NATIONAL HARBOR — Outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, a man who began 2016 as an encumbrance on manager Buck Showalter and the Orioles and barely played for the first two months of the season, is being welcomed into 2017 with a different tune.
Showalter on Wednesday at the winter meetings tapped Kim as a growth stock for 2017, saying the team not only will ask more of him but has reason to expect it.
"I think about all the things that challenged him last year that are not going to challenge him this year, and we talk about guys that could go to another level, I think he's got that potential," Showalter said. "We saw flashes of it. You know, the left-handed pitching thing just kind of snowballed. He's a lot better than that. I think he's an adequate defender, a guy that I could play right field instead of left field if we needed to, especially in our ballpark."
It's all a far cry from the early pessimism that surrounded Kim, who went hitless over the first few weeks of spring training, endured a minor controversy about him exercising his contractual right to refuse an assignment to the minors and played but once a week in April and May.
Once that changed, Kim became a reliable platoon outfielder, batting .302/.382/.420 with six home runs in 95 games. A year of experience in the United States for the South Korean star will help him start stronger next year, the team hopes, though the World Baseball Classic could complicate that.
Kim was one of four major league players announced on the preliminary roster for South Korea in the March tournament, and the Orioles will support him if he wants to play. It's unclear whether it will help or hurt his preparation, though.
"That's an interesting question, because one of the things about Kim last year was he didn't get off to a very good start because he was used to a much longer preparation period," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "Spring training was a lot longer in Korea, so there's two ways to look at that. If he's out playing competitive games early on in spring training, he's probably getting the reps there to get ready for the season. But I don't know what his decision is going to be. That's a personal decision."
Culturally, the WBC and international competition in general are great points of pride in Korea. Kim won the Olympic gold medal in baseball in 2008 and has competed for his country all his life, so what's best for his professional career might not align with his responsibilities back home.
"I'm real sensitive to the pressure those guys are under," Showalter said. "I know a little bit more than what I'm going to speak about here about where he is at, playing or not playing. We're going to support all of our guys in the WBC -- I'm going to look out what's best for the Orioles, but also you're trying to bridge that with the pressures. I know it's real important to Korea. And whichever way he decides to go, we're going to be in full support of it. Would I rather he play, not play? We all have a perfect-world scenario."
So far, Kim has joined third baseman Manny Machado (Dominican Republic), center fielder Adam Jones (United States) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (Netherlands) as players committed to play if asked.
If that list grows, it won't include Zach Britton. Duquette said Britton was contacted by United States general manager Joe Torre and asked to play recently.
"Zach was flattered by the interest, but he has elected to decline," Duquette said. "He cited the need to spend more time with his family. He just had a baby recently, and he'll be in camp with us preparing for the season."
According to an ESPN report, reliever Mychal Givens also wants to play for the United States, but Duquette said he hadn't been informed one way or another whether that would happen. MLB, which owns the tournament, has capped the amount of players from one club who can play at four.