|Sajik Stadium in Busan|
Jon Shepherd: How much of a presence does Major League Baseball have in South Korea?
Yoo Jee-ho: A few teams have been sending scouts to Korean high school and college (or university as we’d like to call it here) tournaments in recent years. Some are based in Korea or others may be stationed somewhere in Asia and travel here for some big tournaments. More young players have signed with big league clubs in the last two, three years than in the past (almost a dozen since 2009).
As far as helping KBO developing baseball programs, I am not aware of any MLB involvement in that regard. I personally don’t see it as something MLB absolutely has to do here. But critics of MLB teams’ signing young Korean prospects may feel differently.
JS: Are certain teams viewed more favorably than others by players and families?
JS: Can you briefly explain what has transpired between KBO, KBA, and the Baltimore Orioles?
YJ: It really is a long story and I will try to make it short.
The Orioles signed Kim Seong-min to a minor league deal in January. The KBO, which runs the top baseball league here, claimed that the O’s didn’t go through the “status check” as detailed under the KBO-MLB player contract agreement. An MLB team interested in a Korean amateur or pro must, through MLB commissioner’s office, “check” that player’s status and availability with the KBO.
If I may digress a bit and delve a little deeper into this, MLB teams, following the status check, must receive KBO’s approval to sign an active professional player here. But they can sign amateur players as long as they go through the status check. And even KBO officials say status checks are just a formality. With pros, KBO can say, “Nope, you can’t talk to this guy because he’s under contract and his current team doesn’t want to let him go.” But with amateurs, the most KBO can tell an interested MLB club is, “He will be eligible for the KBO draft next year. We hope you don’t engage this player.” But that doesn’t prevent the MLB team from signing him. Against this backdrop, the KBO now wants to tweak the agreement to ban MLB clubs from signing amateur players at all.
Back to the situation. The KBA, which is the local baseball governing body, has suspended Kim indefinitely from playing or coaching in Korea, and that was in accordance with a local rule. Underclassmen (student-athletes not currently in the final year of their study, at high school or college) must not contact domestic or foreign professional teams. In Korea, a new school year starts in March. Kim was just about to enter his senior year in high school.
The KBA also banned Orioles’ scouts from attending KBA-sanctioned games, such as national high school and college tournaments. It has also warned that other MLB teams that fail to take proper steps in their dealing with prospects will have their scouts banned from Korean games.
I think this will definitely affect MLB’s relationship with KBO and with Korea as a whole. Other teams must have taken notice of this development. KBO and KBA obviously have their own interests, but I think they have taken steps that will likely be seen as being too restrictive.
JS: In your opinion, what changes to the existing agreement between KBO and MLB would be best for the development of baseball as a professional sport in South Korea?
YJ: I don’t think banning MLB teams from signing Korean amateurs is the answer. MLB wouldn’t agree to this sort of change anyway.
Here’s the one change that I think may work. When a player is drafted by a KBO team out of high school, the player has a one-month window to choose between going to college or signing with the KBO team. In my opinion, you can allow MLB teams to engage and possibly sign such players after that one-month period ends. Tampering will have to be prohibited, of course. KBO teams will reserve the priority to negotiate and sign such players. So MLB teams will be looking at either a KBO rookie or a college freshman to sign.
It’d be easy for big league clubs to lure top talent by coming in with loads of cash, right? Not so fast. Not every teenage player will want to go overseas to play for different reasons (fear of culture shock, language problems, simply wanting to stay home close to family, etc). Plus, top young guns get six figures in signing bonus from KBO teams and MLB teams may or may not want to match that to take them. In other words, if the money is right and they’d rather stay home, more Korean players than you’d think will choose to stay with the KBO.
This bit of change will mean a limited window for MLB teams to sign. But I think it will work both ways because a) young players, having already been drafted, will have a KBO team to fall back on if talks with MLB teams don’t go well and b) MLB teams will have a better idea of how much they want to pay players given their draft position (i.e. Should we pay this kid $500,000 when he was only drafted 10th overall in Korea? Should we spend that money on some other prospect from elsewhere?)
JS: There has been some debate in the United States as to how good of a player Kim Seong-Min is. Do you have any information on his abilities?
YJ: He had an excellent 2011. Kim pitched 74 2/3 innings in 21 games, won eight games, and posted an ERA of 1.39. In August, at a national high school tournament, Kim went 3-0 with a zero ERA and 19 Ks in 22 innings to win the MVP.
Kim was considered the top lefty in high schools over here and since he had another high school season ahead of him (before the Baltimore deal), local scouts felt that Kim could improve even more and eventually become a first-round draft choice in the KBO. His fastball tops out at about 89-90 miles per hour, and he also throws above-average changeup and curve. Obviously not overpowering, but he’s got decent command. Any left-hander with his upside and stuff is a valued commodity here, but I myself was surprised to see him snatched up by a major league team. Maybe the O’s scouts saw something in him.
JS: Will this incident affect the Orioles ability to sign premier players from South Korea?
YJ: For the foreseeable future, absolutely. (Poor Dan Duquette. The guy loves Korean players.) Their scouts are banned from going to Korean games and that will obviously limit their ability to assess talent here. Duquette has apologized for “unintentional breach of protocol” but I don’t think the KBO is that much interested in apologies. Rather, the KBO wants to change the agreement to at least limit the outflow of young talent from here. In a way, the O’s move may affect all MLB teams’ ability to scout and sign premier young talent in Korea.
To stay on top of the Kim Seung-min situation and Korean baseball in general, follow Yoo Jee-ho on twitter and at Yonhap News.