The Baltimore Orioles, in a manner some may find unbecoming, have handled their offseason business strangely. And yet, it wouldn’t be like the O’s if it wasn’t. They’re kind of weird.
Matt Wieters accepting his $15.8 million qualifying offer, albeit unsurprising, was somewhat of a subtle bombshell that began to crater the Orioles winter plans. Re-signing Darren O’Day and Chris Davis could be described as expected, more so given the organization’s immediate desire to contend. Yovani Gallardo‘s declining strikeout rate and propensity for failing to go deep into ballgames made for a reasonable three-year deal, though his acquisition can’t be labeled groundbreaking. Despite the Orioles need for contact in the lineup, the front office saw an opportunity to bring in the slugging Mark Trumbo, a player whose contact-to-damage ratio makes him a destined Baltimoron. More power? Why not? In comes Pedro Alvarez, a poor man’s clone of Davis who helps to debunk the myth the O’s are too heavily right-handed.
Still, as extensively as the Orioles made official headlines, there was as much artificial noise. Constant “interest” in Scott Kazmir, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes blurred the definition of the parenthesized. Throw in the fact that Dexter Fowler spent as much time in Baltimore as John Elway, and the panic that ensued somewhat epitomizes the hysteria of an uncharacteristic Orioles offseason.
And we haven’t even mentioned Hyun Soo Kim.
Bargain shopping on two-year, $7 million deal, the Orioles appeared ready to airdrop Kim from Korean stardom to American obscurity, but for good reason. A career .318/.406/.488 hitter over a decade in the Korean Baseball Organization, Kim’s profile as an on-base, do-it-all type hitter was meant to stitch a few holes in the O’s lineup. However, the relationship between Kim and the Orioles is in desperate need of resewing.
Reports of Baltimore’s front office’s intentions to demote Kim to Triple-A have grown from whispers to loud noises only Brick Tambland would appreciate. The first break coming from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 27, 2016
The obvious finger points to Kim’s March struggles at the plate, where he’s hit a disappointing .182/.229/.182, including a 23 at-bat hitless streak to kick off his Orioles tenure. All eight of his hits have been singles, and he has seemingly lacked any sort of punch the Orioles had hoped to see. Kim’s contract stipulates that his consent is needed in order to officially accept a demotion to Triple-A, as the back and forth between Kim and his new team continues to delve into further ugliness.
It’s believed Kim still wants to stay in the US and prove himself, but obviously things could change. Situation remains up in the air.
— Brittany Ghiroli (@Britt_Ghiroli) April 1, 2016
The unintended consequences of Kim’s struggles and Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard‘s staggering spring has backed the Orioles in a corner. As ugly a situation as it currently is and may further become, it’s hard to place blame on either party.
In order to understand Kim’s refusal to budge, one must first understand his circumstances.
A decorated 10-year career in Korea paved a fork in his road. Either stay in Korea where he is a national hero with his own tributing theme song, or take a chance into the unknown. And in that unknown, become something even more polarizing for a country whose adoration extends to levels of unique perpetuity. Kim’s track record and entrance into his prime years afforded him the opportunity to play against the best in the world. Such a leap of faith should not be taken lightly, as the scope of a life-changing move as bold as this boils down to more than just baseball.
When talking to the Baltimore Sun, former major leaguer and Korean native Hee-Seop Choi told Jon Meoli how important it is for Korean players to prove their worth in the United States.
“They want to show how Korean players is good enough for you guys. They want to show out. If I do make a mistake, it’s not just me. It’s all the Korean players.”
So, when you step into the same clubhouse as Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Manny Machado, there is likely going to be a revved up desire to belong. Kim wants to prove he’s no slouch, but by doing so, his game has been unable to translate. Swinging at pitches out of the zone and failing to find the gaps are new consistencies that don’t match Kim’s scouting report. To make matters worse, he’s being overpowered by the big league fastball. In 2015, a major league fastball averaged just over 92 mph in comparison to the KBO’s slightly slower offering. Right now, Kim is living and dying by the hands of the BABIP gods, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to grow, especially at Norfolk.
There is ample evidence to believe Kim can adapt to the punishing heat of the major league fastball in Triple-A, but for someone as established as himself, naturally he wants to figure it out with the Orioles, not the Tides. And he has every reason to do so.
Upon signing a $7 million deal in December, Kim made the jump to the United States under the impression that he was going to start in left field for the O’s. He was given the worldly introduction to Camden Yards, the media, and to the fans of Baltimore. He was presented in such a way that fit his encompassing cult status. By most pundits, Kim may as well have been Sharpie’d into Buck Showalter‘s opening day lineup. For someone with such an accomplished history and preconceived notions, it’s hard to craft an argument he doesn’t deserve a chance to come along at the major league level. As Choi said, Kim wants, has earned, and believes in his talent to show out for a country that yearns to see their own splash at the highest level.
The Orioles however, can’t afford a black hole in the lineup.
For the first time in a long time, the O’s have unloaded dump trucks of cash into building the highest opening day payroll in the history of the club ($148 million). Any sensible Orioles fan can understand that despite their favorite team leading the American League in wins since 2012, the opportunity to realistically contend for October baseball will reach a tipping point sooner rather than later. Machado is set to hit the open market after the 2018 season, and contract discussions have stalled. Davis will continue to rake at the cleanup spot in the immediate future, but swing-and-miss lefty sluggers aren’t made to hold up into their mid-30’s. Wieters is building up a hive of injury bugs and J.J. Hardy, though dependable, is showing his age.
The core of Baltimore’s resurgence can’t be relied on to remain intact for much longer, and for a team that spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars this winter, winning now takes top priority.
As well, a pitching staff comprised of Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Mike Wright, FIPs shouldn’t be expected to be defied, as 2015 showed. The offense will win or lose most ballgames in Baltimore, and as Showalter has reiterated, Rule-5er Joey Rickard’s bat-to-ball approach and plus outfield defense are better suited for the Orioles today.
In another sense, the O’s would be smart to protect their investment. Kim appears lost, and the idea of him starting the year in Triple-A would provide him a chance to find what’s missing. If and when his adjustments come full circle, we may see the player the Orioles intended to play every day. When Duquette says that the Orioles are not feeling buyer’s remorse in regards to Kim, there doesn’t seem to be a feeling of dishonesty.
Such a situation has all the looks of a debacle to get worse before it gets better, but whichever camp you find yourself nesting, you aren’t wrong. Both sides are well justified in their stance. Whether or not Kim is still a member of the Orioles’ organization come Sunday afternoon, the inner workings of the chaos can be understood.
Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating.