The Orioles were one of several teams that lost out on the negotiating rights to first baseman Byung-ho Park, but another player from South Korea who will be posted in the upcoming days might be a better fit.
Outfielder Ah-seop Son is expected to be posted by his Korean Baseball Organization team, the Lotte Giants, on Monday, according to an industry source. As with Park, major league teams have the next four days to make a blind bid. Lotte will then decide whether to accept the highest bid, and the winning team has 30 days to negotiate a deal with Son.
The 27-year-old profiles as a corner outfielder who can bat leadoff and has a good on-base percentage, both areas of need for the Orioles this offseason. He has been compared to Japanese free-agent outfielder Nori Aoki, who the Orioles have expressed interest in this offseason and last.
The big question regarding Son, just like other players coming from South Korea, is whether his success abroad translates to the major leagues.
This past season, Son hit .317/.406/.472 with 13 homers, 54 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Maybe more importantly, he doesn’t strike out often — which would be welcome in the Orioles’ feast-or-famine lineup — striking out in just 15.6 percent of his career plate appearances.
Son, a left-handed batter who has hit to all fields during his career in South Korea, is a perennial All-Star in the KBO and led the league in hits in 2012 and 2013. His KBO numbers, which include a .323 batting average and .398 on-base percentage over nine seasons, compare to Aoki’s in his nine years in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league. However, the level of play in Japan is regarded as significantly better than that in Korea.
So don’t be surprised if the Orioles place a bid on Son this week, as they did for Park. The Minnesota Twins won the bidding for Park with a $12.85 million blind bid. The 29-year-old Park is a power-hitting first baseman coming off back-to-back 50-homer seasons with the Nexen Heroes. But Son would seem to fit the Orioles better.
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette has tapped international markets often, especially Asia. His signing of Taiwan-born left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, who signed with the Orioles after pitching in Japan, might have been his best signing with the club outside of Nelson Cruz’s one-year deal in 2014. Chen gave the Orioles four solid seasons as a below-market-value player before becoming a free agent this offseason.
There also have been some failures, such as the Orioles’ last venture into South Korea. They signed right-hander Suk-min Yoon to a three-year, $5.75 million deal before the 2014 season. But Yoon never pitched a regular-season game for the Orioles, and the club absolved itself of his contract this past spring by allowing him to return to South Korea.
This offseason, there could be several South Korean players hoping to sign with major league clubs. The success of Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop-third baseman Jung-ho Kang this season will open the door for other players from the country to play in the majors. Park and Son are just the beginning.
The Orioles could avoid having to pay a posting fee with three other South Korean players expected to test the big league waters.
Hyun-soo Kim, also a 27-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder, is now an international free agent after playing the past 10 years in the KBO, so major league teams are free to sign him without having to go through the posting process.
Kim, who played mostly left field and occasionally first base, hit .326, with 28 homers, 121 RBIs, 11 steals and 101 walks with the Doosan Bears in 2015.
In addition to being one of the top run producers in the KBO, Kim also has shown exemplary plate discipline, finishing among the top five in walks five times.
Two other players who previously played in Japan, closer Seung-hwan Oh and first baseman Dae-ho Lee, are also free agents.
The 33-year-old Oh was one of the top relievers in the Japanese Central League, posting a 2.25 ERA and averaging 40 saves over the past two seasons. He has a 1.81 ERA and has averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his 11-year career in South Korea and Japan.
Lee, also 33, spent four years in Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific league before declining his 2016 option with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Lee hit .282/.368/.524, with 31 homers and 98 RBIs this past season, and has a .303/.387/.514 slash line in his 15-year career in South Korea and Japan.
Since joining the Orioles, Duquette often has said that cultivating the international market, along with drafting well, having solid player development and making savvy trades, will be crucial to sustaining success. Given Duquette’s previous attempts in Asia, expect the Orioles to make a play for some of these South Korean players.