and be for close to 3 WAR. While Kang is an offensive plus for the Pirates his position, the weak contact he makes on balls on the ground could put pressure on his batting average.
OF, Baltimore Orioles
After a rough spring training where the Orioles tried to convince Kim Hyun-soo to go to the minors to work on his swing, Kim put together a productive season hitting .302 with 6 home runs in 92 games. Kim’s strengths from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) seemed to translate to the majors where he had a good walk to strike out ratio, as well as above league average exit velocity on batted balls. That has led to a good on base percentage and could put him in line to hit leadoff for the Orioles this year. One challenge for Kim as he enters his second season in the majors is to try and increase his fly ball rate as he currently hits more ground balls than the league average at the moment. If he can gain more loft he has the potential for 15 home runs.
P, St. Louis Cardinals
In his first season in the majors, “The Final Boss” became just that as he took over closing duties for the St. Louis Cardinals shortly after they removed Trever Rosenthal from the closers role in late June. Much as he had done previously in Korea and Japan, Oh dominated from there on out picking up 19 saves to go along with a 1.92 ERA and 11.6 strike outs per nine innings. Coming into 2017 Oh is firmly entrenched in his role as Cardinal’s closer and should dominate again. Projections coming into the season have him largely maintaining his strikeout to walks ratio, with only a slight regression on his ERA likely into the low-to-mid twos.
1B/DH, Minnesota Twins
After staring in the KBO, Park Byung-ho hoped to become one of MLB’s leading sluggers. However, he struggled with his transition to the United States last season. After hitting only .191 and striking out in nearly 33 percent of his at bats, Park was optioned to the minors where he continued to struggle before his season ended due to an injury he suffered to his right middle finger that required surgery. The injury had bothered him much of the season and may have impacted his performance. Though the power remained as he did hit 12 home runs. However, his struggles last season led to Park being waived off the major league roster during the offseason and have left him fighting for a job this spring. Park is playing better this spring, hitting .361 with 4 home runs, but he is striking out at close to the same rate as last season. If he is going to avoid significant time in the minors this season he’s going to need to keep the strikeouts under control and improve his batting average.
1B/OF, New York Yankees
Similar to Choo Shin-soo, Choi Ji-man has worked his way from the minors to the majors. Choi has always had good swing and plate discipline, but his power has decreased since being suspended for using performance enhancing drugs. He struggled in his first taste of the majors last year hitting .170 with 5 home runs. Now with the New York Yankees, he’ll likely serve as minor league depth with Greg Bird, Chris Carter, and Austin Tyler likely to get the majority of the playing time.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Image created by Juni Kim, Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America, with photos from Keith Allison’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.