Eight of this year’s class of 19 KBO free agents have signed with their old teams. Seven of these players received new four-year contracts and the last one received a three-year deal.
The biggest contracts went to SK Wyverns 3Bman Choi Jeong, who got 8.6 billion won ($7.73 million at current exchange rates) and Samsung Lions pitcher Yoon Sung-hwan, who received 8 billion won ($7.19 million). Both of these deals broke the record set last off-season when catcher Kang-min Ho signed for four years and 7.5 billion won (valued at the time at about $7 million).
Choi is one of the KBO’s biggest stars, and a year ago he was talking about playing in MLB in 2015. However, he got off to a terrible start this year and was briefly sent down to KBO’s minor league. He ultimately hit .305 with a .903 OPS in 361 plate appearances, which is still pretty good even if offensive numbers were insane in the KBO last season. Apparently, his down year made him re-think going elsewhere.
At nearly $2 million a year for four seasons, it’s highly unlikely Choi could have gotten a better offer from an NPB team or an MLB team. The same certainly goes for Yoon, who is a fine KBO pitcher (career 82-55 record) but hasn’t been on anyone’s radar as a pitcher with the talent to move on to NPB or MLB.
The amount of these free agent deals again make me wonder what the top foreign veterans like Dustin Nippert and Andy Van Hekken are making. They typically receive only one-year deals, but their out-sized performance would suggest contracts, if not as much per year as the more experienced KBO free agents, of well over $1 million.
For what it’s worth, KBO’s English and Korean language websites list 2014 salaries for Nippert and Van Hekken of $387,000 and $350,000, which just don’t sound the least bit credible in light of multiple reports the last two off-seasons that foreign KBO newbies were getting as much as $900,000. If these numbers are in any way accurate, I assume it means that these figures don’t include “bonuses,” which I again assume are up-front guarantees, while the amounts listed on KBO’s website are “salaries” which are discontinued if the player is cut before the season ends. “Bonuses” of anywhere from $300K to $800K or even $1M for these two stars would probably be accurate.
The major argument against foreign stars making over $1 million a year is the fact that pay closely tracks the number of seasons of league experience, as it does in NPB, and the fact that foreign KBO stars don’t necessarily have a lot of options. They can return to the MLB minor leagues for somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000, or they can see if an NPB team will sign them, which is certainly not guaranteed. However, I would tend to think both Nippert and Van Hekken could draw interest from NPB teams this off-season if they announced their availability.