A few Mariners fans may remember when a shortstop named Alex Rodriguez made free agency as a 25-year-old. A-Rod’s record-breaking contract was the result of his incredible talent, yes, but also the rarity at which players are able to choose their employer before age 30. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper notably smashed some team and league records with their contracts thanks to elite skills and numbers, but just as importantly that they were just 26 on their signing days. Players just don’t tend to reach free agency in their mid-20s unless they’re not good enough for their club to want them, or so good that their team isn’t willing to pay them what they want to stick around. Yet this year, there’s a player who just turned 25 in October, has the track record and tools to be an excellent MLB player, and yet will be available to any team willing to pony up some cash. His name is Ha-seong Kim, and he’s an infielder for the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization.
Barring a surprise posting from Japan’s Yakult Swallows of star infielder Tetsuto Yamada, Ha-seong Kim will be MLB’s most coveted international free agent this winter. His youth makes him a more enticing target than Nippon Professional Baseball’s longtime star RHP Tomoyuki Sugano, who will be posted at age 31 from the Yomiuri Giants. The KBO historically has been a hitter-friendly league, and while there have been efforts to de-juice the baseball, they may or may not have stuck. Kim has hit like a star over the past two years in KBO regardless of the ball’s virility, spending most of his career as a shortstop, but splitting a growing amount of time at 3B over the past couple seasons.
Kim’s numbers are that of a plus-hitting infielder, predominantly playing the infield’s premier spot, with the reputation of an arm strong enough to handle third base as well. He’s smooth with his hands and has solid foot speed to use on both the base paths and the field, despite concerns about his 5’7, 167 frame. His glovework and profile across the board, including his build, reminds me of Jean Segura, with his deliberate but smooth motions and powerful arm.
At the plate, though he has a low strikeout rate like many KBO players, his swing is far from Seguran. Like many South Korean players, he has a floating leg kick, but gets explosive power and torque from a strong lower half and emphatic rotation. He’s shortened the leg kick slightly, which likely encourages big league evaluators on his ability to time up hotter fastballs, but at a minimum his ambush/pull side power is not to be underestimated. It’s enough to draw a 50 FV grade from FanGraphs, including a 70 tag on his arm strength, 60 speed, and at least big league average (50) raw power.
Over at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski recently used his ZiPS program to attempt to translate and project Kim’s production in the KBO, where the average fastball is 88.6 mph compared to MLB’s 93.7 mph in 2020. Szymborski’s projections were fairly glowing, seeing Kim as a 3-4 win player each of the next five years, albeit couching those estimates on the assumption that Kim is an average-or-near-average defensive shortstop. From Szymborski:
“Those are the projections of a player who ought to be highly sought after, even in an offseason full of uncertainty due to COVID-19 and the relating economic downturn. Normally, a player like this would get north of $100 million, though it remains to be seen just how teams will view him this winter given the possibility for additional perceived risk for a player from a different league. If Kim comes to the majors and doesn’t get a guaranteed contract worth $50 million, some team likely got a helluva deal from their point-of-view. Pretty much every team that’s near contention and without a good shortstop already should strongly consider Kim this offseason.”
This leaves the Mariners with a couple barriers to adding a 25 year old potential impact infielder to their roster, the likes of which their farm is lacking above rookie ball. What will it cost to bring Kim to Seattle? And once he’s here, where would they play him?
The first question is a bit murky. As Szymborski notes, if clubs project Kim from the KBO, seen roughly-but-not-exactly as a league equivalent to between AA and AAA, to be a similar talent as ZiPS, he may incur a bidding war. The new MLB posting rules mean his fee won’t be a barrier for any team, though it will be a few extra million on top of his contract. Projections on Kim’s contract vary widely, but none seem to be prohibitive.
Craig Edwards at FanGraphs projected a contract of 5 years/$60 million for Kim, while the FanGraphs audience suggested a 4/$44-46 million deal. MLB Trade Rumors was in a similar range, suggesting 5/$40 million, all of which would come with around a $7-10 million posting fee. Kiley McDaniel of ESPN is a bit more skeptical, expecting teams will push for a sixth year to keep Kim under contract through all his pre-free agent years and deny him a shot at arbitration in his final season, but suggests 5/$20 million as a price point.
McDaniel’s skepticism leans on the subpar track record of position players transitioning from the KBO to the states. Despite several pitchers transitioning to excellent careers, South Korean league stars like Byung-ho Park, Hyun-soo Kim, and Jae-gyun Hwang have not found lasting success in MLB coming straight from KBO. Jung-ho Kang of the Pirates is the most notable initial success, though off-field misconduct thoroughly derailed his career and life. Kang was projected as a 1.5 fWAR player by ZiPS in his initial (age 28) MLB season, making Ha-seong Kim’s 3.8 fWAR augury all the more eye-popping. Moreover, Kim is far younger than any of his predecessors, and coming to the Mariners would offer him the chance to both hit the ground running and receive the room to struggle and adjust he might find necessary.
For Seattle, Kim fits a mold they’ve shown they adore: power-hitting athletes with multi-positional capabilities all the way from the top of the defensive spectrum (SS) down. Taylor Motter flipped so that Dylan Moore could fly, and perhaps both have laid the foundation for an increased Dodgers-ification of Seattle’s roster. The reigning World Series champs have been famous for the versatility of their roster, using their immense depth of players capable of handling each infield and outfield spot to make life incredibly difficult on opposing pitchers, while simultaneously keeping their roster fresh over the course of a full season. Considering the near-nonexistent long-term commitments of the M’s roster, a 5-6 year deal to a potential young star who may fall short and only be a versatile utility with some pop is hardly backbreaking. The biggest trick isn’t the money, where the M’s could either go straight up in the 4-6 year range or do something tricky like they did with Yusei Kikuchi’s multi-layered option contract. The challenge is finding playing time, and an acquisition of Kim likely means the departure of Kyle Seager.
While Kim has primarily been a shortstop and could easily handle 2B, he’d be most useful with his arm and hands at the hot corner alongside J.P. Crawford. The M’s could jump ship on Crawford, but it seems equal parts unlikely and anathema to what would benefit the M’s stated long-term goals: figure out what they have in their young players, so they know where they need to augment most. Despite much grousing about Seager’s “poison pill”, the increasing number of clubs emerging from contending dormancy has created a number of new possible homes for the M’s stalwart 3B. While the details of such a deal will be explored in an article soon, for the sake of pursuing Kim, I’ll simply say that his departure is unfortunately probably a required contingency in any deal. The M’s already have Ty France, Shed Long Jr., and of course Moore himself to shoehorn into 2B reps, and there will only be so much time to spread throughout DH and LF before the club hopefully calls up one or two prospects of note.
Kim’s age, potential, and track record would make him a fabulous fit with the Mariners’ current and upcoming core, but after a couple years living things low-risk as an intentional cellar-dweller, this would be the type of risk-reward a burgeoning contender would make. The M’s say they believe they can compete for a playoff spot in 2021. Here’s one way to make that jump without losing a draft pick and possibly adding a keystone for years to come.