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Wave of KBO talent stalls

If a team like the White Sox hasn’t dabbled in South Korea yet, other teams aren’t making them jealous

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

On Monday, we discussed what Shohei Ohtani sought to learn from presentations by MLB teams. To sum up, even if the White Sox could theoretically be players with just $300,000 to spend, they’d have a hard time distinguishing themselves because they haven’t had much experience integrating Japanese players into their system.

The Sox have largely stayed away from assessing talent from Asia, which probably hurts them when it comes to a unique case like a megastar from Nippon Professional Baseball or the Korean Baseball Organization looking for a home in Major League Baseball.

But as the Twins and other teams have learned, the White Sox aren’t missing much by directing their attention elsewhere.

Multiple reports say that ByungHo Park intends to return to the KBO despite $6.5 million left on the final two years of his deal with Minnesota. He’s reportedly already reached an agreement with the Nexen Heroes, but it’ll take some time to untangle from the financial commitment in the United States.

A negative development for the Twins is a positive development for the Sox, but it’s ultimately a shame that Park didn’t work out. The two-time KBO MVP hit 105 homers over his last two seasons in South Korea, but he hit just .191/.275/.409 over 62 games in 2016, and he was dropped off the Twins’ 40-man roster last season (Daniel Palka, now with the White Sox, was one of the corner types ahead of him).

The power was evident whether judging by ISO or the eye test ...

... and FanGraphs concocted a case for a Park rebound, but he didn’t get a second chance with Minnesota, no team claimed him when the Twins put him through waivers, and he didn’t earn a second look with his performance at Triple-A Rochester this past season. (Tommy Pham ended up being the success story from that list.)

Assuming the deal goes through — the St. Paul Pioneer Press says “it will be a while before it is all worked out” — none of the recent KBO transfers look especially likely to start 2018 in the majors.

Here’s the list of position players who have cracked the majors:

KBO position players

Jung Ho Kang 2015 229 837 202 43 2 36 120 8 5 64 178 .273 .355 .483 .838 6.4
Hyun Soo Kim 2016 191 585 141 24 2 7 36 1 3 58 97 .273 .351 .368 .719 -0.7
Dae-ho Lee 2016 104 317 74 9 0 14 49 0 0 20 74 .253 .312 .428 .740 0.4
ByungHo Park 2016 62 244 41 9 1 12 24 1 0 21 80 .191 .275 .409 .684 0.1
Jae-gyun Hwang 2017 18 57 8 1 0 1 5 0 0 5 15 .154 .228 .231 .459 -0.1

Kang and Kim were the guys were the guys who made such dreaming possible. The former needed only an April adjustment period before turning into an above-average infielder, both before and after Chris Coghlan broke his leg with a dirty slide. Kim’s skill set was more limited, but the Orioles signed him counting on a pest from the left side, and he contributed a .380 OBP in his rookie season. They, along with Cardinals reliever Seung-hwan Oh, comprised a first wave of potential bargains.

But Kang didn’t play in 2017 because his third DUI in South Korea prevented him from getting a work visa. The Pirates aren’t counting on him being available in 2018. Kim did play in 2017, but his limited skill set became exposed when he hit .231/.307/.292 for Baltimore and Philadelphia, and now he’s a free agent.

If and when Park’s deal goes through, the other three KBO transplants will have returned from whence they came.

The Mariners signed Lee to a minor-league deal in 2016 in a search for power. His numbers were similar to Park’s, which is a tough way for a right-handed first baseman to make a living. He returned to South Korea after one season to make considerably more money.

The Giants took a shot on Hwang improving their situation at third base, but they didn’t call him up until they had to, and their reluctance was validated over his subsequent performance. He’s now back in the KBO.

This is a theoretical opportunity for the White Sox, because the collective lack of success should keep the barrier to entry relatively low, and a team with an open roster can devote plenty of playing time to such projects. If they’re going to lose a lot, they may as well lose in an enlightening way and all that. But the White Sox weren’t moved before, and when proven talent like Park hits a wall, it doesn’t inspire a team to pony up a 10-figure posting fee to sign away players who are in or adjacent to their physical primes.