Top Pitching Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO 2016/2017
The KBO is currently an extreme hitters’ league, which makes it difficult to evaluate pitchers with potential major league talent. Nevertheless, these are the current KBO pitchers who impressed me in 2016 insofar as pitching in MLB in the future.
Michael Bowden (age 30 in 2017). A former MLBer, Bowden had a fine first season in the KBO, going 18-7 with a 3.80 ERA (6th best — it’s a hitters’ league) and leading the KBO with 160 strikeouts in 180 innings pitched.
He’d probably be better off getting paid major league money pitching in the KBO until he has a season so impressive no one can ignore it. However, given his relatively young age and strong 2016 performance, he’s the most likely foreign KBOer to return to the MLB system and have some success in 2017.
Kwang-hyun Kim (28) and Hyun-jong Yang (29). The two best veteran Korean starters in KBO, both were posted last off-season but neither made it to MLB. Kim’s team, the SK Wyverns, accepted a $2 million posting bid, but Kim was unable to reach a deal with the Padres. Yang’s team, the Kia Tigers, rejected a posting bid reported to be $1.5 million.
Both Kim and Yang should be true free agents this off-season, and without the need for posting fees, either could end up in MLB. Kim pitched well in 2016, but was limited to 137 innings pitched (3.88 ERA and 116 Ks), after missing most of July and the first half of August to an injury of some kind. Yang pitched just over 200 innings with a 3.68 ERA (tied for fourth best) and 146 strikeouts (5th best — strikeout rates were low in the KBO for starters in 2016).
Both Kim and Yang are lefties, which might give them added value to MLB teams, since they would probably be relievers in MLB.
Woo-ram Jung (32). After the success of Seung-hwan Oh in MLB, I expect MLB teams to be looking for the next South Korean reliever to sign. Woo-ram Jung is probably the best one remaining, with 620 strikeouts in 649.1 career KBO innings pitched and a career 2.91 ERA. However, he signed a four-year 8.4 billion won (a little over $7.5 million) last off-season with the Hanwha Eagles, presumably meaning he won’t be coming to MLB anytime soon and maybe never, given that he will be 35 the season after his current contract ends.
Chang-min Shim (24). A young pitcher who already has nearly five years of KBO experience and a live arm (303 Ks in 268 career KBO innings pitched), it appears likely that Shim has not yet performed his two years of mandatory military service. Thus, it may be some time before he gets posted or becomes a free agent.
Jae-haek Lee (26). A pitcher I’ve been following since he had a big rookie year in 2013, some mid-season injuries limited Lee to 127.2 IP in 2016, but he struck out 134 batters, giving him the highest strikeout rate for any KBO pitcher who threw at least 100 innings. His career 3.95 ERA isn’t impressive on its face. However, all but his rookie season have been played since offense exploded in the KBO.
Lee has the disadvantage of being a small right-hander, listed at 5’11” and 176 lbs. He may remind MLB teams too much of Suk-min Yoon, who famously flopped after being signed by the Orioles in 2014. In fact, Lee is smaller than Yoon.
Kim has struck out 143 batters in 99 IP over the last two seasons, but those are his only two in KBO’s major league, so he may be too old by the time his team is willing to post him.
Kang-min Koo (20) and Se-woong Park (21). Two even younger pitchers with live arms. Koo as a 19 year old rookie struck out 67 batters in 68.2 IP and recorded a 4.19 ERA, which is great for a 19 KBO rookie in 2016.
Park struck out 133 batters in 139 innings pitched in his second year in the KBO. Unfortunately, he has had a 5.76 ERA each of the last two seasons, which means he’s still got a lot to learn to become an effective starter.
Both Koo and Park are such a long way from pitching in MLB that it’s mostly wishful thinking on my part even to mention them.