SARASOTA, FLA. — Suk-min Yoon spent his childhood in South Korea idolizing fellow countryman Chan Ho Park as he became the first South Korean-born player to pitch the major leagues, all while hoping that one day he could follow in Park's footsteps.
The 27-year-old right-hander's dream got closer to reality Tuesday, when the Orioles formally introduced him to the media, making Yoon the first player in franchise history to be born in South Korea.
"I worked hard to get to that goal, and now that I'm here," Yoon said through agent Tad Hun Yo, who also served as an interpreter. "I'm very excited. But I also want the season to start right away, because I'm so excited."
After a nine-year career in South Korea, he turned down better offers to stay at home to finally come to the U.S.
"Now that I'm a free agent now [in the Korean Baseball Organization], my determination to pitch in the U.S. hasn't changed," he said. "That was the ultimate decision-maker. It wasn't necessarily about the money, it was about the opportunity to be competitive and play in the best league in the world."
Yoon becomes the latest international signing by Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who has intensified the organization's global efforts by signing players such as left-hander Wei-Yin Chen out of Taiwan and outfielder Henry Urrutia from Cuba. The Orioles also found right-hander Miguel Gonzalez pitching winter ball in Mexico.
"This is part of our international recruiting strategy, to be aggressive in all markets around the world and help the club be a perennial contender," Duquette said. "The work that the club did with Chen will help us in terms of acclimating Yoon to our environment and getting comfortable here in the states."
Yoon donned an Orioles jersey with the No. 18 — a number that Duquette said is typically reserved for ace starting pitchers in Asian countries.
"Eighteen wins sounds good," Yo said with a chuckle as Yoon buttoned his jersey.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter then put his hand on Yoon's back and said, "I was thinking an ERA of 1.8."
Yoon comes to the Orioles as an accomplished South Korean pitcher — he was a three-time Korean Baseball Organization All-Star and the league's MVP in 2011, when he led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
But he was far less coveted than Hyun-jin Ryu, one of baseball's top rookies last season in his first big league season, in which he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers after arriving from South Korea.
How Yoon — who signed a three-year, $5.575 million deal — fits in on the Orioles' pitching staff remains to be seen. He was a starter for most of his professional career pitching for the Kia Tigers, but has also pitched in relief.
He recorded 19 saves in his second professional season and his final 17 appearances last year were in relief Last season, he was 2-1 with a 3.60 ERA and seven saves as a reliever and was just 1-5 with a 4.16 ERA as a starter.
He also pitched through shoulder issues last season. Duquette said Yoon had shoulder tendinitis and has worked to strengthen his shoulder since November. And even though deals with Grant Balfour and Tyler Colvin were squashed by the Orioles this offseason because of concerns that were raised in their physical exams, Yoon went through his physical successfully.
Yoon said he pitched in relief last year because his team's manager wanted the club's best pitcher to close out games.
The Orioles have an opening at closer after trading Jim Johnson, who recorded back-to-back 50-save seasons, but setup man Tommy Hunter appears to be the lead candidate to fill that spot.
"He pitched as a starter and in relief in international competition," said Duquette, who signed Yoon to a deal that includes incentives for games started. "He pitched as the top pitcher in the league, and last year he was also a closer, so he has experience in each of those jobs, and that will be determined by how he pitches, and Buck and his coaches will decide where he pitches, based on how he pitches. If he pitches and gets them out, he'll stay out there longer."
Duquette said that the club's scouting reports on Yoon say he's a similar to Gonzalez. Duquette said Yoon has excellent command, a quality breaking ball that can get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out and an excellent changeup that is utilized against left-handed hitters.
Asked whether he sees Yoon as a starter or reliever, Showalter said he will take about 10 days to get a good look at Yoon before evaluating him.
"I think, until we get our arms around him and get him on the field and see where he is physically and get to know him, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves," Showalter said. "We know he has the capability of both. We're not going to preclude him from doing anything. He's obviously here to contribute, and the question is going to be when and how. That's what we're looking at. … I want to leave us some wiggle room to adjust to him, as opposed to him adjusting to us."
Yoon said the opportunity to start was among the top factors in selecting the Orioles, but this week's four-year agreement with right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez seemingly fills the club's open rotation spot. Showalter said there will still be competition.
The Orioles could send Yoon to the minor leagues to begin the season. There is a stipulation in Yoon's contract that prevents the Orioles from optioning him to the minors in 2015 and '16 without his approval, but the club could send him to Triple-A to open this season since he is arriving late to camp, and also to aid his transition to baseball in the U.S.
Yoon must also acquire his work visa, which is likely to take about two weeks. To avoid Yoon having to fly back to South Korea, the Orioles plan to apply for the visa through the U.S. embassy in Canada.
On Tuesday, Yoon participated in one-on-one sprinting drills with strength and conditioning coach Joe Hogarty and did some light throwing. He's expected to be a full participant in Wednesday's workout, which will include his first bullpen session.
Yoon, who will be just the 16th South Korean born player in major league history when he makes his debut, said he realizes he will face his share of obstacles, both getting adjusted to the game here as well as life in a new country.
He faces uncertainty regarding his role, but said he hopes to handle it the same way as when he first entered the KBO as an 18-year-old with a lot to prove.
"I'm approaching that in the same manner," he said. "I want to work hard, look good in front of the manager and pitch well so I have an opportunity to start.
"You have the most elite players here in the United States in MLB, so I have to adjust to that," Yoon said. "[You're] pitching to the top hitters in the world. … I don't feel like I'll succumb to that type of pressure. I know how I can pitch."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun