Top Hitting Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO 2016/2017
With the 2016 KBO regular season in the books, here is my evaluation of the top hitter/position player prospects in the KBO with respect to possibly playing in MLB in the future.
Eric Thames (30 years old in 2017). For the third year in a row, he had one of the top three OPS composites in the KBO. He finished second at 1.106.
Thames led the KBO in OPS for most of the year before slumping in September. His regular season also ended eight games early due to a suspension for driving under the influence. He reportedly tested at 0.056, which is legal in California but not in South Korea.
Thames is finishing the second of a two-year contract worth a reported $3 million, and with the suspension, I think it’s just one more reason for him to move on a better league for more money.
The question is whether Thames returns to MLB, where he has a career .727 OPS in 684 career MLB plate appearances, or goes to Japan’s NPB. The Hanshin Tigers have been reported to be interested in Thames, whom I would expect to receive a tw0-year deal for a guaranteed $5 million plus performance incentives were he to sign with Hanshin. He’d probably make at most $4 million on a two-year deal to remain with his current team, the NC Dinos, although that may be more than the NC Dinos are willing to pay in light of their revenue streams and the bad press from the DUI.
At $5 million over two years, I think Thames would be a good risk for an MLB team that needs another left-handed hitting outfielder.
Koo Ja-Wook (24). He was the top hitting youngster in the KBO in 2016, and he has what you look for in young hitters: high batting average (.346 over his first two full KBO seasons) and alley power (95 extra base hits over the last two seasons). He has some growing to do: he’s currently listed as 6’2″ but only 165 lbs; but that doesn’t seem like a tall order for a player his age.
He’s listed as a 1Bman, which means he’ll have to make MLB as a hitter. Also, I have no idea whether Koo has performed his two years of mandatory military service in South Korea, which is a major factor in any KBOer’s career. My guess is that he has, given his performance level since coming up as a 22 rookie last year.
Choi Jeong (30). A few years ago, Jeong was a player who was thought more likely to be the KBO position player to break through to MLB than was Jung-ho Kang. However, Jeong got off to a slow start in 2014, and his team, the SK Wyverns, inexplicably sent him down to KBO’s Futures (minor) League, although an injury might have been involved. He then appears to have gotten hurt in 2015 and missed about 60 games that year also.
In 2016, Jeong batted only .288, but he tied for the league lead in home runs with Eric Thames at 40. His third base defense is reportedly good. However, Jeong signed a then record four-year 8.6 billion won (roughly $7.75 million) contract with the SK Wyverns after the 2014 season, which probably means he will remain in the KBO for at least two more seasons.
Na Sung-bum (27). Na Sung-bum’s .887 OPS was only 25th best in the KBO in 2016, but it was his lowest OPS since his rookie year in 2013. If he bounces back in 2017 and 2018, he’ll definitely be a prospect.
Son Ah-seop (29). Son Ah-Seop’s star has definitely faded over the last two seasons, but he’s still relatively young, he’s a very good base runner (he stole 42 bases in 46 attempts in 2016) and he gets on base (his .419 on-base percentage was the league’s ninth best in 2016). I still think he could potentially be a Nori Aoki type player in MLB.
Choi Hyung-woo (33) and Park Suk-Min (32). A couple of fine KBO hitters, both are probably too old now to have any real future in MLB. Choi led the KBO with a 1.121 OPS this year and has probably been an MLB-caliber hitter since 2011. Park isn’t quite as good a hitter as Choi, but he’s a year younger.