Archive for the ‘KBO’ category

Thoughts on Winter League Baseball

November 17, 2017

I’ve been following the Caribbean Winter Leagues more this off-season than I ever have in the past.

The one big surprise for me is that more Independent-A League pitchers play in the Winter Leagues than I expected.  The other groups I expected — not quite major leaguers from the countries (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela) where the leagues are located; aspiring minor leaguers and North American minor leaguers trying to get better; Latino players who have recently left the MLB-system but still have something left; Mexican League (Summer) players (the most favored summer location to play for post-MLB system Latino players); and injured players trying to make a come-back.

The Caribbean Winter Leagues pay better than the minor league salaries without at least one game of major league service and a lot better than the Independent-A Leagues.  The best veteran players in the Winter Leagues can make $10K to $15K per month (for a two or 2.5 month season) compared to the maximum of $3,000/month paid by the Atlantic League.

The Indy-A players can play for well less than this max and still make more than their summer wages.  Even the Mexican League only pays $8K per month max to foreign players.  Also, the more you play (as long as you’re healthy), the better your baseball skills should get.

The Indy-A pitchers are pitching pretty good, or at least there are a significant number that have pitched well in this year’s Winter Leagues.  Reinier Roibal, Bryan Evans, Logan Darnell, Tyler Alexander, Ryan Kussmaul and Zack Dodson to name more than a few.

The Mexican Pacific League appears to have some kind of working relationship with the American Association, because the last three listed players all played in the AA this past summer.  The Venezuelan and Dominican Winter Leagues draw primarily from the better playing Atlantic League.  However, the Can-Am League. which has a designed Cuban League team and other Cubans playing on regular Canadian and American teams, has generated Cuban players who are playing in the Winter Leagues this season.

That brings us to the Cuba Serie Nacional.  Cuba’s Winter League plays a 90-game split-season.  The league has 16 teams in a country of only 11 million, but produces players like Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu.  In other words, the talent distribution in Cuba is perhaps similar to the old Negro Leagues which fielded players of wildly different abilities.

In the first half of the Serie Nacional season, veteran star Frederich Cepeda (he likely has a German somewhere in his not too distant ancestry) batted a ridiculous .480 in the season’s first half. By way of comparison, World Series semi-hero Yuli Gurriel batted .500 with an OPS proportionately better than Cepeda’s this season, in Gurriel’s last season in the Serie Nacional before defecting.

Few people outside of Cuba and greater Tokyo have heard of Cepeda; he couldn’t cut it in Japan’s NPB at ages 34 and 35; but he has been a truly great player in Cuba both before and after.  The now 37 year old is batting a more modest .340 with an OPB just barely over 1.000 in the Cuban League’s ongoing second half.

The top pitcher in the Serie Nacional this year is Yoanni Yera, a small left-hander (5’7″, 187 lbs) who is electric in Cuba, but was erratic/ineffective in 39.1 Can-Am League innings over last two seasons.  Some players are creatures of the county and league that developed them.  Cepeda and Yera probably haven’t defected for this reason.

It sure does seem like the Cuban player that haven’t defected are the ones who haven’t convinced anyone (even themselves) that they can play outside of Cuba.  Even Alfredo Despaigne, who has become a super star in Japan’s NPB, seems like a player who is playing where his value is absolutely maximized.  Another triumph for capitalism?

As a final note, Jung-ho Kang is currently the worst hitting qualifier in the Dominican Winter League.  He’s slashing a brutal .137/.224/.205.  He’s got one year left on his MLB contract, so he won’t be leaving MLB just yet, but it may well be time for him to return to South Korea’s KBO for everyone’s sake.

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Asian Teams Don’t Show Their Mercenaries Much Love

November 16, 2017

The Asian major leagues (NPB, KBO and CPBL) are an avenue for players who don’t quite have what it takes to be MLB stars to make big money and become big stars playing baseball.  However, being a foreign ballplayer on an Asian team is a tenuous existence that doesn’t provide much room for error.

This is on my mind today because the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO have announced that they won’t be bringing back Eric Hacker in 2018.  Hacker has over the last three seasons established himself as one of the best foreign pitchers in the KBO’s history, and he pitched well in 2017.

Hacker’s 3.42 ERA was third best among qualifiers in a ten-team league, and he went 12-7.  His strikeout rate dropped sharply last year from 7.6 the year before to 5.4 in 2017, but he still had a K/BB rate of 3.3.  His other numbers, his KBO history and his relatively low salary ($650,000 in 2017) all suggest that he should have been given a contract for 2018.

Eric Hacker will be 35 in 2018, and the Dinos may have decided that he’s likely to drop off in 2018.  The Dinos also elected not to re-sign Jeff Manship, who will be 33 next year, in spite of the fact that Manship went 12-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 2017.  However, Manship was at the top of the KBO salary scale for foreign pitchers, making a reported $1.8 million in 2017, and he missed eight or nine starts due to injury.  KBO teams expect exceptional performance and health from foreigners being paid what Manship was paid.

The Dinos have signed Logan Verritt for $800,000 instead.  Verritt will be 28 in 2018.  There’s no guarantee, though, that he’ll be an adequate replacement for either Hacker or Manship, in light of the fact that his 2017 performance in the International League and his career minor league record aren’t particularly impressive.

Earlier this off-season, the Nexen Heroes made a similar decision not to bring Andy Van Hekken back for 2018.  Van Hekken also has a tremendous career KBO record, and while he will be 38 in 2018, he struck out just better than a batter per inning in 2017.  Van Hekken missed qualifying for the KBO ERA title by 5.2 innings pitched, but his 3.77 ERA was 10th best in the circuit among pitchers who pitched at least 135 innings (the KBO plays a 144 game schedule).  He made a reported $930,000 in 2017, which is also affordable for a pitcher of his KBO accomplishments.

Instead, the Nexen Heroes elected to sign 32 year old Esmil Rogers to a $1.5 million deal for next season.  Rogers had a great half season in the KBO in 2015, but then blew out his elbow tendon in 2016.  He pitched well in seven late season starts for AAA Syracuse this past season, but hasn’t been particularly impressive in five starts in the Dominican Winter League so far.  Trading in Van Hekken on Rogers seems like a case of the grass always being greener to me.

There is certainly a reasonable possibility that either or both Hacker and Van Hekken will receive offers from other KBO teams this off-season.  Still, it is mystifying to see pitchers who pitched as well as they pitched in 2017 for the amounts they were paid not to get invited back for another season.

Best Pitching Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO

November 13, 2017

I don’t see any KBO pitchers making the jump to MLB this off-season, unless Hyun-jong Yang surprises and decides he is willing to take less money to pitch in MLB than he’d continue to make in the KBO.  Still, there is something to be said for keeping track of the most promising pitchers in an increasingly strong league.

Hyun-jong Yang (30 in 2018) and Woo-ram Jung (33).  Yang and Jung are the two most MLB-ready pitchers in the KBO, but it doesn’t look like either will join MLB in 2018.

Yang was posted three off-seasons ago, but his team, the Kia Tigers, wisely rejected the $1.5 million top bid it reportedly received.  Yang was a free agent last year, but after failing to find a foreign deal to his liking, he returned to the Kia Tigers on a record-setting one-year 2.25 billion won ($1.89 million) deal, principally because top KBO free agents typically sign four-year deals.

Under KBO rules, Yang apparently cannot become a free agent again for three more years.  However, he was the KBO’s 2017 MVP, going 20-6 and leading the Tigers to a Korea Series victory over last year’s champs, the Doosan Bears.

Yang’s most recent statements are that he can’t imagine himself playing in another team’s uniform. He would command a four-year deal from the Tigers approaching the roughly $13 million guarantee that Dae-ho Lee received last off-season if he were a free agent again this off-season.

However, it is possible that he could still command a three year deal from the Tigers this off-season in the $6M to $8M range to prevent him from going to NPB or MLB, since I could easily envision an NPB team making him a two-year $3M to $4M offer with substantial incentives this off-season.  At least one NPB team reportedly made him an offer last off-season.

Woo-ram Jung had his KBO career interrupted for two years in 2013 and 2014 due to his obligation to provide two years of service to the South Korean army (all healthy young men owe the South Korean state two years of military service), although he may well have played for the Army team in the KBO’s minor league those two seasons.  He came back to the KBO’s major league better than ever, striking out 253 batters in 210 relief innings pitched.

MLB teams looking for the next Seung-hwan Oh are no doubt well aware of Jung.  However, Jung signed a four-year free agent contract two off-seasons ago, so he won’t be available until his age 35 season, which is probably too old to tempt MLB clubs.

The best thing to be said for Yang and Jung remaining in the KBO (at least insofar as MLB fans are concerned) is that it’s players like them that make the KBO good enough to produce the even better players who will one day play in MLB.  The same can be said for the many great players who remain in Japan’s NPB, even though they might possibly have MLB starter talent in their prime seasons.

Chang-min Shim (25).  Shim is a reliever we might well see in MLB in a few years’ time.  He has 406 career Ks in 343.1 innings pitched, and at least five full years of KBO experience through his age 24 season.  The questions with him are whether his arm stays healthy and whether he still needs to do his South Korean military service, which is a killer for KBO players hoping to play in MLB one day.

Chang-min Lim (32).  Another top KBO closer, Lim has recorded 343 Ks in 323 career KBO innings pitched.

Jae-hak Lee (27).  A starter with a good arm, Lee needs to improve dramatically in 2018 and prove he’s a top KBO starter to have any chance of pitching in MLB.

A bunch of young guys worth keeping an eye on are:  Chang-mo Koo (21), Duk-joo Ham (22), Se-woong Park (22), Min-ho Lee (24), Jin-hyung Park (24) and Chan-kyu Im (25).

Best Hitting Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO 2017-2018

November 10, 2017

There aren’t currently many hitters in South Korea’s KBO that I see making the jump to MLB success in the next couple of seasons, but these players are the best around at this moment.

A-seop Son (30 in 2018) and Wilin Rosario (29).  Two fine players who I don’t really see as being MLB regulars, they get listed first because they are both available this off-season.  My guess is that Rosario moves up to Japan’s NPB this off-season, and Son signs a four year $10 million deal to play for a KBO team.

Jeong Choi (31). Choi is probably the most worthy current KBO player in terms of MLB regular player talent, and there was talk a couple of years ago of him coming to MLB.  However, he had a couple of down seasons and then signed a four year deal to stay in KBO.  He has another year on that contract, so he won’t be available for MLB until his age 32 season, at which point he just won’t be a good bet.

Ja-wook Koo (24).  A fine young player we might see in MLB 2022 or 2023.  He gets on base, which I think is probably the most important skill for any Asian player who hopes to make the jump to MLB.  His batting average and OPS were down in 2017, but he added power, which you like to see in a player his age.

Jung-hoo Lee (19) and Ha-seong Kim (22).  A couple of really young players who are many seasons away from MLB, you look for really young players playing at a very high level to one day be able to move up to a better league.  Kim is a shortstop, but the KBO doesn’t provide defensive numbers to baseball reference or on its English-language website.  Still, one would think he’d eventually be able to play 2B or 3B at the MLB level if his SS defense isn’t MLB worthy.

Min-Woo Park (25).  He’s shown steady improvement as a hitter and would likely be available to MLB in 2021 or 2022.  Park has no power, but as a 2Bman with a career KBO on-base percentage of .415 through his age 24 season, he may not need power to be an MLB player if his defense is good.

Sung-bum Na (28), Jae-hwan Kim (29) and Kun-woo Park (27) are three sweet-swinging KBO hitters currently in the prime of their respective careers.  I expect they will stay in the KBO, because they’ll be relatively old before their teams feel compelled to post them or they become true free agents.

Keep an Eye on Lee Jung-Hoo and Other KBO Notes

November 6, 2017

19 year old Lee Jung-hoo won the KBO’s Rookie of the Year Award.  He slashed .324/.396/.417 while playing in all 144 of his team’s games.  He is the first player in league history to play a full KBO season the year after graduating high school.

Lee finished 13th in batting average and 15th in on-base percentage.  He has no power, but at his age, he has plenty of time to add power as he ages.

Lee probably has another seven or eight KBO seasons in front of him before he gets posted or becomes a free agent, but players this good this young are rare, so I’ll be keeping an eye on him as his career progresses.  He will also have to do his two years of South Korean military service time at some point in the future, because he obviously hasn’t done it yet, unlike many KBO players who do it straight out of high school and then pursue their pro baseball careers.

In other KBO news, there is talk of free agent Son Ah-Seop possibly signing with an MLB team this off-season.  He’s a fine player, with KBO career batting average of .325 and OBP of .406.  He has drawn comparisons to Nori Aoki.

However, I don’t think he’s as good as Aoki, when you factor in the difference between the Asian leagues they played in, and I will be surprised if he gets much attention from MLB clubs in this home run crazy moment.  I’ll be surprised if he gets a major league offer from an MLB club, and I wouldn’t forego the four-year $8M+ contract offer he’s likely to get from a KBO team in favor of a minor league deal to play in the U.S. if I were him.

Sometimes It’s Better to Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond

November 5, 2017

Than it is to be a small fish in big pond.

Both Wilin Rosario and Roger Bernadina, after big seasons in South Korea’s KBO, are making noises about wanting to return to MLB in 2018.  I think the odds are slim of either of them getting an MLB deal that matches what they can expect to make in Asia.

Wilin Rosario, who will be 29 next season, has the better chance, but he still doesn’t get on base enough to suggest he would be good enough to start regularly in MLB.  Meanwhile, he made $1.8 million in the KBO this past season and can reasonably expect to make $2 million in 2018.

Also, both the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s NPB are reported to be interested in Rosario, which could well mean a two-year offer in the $4M to $5M range total.  That’s MLB money, any way you slice it.

Roger Bernadina will be 34 next season and hasn’t played in the Show since 2014.  It’s hard to see an MLB team giving him a guaranteed offer based on one good season in the KBO, an extreme hitters’ league.

Meanwhile, the Kia Tigers paid Bernadina a reported $850,000 in 2017 (plus a presumed post-season share). With the Tigers just winning the Korea Series, it seems likely Bernadina will command a 2018 contract in the $1.2M to $1.5M range.

The rumors are getting attention mainly because of the possibility that teams are looking for the next Eric Thames. However, Thames hit much better in the KBO than either Rosario and Bernadina.  Thames’ lowest OPS in three seasons in the KBO was 1.106; neither Rosario nor Bernadina has reached 1.100 in any of their combined three seasons.  Basically, Eric Thames’ KBO numbers are what it’s going to take for a player coming to MLB to have a reasonable shot of being an everyday MLB player.

Of course, what could be going on is that Rosario and Bernadina and their agents may simply be trying to create pressure on Asian teams to generate the best possible offers from their current KBO teams and any NPB team that might be interested.  I think Rosario has a great shot of moving up to NPB, which is certainly more “major league” than the KBO, but I can’t really see anyone giving Bernadina a better offer than he’s likely to get from his current employers.  He’s proven his value to the Kia Tigers, and everything else seems like a total crap shoot.

Go East, Not So Young Men, Part II: The Pitchers

October 20, 2017

Here are some starting pitchers who seem like good bets to sign with a KBO or NPB team for 2018:

Drew Hutchinson (27 in 2018).  Hutchinson looked like a burgeoning star in 2014 after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s only thrown 24 major league innings since the start of the 2016 season.  He didn’t pitch in the Show at all this year, despite posting a strong 3.56 ERA in 26 starts for the International League’s Indianapolis Indians.

One would think that Hutchinson would be receptive to a guaranteed offer from an NPB club; and one or two strong seasons in Japan could put his MLB career back on track.

Wilmer Font (28).  Font hasn’t pitched much in the majors (7 IP over eight appearances with an ugly 11.57 ERA), but he was dominating for the Pacific Coast League’s Oklahoma City Dodgers in 2017.  His 3.42 ERA was the only ERA under 4.00 by any PCL pitcher who threw at least 115 innings, and his pitching line of 134.1 IP, 114 hits, 11 HRs and 35 BBs allowed and a whopping 178 Ks was even better.

Font will have a hard time breaking through with the pitching rich Dodgers, and I would expect a KBO team in particular to make him a strong offer.

Justin Masterson (33), Tom Koehler (32) and Dillon Gee (32).  A trio of veterans with substantial MLB resumes, all three look to be at a point in their respective careers where the Asian majors would be each pitcher’s best option, at least if they want to continue starting.  Masterson, also pitching for the OKC Dodgers, recorded the PCL’s second best ERA at 4.13 and recorded 140 Ks in 141.2 IP, but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015.

Koehler pitched well in relief for the Blue Jays late in the 2017 season, but might well get a better offer to be a starter for an Asian team than a reliever for an MLB one in 2018.  Pretty much the same for Dillon Gee.

T.J. House (28).  House was pretty good for the International League’s Buffalo Bisons in 2017, posting a 4.32 ERA and 108 Ks in 133.1 IP.  He also has enough of an MLB track record that he might interest an Asian team.

Anthony Bass (30).  Bass pitched for NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters in 2016 and pitched pretty well (3.65 ERA in 103.2 IP), although he was not invited back.  This year, he pitched well enough for the PCL’s Round Rock Express (4.18 ERA, 87 Ks in 75.1 IP) to get a two game cup of coffee with the Rangers.  He seems like he’d be a good bet for a KBO team in 2018.

Other starting pitchers who might well get an Asian offer too good to pass up are Williams Perez (27), Cody Martin (28), Michael Blazek (29), Vance Worley (30) and Paolo Espino (31).

The relief candidates for NPB in 2018 (KBO teams only want starters) number as many as 50.  These are the ones I like best.

Louis Coleman, Al Alburquerque and Ernesto Frieri (all 32).  A trio of live-armed, proven MLB relievers who pitched great in AAA in 2017, but aren’t likely to get major league contract offers for 2018.  It’s reasonable to assume that at least one of them will be pitching in Japan next season.

Preston Claiborne (30).  He’s all the way back from Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, but didn’t get much of a look from the Rangers in spite of a 1.89 ERA and 16 saves at AAA Round Rock.

Bruce Rondon (27) and Blaine Hardy (31).  A couple of Tiger hurlers who may well be non-tendered this off-season, because both are arbitration eligible.

Jack Leathersich (27), Dayan Diaz (29) and Simon Castro (30).  Will they or won’t they receive major league contract offers from their current MLB teams?  That is the question that will most likely determine their receptiveness to any Asian offers.

Other reasonable relief possibilities: Michael Tonkin (28), Alex Wimmers (29), Brandon Cunniff (29), Deolis Guerra (29), Felix Doubront (30), Josh Smith (30), Jason Gurka (30), Zac Rosscup (30), Jeff Beliveau (31), Rhiner Cruz (31), Erik Davis (31), Pat “Switch Pitcher” Venditte (33) and Edward Mujica (34).