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Free agents from Japan, South Korea could be fits for Orioles in rotation, outfield

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

While the upcoming posting and free agency of two-way Japanese star Shohei Otani is one of the premier developments in baseball, the Orioles might be dipping into a less-publicized international market for reinforcements this offseason.

When executive vice president Dan Duquette broke down the team's need to rebuild its rotation at the end of the regular season, he equated it to the 2012 plan, when the team ended up with left-hander Wei-Yin Chen from the Japanese NPB and minor league free agent Miguel Gonzalez out of the Mexican League.

Additionally, the team's signings in recent years of Tsuyoshi Wada, Suk-min Yoon and outfielder Hyun Soo Kim — though none ended happily — show that the Orioles are willing to give it a try with veteran Asian players who want to try to make their mark in the United States.

All indications this year are that the club is looking strongly at the overseas professional market again, with Duquette and executive director of international recruitment Fred Ferreira examining the potential fits to help the Orioles in 2018 and beyond.

Here’s a rundown of players who could be on that list.

Shohei Otani, RHP

While there are still questions about how the NPB star is going to be posted to come to America, there's no doubt he's one of the premier free agents on the market. At 23, he's already one of the best pitchers to come out of Japan in decades, and he’s also one of the league's best hitters. Otani has a career 2.52 ERA with a 1.076 WHIP and a lifetime .286 batting average with 48 home runs and an .848 OPS.

He wants the opportunity to bat on days when he's not pitching, making an American League team a good landing spot. But the contract he’s likely command all but eliminates the Orioles from acquiring one of the most coveted stars in the game.

Miles Mikolas, RHP

A onetime San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers prospect who pitched well in the minors but didn't break through at the major league level in 2014 and 2015, Mikolas has spent the past three years pitching for Yomiuri in the NPB and went 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA in 62 starts. With the three-year deal he signed in 2015 now up, he's looking to come back to the United States and show that his success in Japan can be replicated here.

Mikolas keeps the ball around the strike zone, doesn't cede hard contact and isn’t likely to be able to command an expensive contract. The likes of Colby Lewis have come back from Japan to pitch well in the United States recently, and Mikolas could be the next.

Ah-seop Son, OF

One of three South Korean players whom MLB requested status checks on this offseason, Son seems to be a great fit for what the Orioles need. Think Kim — a left-handed hitter who has grown into some power but provides high average and on-base capabilities (.325 and .420 lifetime, respectively) — then add speed and defensive capabilities. Son stole 25 bases this season and can play either corner outfield spot, which, at least in the short term, makes him a prime candidate to platoon with right-handed-hitting rookie Austin Hays if the Orioles decide to do that.

While the Orioles' handling of Kim was oft-criticized in South Korea, someone who can affect the game in several ways might be more attractive to manager Buck Showalter, and the team knowing where it went wrong with Kim early on can possibly prevent such a difficult transition a second time.

Yang Hyeon-jong, LHP

The reigning KBO and Korean Series Most Valuable Player isn't eligible for international free agency, but he could be posted for sale by the Kia Tigers to come to the United States if they're so inclined. He was posted in 2014, but the bid was deemed too low and he remained in South Korea.

He's had three standout seasons since then, most recently going 20-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 2017 at age 29. If the Tigers decide they can get a decent fee from posting him to come to the United States, he has all the makings of an Orioles target — left-handed and possibly undervalued, without much financial commitment necessary. He made under $2 million this season after signing as a free agent last offseason, though he said after this season that he wants to return to his team, according to Yonhap News, which also reported that the three South Korean players were subject to status checks from MLB.

Jung Eui-yoon, OF

The third player MLB requested a status check on is Jung, 31, who hit 27 home runs in 2016 but just 15 in 2017 while batting .321. A right-handed-hitting outfielder might seem redundant to an Orioles club that has plenty of options on that front now and in the future, but he’s worth noting simply because one of the 30 MLB clubs asked about him.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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