Remarkably, Flaherty turned into someone else with the Orioles. The fringe hope in that bat vanished. His average contact skills in the minors turned into minus minus contact skills while he retained other aspects of his offensive profile. It is a bat that won't be able to keep anyone afloat.
However, Flaherty has not needed that bat to stick with the Orioles because he became a plus fielder at second base and at third base. Somehow, he even made himself into a competent shortstop and corner outfielder as well. Over the past five years, Flaherty has been a cheap and useful fixture on the Orioles bench. As 2017 approaches, he finds himself going into his final arbitration year with an approximate price of 1.7 MM on him.
At 30 and with 1227 plate appearances in the Majors to his name, we have a rather solid understanding of who Ryan Flaherty and what he is likely to become. His bat has remained fairly consistent during this time. Good ability to draw walks, good gap power, and poor contact. It is difficult to see any of that getting better and easy to see it getting worse. His defensive profile looks solid and for 1.7 MM in 2017, it might make sense to be able to carry a Jack-of-all-Positions, Not-a-Master-at-the-Plate kind of player. Flaherty is useful, but is it possible for similar money or less to find something that might have an upside?
That someone would be Jae-gyun Hwang. Hwang was put up for bid like Byung-ho Park last winter, but unlike Park was not bid on. The issue for Hwang was that his power display appeared suspect. He showed little ability to hit for power before 2015 and was considered more of a slap hitting, gap power third baseman with an above average glove.
|All Levels (10 Seasons)||4653||114||172||.285||.349||.433|
Then 2016 provided another data point. His power spoke again. The growing word was that Hwang grew eyes for the United States after the 2014 season and saw how someone like Jung Ho Kang brought attention to himself by revamping his swing to generate more power. This past year, his swing bought moments like this 476 blast:
I asked Sung Min Kim of Today's Knuckleball who writes about KBO from Korea on his thoughts about Hwang. He said that in addition to his power beginning to play in game these past two seasons that Hwang "can steal bases and make highlight plays at third base." He comped Hwang to a Brett Lawrie or Trevor Plouffe type. Good gap power that breaks out occasionally and adequate to good fielding. To differ between him and Kang, he noted that Kang has much better bat speed and it is easier for him to translate that power into games. Hwang has a smoother swing, but a lack of bat speed is a yellow flag to wave about.
The updated KANG model puts Hwang at of 250/293/381, but that uses 2014 data. He supposedly reworked his swing for 2015, so that might not be an appropriate projection. If we only consider his performance after that point, we have a projection of 266/314/394. To phrase that differently, Hwang looks better at the plate than Flaherty is we consider all three previous seasons. However, Hwang looks like a borderline starter if we only consider his performance post-change in his batting. That potential to be a starter might be quite useful to have in house when J.J. Hardy departs after next season and Manny Machado shifts to shortstop.
Defense, though. Scouts suggest that Hwang can play third base without trouble. His size makes him a questionable fit at second base, but so was Schoop and the Orioles were able to position him around to make it work out. Add Hwang's athleticism and speed, he might be usable at second in a pinch. Shortstop is likely out of the question, but with Machado able to shift over it might not be all that needed of a question until 2018 comes.
Cost? Jae-Gyun Hwang is not a mind blowing elite KBO player. Park was. Kang was. Even Hyun-soo Kim was in his mystique as a professional hitter. Hwang is clearly a rung below that even though he currently is an elite KBO player now. This year, Hwang does not need a bidding process and is free to go to any MLB club he chooses. He will likely prefer a starting gig, but those might be hard to find for a fringey third base prospect who performed well in a league where Park dominated and later went nuts in MLB play. So, maybe, the Orioles could make a play for Hwang as a utility player to take Flaherty's place.
I think it likely that Hwang would prefer a club where a starting spot is more up for grabs as opposed to take 2017 as a learning red shirt year and then trying to break camp in 2018 as a starter. Who knows whether there is any apprehension about the Orioles after Kim's clumsy handling by them.
Anyway, for fun, I decided to run a reverse KANG model for Ryan Flaherty to see what his numbers would look like over in the KBO. I also threw in Pedro Alvarez for the fun of it. I compared those projections with Hwang's actual numbers.
Alvarez would probably require a major change in KBO finances to play overseas. Last year, the highest paid foreign player in the KBO was Dustin Nippert at 1.6 MM. However, the KBO is notorious for reporting inaccurate salaries. Nippert or someone else may have been paid more than that. However, it is difficult to see anyone coming close to Alvarez' 5 MM he received from the Orioles last year. He may be a 30-some MLB home run bat with no true position, but that is worth more than 2 MM to someone.
Flaherty on the other hand may not be able to find a deal greater than 1 MM stateside. Therefore, Korea might present him an opportunity to make two to ten times what he might see here. A player with his caliber should be able to easily grab himself a 100K+ minor league contract, but it might be difficult for him to secure a league minimum deal of 550k. His numbers suggest he would be one of the best players in the KBO and the KANG translations may be underprojecting his power (KANG KBO->US significantly projects home runs, walks, and strikeouts while US->KBO significantly projects singles, doubles, walks, and strikeouts). In other words, this might be a solid move for Flaherty and may not prevent him from returning stateside with the rising profile of the KBO.
I asked Kim to provide me with a few more names of players who may look to return stateside. He suggested Eric Thames, Hyung-woo Choi, Ah-seop Son, and Wilin Rosario. I have the new KANG model projections for their 2017 MLB seasons listed below. Players with asterisks by their names indicate that for these projections only the most recent season was considered. As you can see, there are no Byung Ho Park like contenders this season.
|Hyung Woo Choi||19||.243||.293||.400|
|Jae Gyun Hwang||14||.250||.293||.381|
|Ah Seop Son||16||.258||.316||.393|
|Hyung Woo Choi||*||19||.240||.290||.398|
|Jae Gyun Hwang||*||14||.266||.314||.394|
|Ah Seop Son||*||15||.258||.317||.391|
In the end, the word on Thames is that he is being sized up for one of the largest KBO salaries in history and will not be returning for 2017. Choi is another all around successful hitter in Japan, but he will be 33 and has no position. It is difficult to see anyone giving him more than a Dae-ho Lee minor league invite route to the majors. Ah-seop Son, who no one bidded on last year like Hwang, is a corner outfield type who is thought to be MLB ready defensively. However, his slap hit style is considered questionable against MLB velocity. Wilin Rosario still has the same issues that sent him to Korea. He is not really a catcher and his bat is not strong enough for first base.
Perhaps one of these players will take faith in their own abilities and take deals to start off in the minors or on a bench, hoping they make the most of their opportunities to shine. The trials and tribulations of Hyun-soo Kim may speak to them. He had trouble in Spring Training and then needed continued success to maintain his position with any little imperfection throwing him to the bench. It has to be difficult going from one of the best in your league to being someone no one cares much about or invests many resources in. After Buck's, I think, rather apparent continued mishandling of Kim, I would be surprised if a Korean player thinks the Orioles are his best shot at MLB success.