Top KBO Pitching Prospects 2014

When the Dodgers signed Korean ace Hyun-Jin Ryu (I’ll use the Western name order throughout), I wrote a post identifying who I thought were the best pitching prospects in South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (“KBO”) after Ryu.  A year has now passed, so it makes sense to update that post, particularly in light of the fact that there’s been ample talk this off-season about the next Korean pitcher to sign with a major league team.

1.  Seung-Hwan Oh (31 years old in 2014). Oh remains the top relief pitcher in KBO by a wide margin.  After nine KBO seasons, he has a career ERA of 1.69, with a pitching line of 510.1 IP, 298 hits, 120 walks and 625 Ks.  It’s hard to find anything not to like about that.  [Note that the links in this post are to KBO’s official website, which is in Korean, but the stats pretty much speak for themselves.]

Oh had a very similar year in 2013 to his 2012 season.  His ERA was a little lower this year, but his strikeout rate was down although still a very respectable 9.4 per nine innings pitched.

Oh turned 31 last July 15th, so he’s not young.  Of course, a lot of Japanese NPB relievers have come over to America over the age of 30 and had a lot of success, so I don’t see any reason why Oh couldn’t.

Reports suggest that Oh, who must be posted by his team, the Samsung Lions, in order to sign with an MLB team, will pitch either in the U.S. or in Japan next year [an NPB team can sign Oh to a contract first, but must then negotiate a sale price with his KBO team].  The New York Yankees and Japan’s Hanshin Tigers are both reportedly interested in Oh.

2.  Suk-Min Yoon (27).  I’ve been a big fan of Yoon since he won the Pitcher’s Triple Crown (wins, ERA and Ks) in the KBO in 2011.  He also led the KBO with a 2.33 ERA in 2008, and he had another strong year in 2012, although not nearly as impressive as his 2011 (3.12 ERA was 8th best in the KBO and his 137 Ks {in 153 IP} was 4th best in 2012).

He’s a true free agent this off-season and is looking to sign with an MLB team, going so far as to hire Scott Boras to represent him in negotiations.  However, he’s dropped to No. 2 on this list, from first last year, because he had shoulder problems that effected his pitching in 2013.

He split the year between starting and relieving, finishing with a 3-6 record and a 4.00 ERA.  He also picked up seven saves, but he didn’t really pitch that much better in relief than he had as a starter earlier in the season (3.60 ERA in relief, 4.15 ERA as a starter).

Yoon’s pitching line was a little better: 87.1 IP, 91 hits and 28 walks allowed and 76 Ks.  However, I don’t see MLB teams risking much on a small right-hander with a lot of pitching mileage coming off a season with shoulder problems.

It seems to me the best offer Oh is likely to get from an MLB team would be something like the contract the Milwaukee Brewers gave Norichica Aoki two years ago (a two-year deal for $3.25 million that has become a three-year $8.6 million deal with Aoki earning all performance bonuses and the Brewers picking up their third year option, and Aoki becoming a free agent again after the expiration of the deal).

Scott Boras said earlier this off-season that Yoon would not give an exhibition of his pitching for interested teams, which seems crazy to me, unless Boras is trying to hide the fact that Yoon isn’t the same pitcher he was as recently as 2012.  If his arm is healthy, he’s definitely worth the risk for an MLB team, at least on an Aoki-type deal.  If his arm is still sore, why not wait another year to see if he gets his act back together in the KBO?

3Jae-Hak Lee (23).  The KBO’s 2013 rookie of the year at age 22, Lee was also the best Korean-born starter in the KBO this year, finishing second in ERA (2.88) and tied for fifth in strike outs (144 in 156 innings pitched).  He’s obviously a pitcher to watch.  The biggest knock on him is that he’s a small right-hander — he’s currently listed as 5’11” and 167 lbs.

4.  Chang-Min Shim (21).  In his sophomore season at age 20, Shin posted a 2.68 ERA with a pitching line of 50.1 IP, 35 hits, three HRs and 19 BBs allowed, and 57 Ks.  He also became one the Samsung Lions’ top set-up men, finishing second on the team with 14 holds.

5.  Yoon-gu Kang (23).  At age 22 Kang nearly duplicated his 2012 season, finishing 2013 with a 4.36 ERA and a pitching line as a starter of 130 IP, 112 hits, six HRs and 75 BBs allowed, and 131 Ks.  He remains extremely wild, but if he can stay healthy, he should be a terrific pitcher when he eventually finds his command.

6.  Sang-San Hong (24).  Hong had another fine year in relief in 2013, posting a 2.50 ERA, recording five saves, nine holds and pitching line of 72 IP, 51 hits, eight HRs and 45 walks allowed, and 77 Ks.  He wasn’t as hard to hit as he was in 2012, apparently because his command wasn’t nearly as good.  Still a work in progress, but also still has plenty of time to harness his stuff.

7.  Woo-ram Jung (30 years old in 2015). One of the younger closers in KBO in 2012 at age 27 (Korean teams apparently prefer veteran closers), Jung posted a 2.20 ERA, saved 30 games (5th best) and posted a pitching line of 49 IP, 33 hits and nine walks allowed, and 55 strike outs.  However, he missed all of 2013 and will miss all or most of the 2014 season to his compulsory two years of military service, a problem for all South Korean male athletes because the service has to be completed between age 18 and 35, usually the prime of a ballplayer’s career.

A commenter has informed me that Jung will become a free agent after the 2015 season.  Presumably, Jung is playing baseball for a South Korean military team, and hopefully he’ll be able to pick up more or less where he left off in 2012 when he returns to the KBO.

8.  Hee-soo Park (30).  After being the KBO’s top set-up man in 2012, Park moved into the closer’s role in 2013 recording 24 saves, fifth most in the KBO, and a 2.27 ERA.  Park wasn’t as dominating this year as he was the year before, but he still struck out 46 batters in 47.2 IP, and his KBO career 2.04 ERA in 216.2 IP remains impressive.

The knock on Park is his age.  He turns 31 next July 13th, and as of the end of the 2013 season he appears to have less than four years of KBO service.  The upshot is that he may well be 35 or older when he finally gets an opportunity to play for pay outside of South Korea.

Five other young pitchers to keep an eye on are Min-ho Lee (20), Chan-Kyu Im (21), Ki-Young Im (21), Dong-seop Shim (22) and Sung-hyun Moon (22).  None of them had an earth-shaking season in 2013, but they are all extremely young and had good strikeout rates.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees

One Comment on “Top KBO Pitching Prospects 2014”

  1. Burly Says:

    Seung-hwan Oh has reportedly signed with NPB’s Hanshin Tigers for two years and a total of 800 million yen ($7.9 million). The deal also includes an additional 50 million per season in performance bonuses. Hanshin also reportedly paid Oh’s KBO team 50 million yen ($490,000) as a transfer fee, which doesn’t seem like much given the contract Oh reportedly signed.

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