While North American baseball is on hold, the KBO’s season is underway, and there’s a chance some of the players could be in MLB in 2021.
With the Korea Baseball Organization underway, fans can finally enjoy some quality baseball for the first time in almost two months.
While the KBO can’t compare to Major League Baseball in terms of talent level, there’s still a handful of players from the organization who could make a smooth transition over to North America next season.
Historically, the New York Yankees have preferred to spend their international money on players from the Nippon Professional Baseball League. In total, only two Korean-born players have ever worn pinstripes (Chan Ho Park and Ji-man Choi).
Nonetheless, that number could change in 2021.
Despite New York’s lack of spending on Korean players, it’d be wise for general manager Brian Cashman to at least consider making a run at one of the top players from the KBO next offseason.
If posted, Hyeon-jong Yang, Sung-Bum Na, and Ha-Seong Kim will likely be the three best players available next winter. While the Yankees probably won’t sign all three, each one could arguably fit on the roster during the 2021 campaign.
Even though the Kia Tigers are expected to be one of the worst teams in the KBO this season, they own one of the top pitchers in the league. Not to mention, he’s set to become a free agent after this campaign.
Despite the fact that he’s currently undergoing his age-32 season, Yang has proven that he’s still capable of competing at a high level. In fact, the 6-foot hurler finished third in the MVP race last season and won the award in 2017.
During the 2019 campaign, Yang produced a 2.29 ERA (league-best), 2.44 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, 8.0 H/9, 0.3 HR/9, 22.3% strikeout rate, 4.5% walk rate, and 7.4 WAR rating over 184.2 innings pitched.
While Yang won’t blow any hitters away with his high-80s fastball (which tops out at 90 miles per hour), he’s been very effective at mixing speeds with his high-70s curveball and changeup as well as his low-80s slider.
Along with changing speeds, the veteran hurler has also relied heavily on the location of his pitches. As a result, the Tigers ace rarely ever surrenders home runs. He’s additionally limited the number of walks allowed over the last three seasons.
Based on these results, the former MVP likely profiles to be a back-of-the-rotation pitcher in the majors. He could thus help fill out the rest of the Yankees staff next year. Since James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ could all depart through free agency next offseason, Cashman will likely be searching for a veteran hurler.
Needless to say, Yang could end up becoming a perfect fit in the Bronx.
With his ability to limit home runs and walks, he likely wouldn’t become a liability pitching at Yankee Stadium, which would allow him to replicate his impressive results from the KBO. Furthermore, the soft-throwing lefty’s repertoire would be a great change in pace for the Yankees rotation, which mainly features hard-throwing hurlers.
If Na didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury last year, he’d likely already be in the major leagues. The setback limited him to 23 games.
Na hit at least 25 doubles, 20 home runs, and 90 RBI’s in each of the five campaigns prior to 2019. Due to an awkward slide into third base, the 30-year-old’s streak came to an end last year. The injury has forced him to stay in Korea for at least one more season.
During the 2019 campaign, the 6-foot outfielder created 12 doubles, four home runs, 14 RBI’s, a .483 wOBA, 201 wRC+ score, 1.5 WAR rating, along with a .366/.443/.645/1.089 slashing line through 106 plate appearances.
Despite Na’s abbreviated season, the left-handed batter was still very productive at the plate. He was additionally, on-average, able to earn more free passes to first base.
Through his first six years in the league, Na struggled to remain disciplined at the plate and create high walk totals. He produced a 7.7% walk rate and 21.2% strikeout rate. While a small sample size, he was able to increase his walk rate to 11.3% last season. Nevertheless, his strikeout rate also rose to 24.5%.
As for his defense, the veteran slugger possesses a strong arm and average range as a corner outfielder. Although, his age and injury history likely suggest that he’d be better suited in a reserve role or the designated hitter spot.
Since Giancarlo Stanton occupies the latter position, Na would likely be utilized as their fourth outfielder next season. With his power to the pull side, there’s a very good chance he’d be able to replicate his power swing and produce plenty of home runs over the short porch in right field.
For those who missed it, Na is already on the board with his first long ball of the season.
— Noah Osen (@NoahOsen) May 5, 2020
While both Yang and Na are very talented players, they definitely haven’t received as much hype as Kim has over the last few seasons.
For one, Kim is currently experiencing his age-24 season. This means he could become one of the youngest players to sign out of Korea next offseason. If he signs with someone after this campaign, there’s also a very good chance he’d be considered one of the top 100 prospects in North America.
In 2019, the young shortstop recorded 38 doubles, 19 home runs, 104 RBI’s, 33 stolen bases (career-high), a .397 wOBA, 146 wRC+ score, 7.2 WAR rating along with a slashing line of .307/.389/.491/.880 over his 625 plate appearances.
Along with these stellar metrics, Kim nearly generated more walks than strikeouts last season. In total, he produced an 11.2% walk rate and a measly 12.8% strikeout rate. This was a major step forward from his 9.3% walk rate and 14.1% strikeout rate from the 2018 campaign.
Based on Kim’s outstanding athleticism, he’ll likely carry the range to remain at shortstop in the major leagues. There are some questions regarding his arm strength though and whether he’d be best suited to play on the left side moving forward.
Gleyber Torres is moving to the left side of the infield this season. Thus, the Yankees would likely prefer to move Kim to second base anyway. If successful, New York could have an All-Star tandem in the middle of its infield for the foreseeable future.
Similar to Na, Kim has also already produced his first home run of the 2020 campaign.
Kim Ha-seong with the first 💣 of the year for the Heroes! 9-0.
— Kiwoom Heroes International (@kwheroesfan) May 5, 2020