Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Mac Williamson Set to Join KBO’s Samsung Lion

July 23, 2019

Former San Francisco Giant Mac Williamson has reportedly reached a deal to play for the Samsung Lions of South Korea’s KBO.  Williamson is an ideal player to try his luck in the KBO, since it now appears clear he’s never going to establish himself as an MLB major league regular.

What is particularly interesting about the signing is that the Lions will be finishing the season with two position players — big time KBO star Darin Ruf is the Lions’ 1Bman.  KBO teams universally elect to start each season with two pitchers and one position player for their three permitted foreign players.  When the circuit expanded from two foreign players per team to three, the rules required that the third player had to be a position player, since foreign pitchers are considerably more valuable to KBO teams than foreign hitters.

Ruf is one of the highest paid foreign players in the KBO this year.  He’s making $1.4M plus an additional $300,000 in performance incentives, most of which he’s likely to earn because he’s been reasonably healthy this year.

As a result, if Williamson hits well enough in the Lions’ remaining 50 games, Williamson may take Ruf’s roster spot in 2020.  Ruf turns 33 in a few days, so he’s not getting any younger.  If Williamson plays well enough to take Ruf’s roster spot, Williamson likely won’t be much cheaper, given Williamson’s fairly extensive MLB major league experience, particularly because Williamson could also draw interest from Japan’s NPB after a successful 50 game run in the KBO.

How well Williamson actually plays in his 50 game KBO trial run remains to be seen.  Williamson certainly hit in the Pacific Coast League over parts of the last two seasons, but his inability to hit in the majors in spite of numerous opportunities over the last five seasons suggests he may not hit the ground running in South Korea.  If Williamson can get off to a hot start, he certainly has the tools to become a major star in the KBO.

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All Those 4-A Outfielders

July 18, 2019

Former SF Giants Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker both cleared waivers today and out-righted back to AAA.  They’ve both hit great in the Pacific Coast League this year, which isn’t surprising given their talent levels and the amount of offense in the PCL.  Hitting in the majors is a whole ‘nother story.

At this point, it seems clear that neither Williamson nor Parker has any reasonable shot as regular major league roster spot holders and both should immediately begin looking into opportunities to play in the Asian majors.  Parker, in particular, needs to move fast, or he’ll be too old to interest a KBO or NPB team.

It feels like every single player the Giants have used in the outfield this season should seriously consider trying to get a high paying job in Asia no later than next off-season.  The only exceptions are Brandon Belt and Steven Vogt who played the outfield for the Gints this year mainly out of pure desperation.  Obviously, Kevin Pillar won’t be going to Asia anytime soon, but his career is fast approaching a stage where he should at least give it some consideration.

Yangervis Solarte, in fact, has already signed with an NPB team.  I am certain that between now and the end of the 2020, he won’t be the last former Giants outfielder to go to Asia.

Will the KBO Start Giving Multi-Year Contracts to Foreign Players?

July 17, 2019

About two months ago I wrote a post about former major league pitcher Josh Lindblom winning his 50th game in South Korea’s KBO.  Since then, he’s won another eight games.  He’s currently 15-1 (!), and he’s leading the KBO in ERA (2.01) and strikeouts (126 in 130 IP).

Meanwhile, fellow foreigner Angel Sanchez is second in wins (13-2), second in ERA (2.28) and 5th in strikeouts (98 in 110.2 IP).  It’s got me wondering whether they will become the first foreign players in KBO history to get multi-year contracts this coming off-season.

Until this last off-season, KBO teams could only sign the three foreigners each team was allowed to single year contracts.  Teams dealt with this by giving the best foreigners one-and-one contracts: one year contracts with a team option for a second year.  These contracts typically worked something along these lines: the star foreign player got a $1M contract with a $300,000 option for a second year at $1M.  The actual amount of the first year contract obviously varied, but the ratio of the option amount to the second non-guaranteed season was typically about the same as the example given.  This type of contract meant the player got a big guarantee, the team reduced risk, and if the player played well in year one, the team got the second year at a good price, relative to the guarantee for the first year and option.

This last off-season, the KBO changed the rules on foreign players.  Now, if a player signing a first contract with any KBO team could not be paid more than $1M for the first season with the team.  This cap applies to foreign KBO veterans who switch KBO teams: $1M max for the first year with the new team.  In order to give something for the cap, the KBO now allows teams to sign foreign players to multi-year deals.

No foreigner signed for a multi-year deal last off-season.  Lindblom, an established KBO ace, got a reported $1.77M guarantee for 2019 (plus another $150,000 in performance incentives that he’ll earn absent injury), which is the most any foreigner is making in the KBO this year, but is pretty poor compared to what the best domestic KBO free agents get, typically four years at $2M to $3M per season.  The KBO doesn’t formally require teams to limit free agent contracts to four seasons, but like Japan’s NPB, there is a de facto four year cap on free agent contracts that teams follow strictly.

In the past, a foreign KBO star’s only real option to get more than what his KBO team wanted to pay him was to jump to Japan’s NPB (or in the rare case of Eric Thames, return to MLB).  Now, at least in theory, Josh Lindblom, Angel Sanchez and possibly one or two others could squeeze two-year deals out of their respective KBO teams.  Lindblom’s Doosan Bears could easily afford to give him a two-year $4M deal this coming off-season, which would compare very favorably with what Lindblom could get as a guarantee from an NPB team.  I fully expect that both Lindblom and Sanchez will threaten to go to NPB this off-season in order to squeeze at least two years out of the Bears and the SK Wyverns, respectively.

Given how conservative professional baseball is everywhere, I can’t imagine either Lindblom or Sanchez getting more than two years next off-season.  What typically happens in situations like these is that the rule changes, the right players force a change (in this case, a multi-year contract), and the teams take baby steps, because why would any team rush to guarantee players more money?  What will happen over time is that Lindblom or Sanchez (or their successors) will pitch well for the two seasons of their new contracts, and teams will realize that the two year deal will actually save them money.  Then we’ll start to see three year deals for KBO foreigners.

My suspicion is that multi-year contracts for foreign players will likely cap at around three seasons, because I don’t think that NPB teams will go beyond a two-year guarantee for only slightly better than KBO money for any foreign player who hasn’t previously played in Japan.  If teams are acting rationally, there is no reason to give players more than what the market will bear.

Carter Stewart Pitches in First Japanese Game Action

July 11, 2019

MLB Draft buster Carter Stewart made his first game-action pitching appearance for the SoftBank Hawk’s third team against Mitsubishi Motors’ industrial league team based in Kyushu.  He threw two shutout innings after surrendering a lead-off double, and hit 93.8 miles per hour on the radar gun, throwing at what Stewart described as “90%”.

NPB teams maintain a second team which plays at NPB sole minor league level, while the third team of players, whom I assume are mostly young players just getting started in professional baseball, play mainly against independent minor league teams, industrial league teams and university teams, at least according to jballallen.com.

As I understand it, there are several independent minor leagues in Japan, including the Baseball Challenge (BC) League, in which Eri Yoshida famously pitched, and the Shikoku Island League, which has sent All-Stars teams to play against teams in the Indy-A Can-Am League for at least several of the last five seasons.  There are urban areas in Japan not big enough for the 24 major and minor league NPB teams which are likely good homes for independent minor league teams, particularly with so many NPB teams centered around Japan’s three largest metropolitan areas.  Indeed, my review of wikipedia indicates that the vast majority of Japanese independent minor league teams play in prefectures underserved by NPB.

Tommy Joseph Is Out; Carlos Peguero Is In

July 11, 2019

The KBO’s LG Twins put former Philly and SF Giants’ prospect Tommy Joseph on waivers today as a prelude this release and announced the signing of former marginal MLBer and brief NPB star Carlos Peguero, who had been playing in the Mexican League this season.  Not a big deal as far as the baseball world goes, but it interests me in terms of what it says about what KBO teams are thinking.

Joseph hadn’t been terrible in the KBO.  He hit nine home runs in 55 KBO games this season, and his .761 OPS wasn’t terrible this year what with the KBO having introduced less resilient baseballs that cut deep into offensive production.  However, he missed 33 games so far this year, mostly due to back problems; and he was highly paid by KBO standards, having inked a deal that gave him a $300,000 signing bonus and a $700,000 salary.  That’s about as much as first year foreign players can expect to make in the KBO now that a $1M salary cap for first-year foreigners has been imposed.

Peguero will earn $150,000 for the rest of the way with an additional $30,000 in performance incentives.  By my rough calculation, this means the Twins will save between $90,000 and $120,000 by replacing Joseph with Peguero.  That’s not much when you consider that Joseph hadn’t been playing badly, and the odds aren’t great that Peguero will play significantly better.  After only 22 Mexican League games, Peguero had been slashing only .259/.362/.481, which isn’t impressive in what has been an extreme hitters’ league this summer.

The Twins are currently in 4th place in the KBO.  The top five teams make the playoffs and then play a weird system where the 5th place and 4th place teams play, the winner plays the 3rd place team, the second winner plays the 2nd place team and the third winner plays the 1st place team.

The Twins are 6.5 games up on the 5th place NC Dinos and eight games up on the 6th place KT Wiz.  The Twins are three and 3.5 back of the 3rd and 2nd place teams.  In short, the Twins could move up to 2nd or 3rd place with improved performance from their lone foreign position player, but they likely make the post-season with or without the move.

In sum, the move seems to be based primarily on saving $90,000 to $120,000 this season, which sure isn’t much for a play-off bound team, even in the KBO.  It does suggest, perhaps, that KBO team finances aren’t all that strong.

NC Dinos Add a Couple of New Foreign Players

July 3, 2019

I was interested to see yesterday that the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO have swapped out two of their three foreign players for new ones.  Christian Bethancourt and Eddie Butler got the ax, and Jake Smolinski and Christian Friedrich got the opportunity.

Bethancourt hadn’t hit the way the Dinos had hoped, and I’m not sure how much use the Dinos got out of him at his principal position (catcher) because of the language barrier.  Butler wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t good in KBO either (at least relative to his salary), and he was experiencing shoulder problems.

One thing is certain: Smolinski and Friedrich will be making a helluva lot less for the Dinos’ final 62 games than Bethancourt and Butler made for the Dino’s first approximately 82 games.  As an expansion team, the Dinos probably play in a secondary South Korean market, and the big contracts go to the players brought in at the beginning of the season.  Both Betancourt and Butler received $200,000 signing bonuses to come to South Korea at the start of 2019 and earned more than half of the total $1.3 million in salaries they had been promised before getting cut.  I very much doubt that either Smolinski or Friedrich will be earning more than $150,000 for the remainder of the 2019 KBO season, and each could be earning as little as about $90,000.

The small replacement salaries are in line with the players selected.  Smolinski was hitting fairly well in the AAA International League, but with newly introduced baseballs adding more power-hitting to what had been a pitchers’ league, his .864 OPS wasn’t quite in the top 20 among players with at least 200 IL plate appearances this year.

Christian Friedrich was pitching in the Independent-A Atlantic League for what I would guess was $2,500 a month, after missing most of 2017 and all of 2018 with elbow problems.  He was pitching well in the Atlantic League, but I can’t remember the last Atlantic League player signed by a KBO team.  Friedrich does have 296.2 career major league innings pitched, so that and his likely very cheap cost were presumably the main attractions for the Dinos.

In recent years, numerous foreign players have had success in the KBO in spite of being brought in as cheap, late-season replacements.  Jamie Romak, Michael Choice and Jerry Sands have all taken advantage of the opportunity as mid-season replacements to stick around and make some real money for at least one more season after the ones in which they were brought over.  The quality of KBO play is close enough to AAA that any successful AAA player has a shot at making in the KBO if he can get off to a hot start.

It’s worth noting that in the KBO’s salary scale, if your first contract amount is small, it tends to stay smaller even after a few months of successful performance have been established.  Even so, coming back the next season for a $500,000 salary sure beats AAA pay, and a full season’s strong performance in Year 2 can mean a $1 million salary for a third KBO season.  None too shabby for playing baseball.

Munetaka Murakami Hits 20th Home Run of 2019 NPB Season

July 3, 2019

19 year old rookie Munetaka Murakami today became the first NPB player to hit 20 home runs in a season before the age of 20 since Kazuhiro Kiyohara accomplished the feat in 1986 and/or 1987.  Kiyohara went on to blast 525 NPB home runs.  We’ll have to wait and see how many home runs Murakami hits.

Murakami is currently slashing .230/.328/.504, so he’s still got a lot of developing to do as a hitter.  He’s listed as 6’2″ and 213 lbs, which suggests an MLB-sized body.  If he stays healthy and develops as one would expect for a player capable of hitting 20 home runs in a major league at age 19, there’s a good chance we’ll see him in MLB one day.  It doesn’t hurt that he plays for the Yakult Swallows, a small market team that should be willing to post him when the time comes.

Anyway, Murakami has entered the NPB record books, and MLB fans can put a bookmark in on him for the next six or seven seasons.