Yamaico Navarro, a player who played oh-so briefly for four major league teams through 2013, just re-signed with the Samsung Lions of South Korea’s KBO. No big deal, really — Navarro had a terrific rookie season in the KBO in 2014 at age 26, so he was virtually certain to return for at least one more year at a substantial raise over 2014.
The Samsung Lions reported re-signing him for $850,000. However, ESPN reports that Navarro actually got $950,000 plus another $400,000 in performance bonuses. What’s the difference, you’re probably saying to yourself. However, It’s apparently a big difference in South Korea, based on the media reports.
The back-story is that until last year, the KBO had an official cap of $300,000 per year for foreign players which everyone who follows the KBO knew most of the teams weren’t obeying.
The KBO did away with the cap this year, but their are still rumors that KBO teams are under-reporting what they are paying their foreign stars. It’s a little hard to understand why anyone cares, but I suspect it has something to do with east Asian concepts of fair player, which perhaps value fairness among teams more than fairness to individual players.
As with every other top professional league in existence, the KBO has its rich teams and its poor teams. The Samsung Lions have won the last four championships and led the league in wins each of those regular seasons. They are clearly one of the wealthier teams in the KBO, probably due to subsidies from the Samsung Corporation.
The idea behind the salary cap is that by limiting the salaries of foreign players and restricting them to one-year contracts, the KBO would have more competitive balance. Of course, the rich teams simply under-reported the salaries they were paying to foreign players.
The removal of the salary cap for foreign players was supposed to do away with all the past nonsense, but it seems that teams are still under-reporting salaries, most likely not to create a backlash among KBO fandom and the less wealthy team owners.
To an American, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Teams want to get the best talent they can to help them win and put a product on the field that fans want to see.
KBO is growing fast, adding a second expansion team in 2015, bringing the league up to ten teams from eight in 2012, and they will be playing a 144 game schedule, up from 128 the last two seasons and 133 before that. Attendance was up in 2014 from 2013 at about 12,000 fans per game, but did not reach its high set in 2012. While the KBO attendance is still affected by South Korea’s play in international competition, all signs indicate that it is a growth industry that is working hard to put a high-level product on the field and build up its fan base.
Whatever money Yamaico Navarro actually got, it’s entirely reasonable given the 2014 season he had, his age, and what even fairly pedestrian KBO free agents are now getting. The best foreign players deserve to get paid more, because of their out-size contributions to their teams, and the fact that only one bad season is likely to get them dumped in favor of someone new.
What a lot of this comes down to, I think, is that the KBO has done an excellent job of holding down salaries for most players. As a result, salaries for potential difference-makers, whether in the form of KBO free agents or foreign players, are increasing rapidly as team revenues or the advertizing value to the league’s corporate owners that come with successful teams is increasing.