Whether outfielder Hyun Soo Kim’s next step is accepting an assignment to Triple-A Norfolk or returning to South Korea remains to be seen. But one thing became clear on Tuesday: Kim will not be running down the orange carpet at Camden Yards on Opening Day.
Leave it to the Orioles to complicate things. After a spring that included the club’s failed attempt to land outfielder Dexter Fowler and their sticky restructuring of right-hander Yovani Gallardo’s deal, the Orioles will end spring training trying to sort through another mess.
The Orioles now have a $7 million outfielder who they’ve decided they don’t have room for on their 25-man Opening Day roster. And manager Buck Showalter is right in the assessment that the other outfield candidates have played better. Rule 5 draft pick Joey Rickard has emerged as a legitimate option to start in left field. Much like Jimmy Paredes did last spring, Rickard has won over the manager and has won over the clubhouse. He’s making the team.
Kim cannot be assigned to the minor leagues without his consent. Showalter said Tuesday that the club has had two discussions with Kim about going to the minors. Showalter indicated that an initial conversation occurred this weekend – Kim hasn’t played since Saturday – and there was another discussion on Tuesday than included both Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette.
“It’s kind of in his hands,” Showalter said after Tuesday’s game. “I don’t know if he has agreed to it or not. … If that happens, it could give him an opportunity to get more acclimated and kind of get it going at that level and I know he’s considering going there.”
It sounds like the Orioles believe they can talk Kim into opening the season in Triple-A. It did work two years ago with South Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon, who consented to be sent to the minors to open the 2014 season. After pitching for one season in Triple-A – and posting an ugly 5.74 ERA in Norfolk – the Orioles were able to work out a deal to release Yoon from his major league deal to sign a new one for more money with his old team in the Korean Baseball Organization.
Since the Orioles front office was able to pull off that move with Yoon -- which saved the club $4.3 million of remaining salary -- they thought they could do the same with Kim. But a major caveat of the deal was finding a taker in the KBO that was willing to pay Yoon more.
The Orioles are apparently finding that more difficult to do with Kim, even though he was one of the top players in Korea for a decade.
And the Orioles shouldn’t discount how parting ways with Kim could affect future opportunities in Korea. Kim was one of the KBO’s best players, and cutting ties with him after just 16 spring training games won’t likely be well received or help the Orioles’ future endeavors there. Remember it was just four years ago that Orioles scouts were banned from Korean games after they didn’t go through the proper procedure in signing 16-year-old pitcher Seong-min Kim.
And why should Kim -- after receiving just 44 spring training at-bats -- be convinced he can’t cut it in the United States? It was just last year that Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Jung Ho Kang struggled mightily in spring training. He endured a 1-for-24 drought early, looked lost at shortstop, and at the plate, he couldn’t make adjustments as pitchers jammed him inside.
The Pirates carried Kang as a backup infielder on Opening Day. By mid-May, he was hitting .300 and he ended the season third in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Let’s say Kim ends up accepting an assignment to Norfolk. Where do you play him?
The Orioles would like Christian Walker to play left field every day, so Kim isn’t becoming a better left fielder by not playing there. The Tides already have a crowded outfield mix that will likely include Walker, Dariel Alvarez, Henry Urrutia, L.J. Hoes, Xavier Avery, Alfredo Marte and Julio Borbon.
There’s simply no room for him there, especially if the reason you’re sending him to the minors is to give him regular at-bats and playing time in the outfield. And if the team is struggling to talk Kim into going to Triple-A, there’s no way the Orioles are talking him into starting the season at a lower level.
So now the Orioles have another messy problem to solve as Opening Day looms. But they should be used to it. They’ve had several this spring training.