Top Prospects in South Korea’s KBO 2018/2019

There aren’t many obvious prospects for MLB purposes in the KBO this off-season.  We had a flurry of hitters a few years ago who got their shots at MLB, but more of them have returned to the KBO and are too old to be reasonably likely to return to the States.

The best starter in the KBO this year was foreigner Josh Lindblom.  He went 15-4 and his 2.88 ERA led the league.  He also struck out 157 batters (7th best) in 168.2 IP.  I don’t see him as an MLB prospect.  He could move up to NPB, but I expect that he will sign a two-year deal with the Doosan Bears for about $3.5M total now that foreign players can be signed to multi-year contracts.

Kim Kwang-hyun and Yang Hyun-jong continue to be the KBO’s best domestic starters, but their window for moving up to MLB has passed.  Jung Woo-Ram led the KBO in saves again, but he’ll be 34 next season.

Keyvius Sampson had the highest strikeout rate among KBO starters (10.9/9IP) and he was only 27 in 2018, but his command needs work before he can return to MLB.

Ham Duk-joo was a top closer in 2018 and he’ll only be 24 in 2019.  He’s small but he’s a lefty, so it doesn’t matter as much.  Shim Chang-min is young (26 next year) and has been effective, so he’s also a prospect.  Park Sang-won had a terrific bullpen season, but he has less than two years of service time through his age 23 season.

Two KBO youngsters who impressed with high strikeout rates were Choi Chung-yeon (22 in 2019) who posted a 3.60 ERA and 101 Ks in 85 IP and Yoon Sung-bin (20) who struck out 65 in 50.2 IP but recorded an ugly 6.39.  Yoon has no idea where the pitches are going, but he’s extremely young and obviously has good stuff.  I’m not sure how long Choi will last pitching 85 relief innings in a season well before the age of 25.  KBO teams work their top set-up men hard, much harder than their closers.

Among position players/hitters, there isn’t anyone likely to join MLB in the near term, but there are a few good youngsters.

18 year old rookie Kang Baek-ho (19) slashed .290/.357/.524, which is mighty impressive, even in a hitters’ league.  20 year old sophomore Lee Jung-hoo (21) was better than he was as an impressive 2017 rookie, slashing .355/.418/.477 this season.  Lee has no power yet, but he’s young enough to develop some.  Both Kang and Lee are corner outfielders, so they better hit in order to move up to a better league.

SS Kim Ha-seong (23) didn’t hit as well in 2018 (.835 OPS) as he did in 2017, but he’s young and a middle infielder, so he’s still got a chance to be the next Jung-ho Kang.

Catcher Yoo Kang-nam had a good 2018 season, and he’s got about four years of service time going into his age 26 season.

Koo Ja-wook (26) was the only player younger than 28 who finished in the top 30 in OPS in 2018.  His .927 OPS was 19th best.  That was a little better than his 2017 season, but not quite as good as his first two KBO seasons in 2015 and 2016.  Koo has been remarkably consistent in his first four KBO seasons, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, since one would like to see more improvement from a young hitter.




Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, KBO

5 Comments on “Top Prospects in South Korea’s KBO 2018/2019”

  1. Burly Says: reported today that some MLB teams may be looking at Merrill Kelly this off-season. He’ll be 30 in 2019.

    I don’t really see Kelly as a major league pitcher, except maybe out of the bullpen. My expectation is that with KBO teams now allowed to sign foreign pitchers to multi-year deals, Kelly will be in line for a two-year $3 million deal from his current club, the SK Wyverns, this off-season. An MLB team wouldn’t be taking a big risk on a two-year $4M deal.

    • Burly Says:

      Merrill Kelly got a two-year $5.5M deal (with a two additional years of team-friendly options) from the Arizona Diamondbacks in December. That’s better than he’d get in the KBO, so it was a no-brainer for Kelly.

    • Burly Says:

      I was wrong about Kelly as an MLB starter. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough to be a steal for the Diamondbacks.

  2. Burly Says:

    KBO closer Cho Sang-Woo has the biggest fastball in the KBO this year. He has thrown the 10 fastest pitches in the KBO this year, topping out at 97.7 mph. He’s only 24 and already has 4 or 4 seasons of KBO experience.

    We could definitely see Cho in a major league bullpen one day if he can stay healthy and continue to hit 97 mph on the radar gun.

  3. Burly Says:

    I just noticed that just-turned-20 year old Kang Baek-ho is slashing .335/.419/.495 through 113 games this year. He’s currently 5th in batting average, 2nd in OBP and 9th in SLG, which is just incredibly impressive for a player in his age 19 season. It probably isn’t too early to start considering him as a future MLBer.

    The knocks on Kang are that he presumably still has to perform his two years of South Korean military service and that he’s kind of thickly built (6’0″, 215 lbs) which means he may not age well. Still, he’s best hitting talent we’ve seen in the KBO in terms of MLB that we’ve seen since Jung Ho Kang broke through and Byung Ho Park fell on his face.

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