Pending results of a physical, the Baltimore Orioles have agreed to a two-year deal for $7 million with Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim. In 10 seasons playing for the Doosan Bears of the KBO, Kim has hit .318/.406/.488 with 142 home runs and 771 RBIs in 1,131 games. His professional baseball career began at the age of 18, and as a pro, Kim has only one full season with an average below .300. The 27-year-old lefty has recorded 96 more walks than strikeouts in his 4,768 plate appearances in Korea.
On the surface, Kim’s numbers are extremely good, and he was a star in Korea. Let’s pump the brakes a little on labeling him a future Major League Baseball star. The KBO is very different from the MLB. Eric Thames, who owns a career .250 batting average in 181 games with the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners is coming off a year in which he hit .381/.497/.790 with 47 home runs and 140 RBIs in 142 games. Thames had more extra-base hits than singles this season and also stole 40 bases. After a replacement-level MLB career, Thames morphed into a freakish combination of speedy Pittsburgh Barry Bonds and post-flaxseed San Francisco Barry Bonds in Korea.
It is very difficult to project the power numbers Kim will put up with the Orioles. The home stadium the Doosan Bears play in is significantly larger gap-to-gap than Camden Yards. Kim may hit fewer home runs as he adjusts to MLB pitching, but his new home park and division could allow for plenty of doubles. Jung Ho Kang, the most recent Korean import, hit 40 home runs and batted .356 in his final season with the Nexen Heroes. The shortstop homered roughly every 10.5 at-bats in his final KBO season. As a rookie with the Pirates last year, Kang hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 home runs in 421 at-bats. His power numbers were essentially halved by coming to MLB. Compared to his overall KBO batting line, not his epic final season, Kang’s numbers in his debut season were quite similar to his .298/.383/.504 career numbers in Korea.
If Hyun-soo Kim comes anywhere close to replicating his Korean line, the Orioles will have a steal at $3.5 million per year for two years. Kim’s innate ability to take pitches and get a bat on the ball should translate to any league. He walked more often than he struck out in six seasons with the Bears. The fastballs might come with more velocity and the sliders with more bite at the MLB level, but Kim should still bring the ability to hit strikes and avoid swinging at balls. His power numbers should see a more significant drop than his batting average and on-base percentage. Kang’s BA and OBP did not drop by more than ten-percent upon leaving Korea.
While it is hard to predict with any certainty whether Hyun-soo Kim will be a .285 hitter or a .300 hitter with the Orioles, do not expect his on-base percentage to dip too far below .400. The Orioles are desperately lacking players with an ability to reach base by means other than a hit. Kim gives the Orioles a left-handed bat (another pressing need) that will not strike out and will take his fair share of free passes (basically a cheaper, younger version of Nick Markakis). He would appear to be a fit in the two-hole, or even the leadoff slot for Buck Showalter.
If, at worst, Hyun-soo Kim is a .270/.350/.400 hitter for the Baltimore Orioles over the next two years, he will have outplayed the value of his $7 million contract. The Orioles have done a great job identifying and signing international talent for below market value prices. This most recent foray into international free agency could be one of the better moves the front office has made in recent years.