The Orioles had high hopes for South Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon when they signed him to a three-year, $5.575 million deal last spring training, but their greatest victory involving Yoon might be how they were able to absolve themselves of the pitcher with little consequence.
The Orioles finalized a deal Thursday night to release Yoon from his major league contract so he could return to South Korea and re-join the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. Meanwhile, the Orioles are off the hook for $4.3 million in salary and expenses the team owed Yoon over the next two seasons.
"We thought that Suk-min Yoon could develop into a decent pitcher here, but it didn't work out," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "Some of them are going to work and some of them aren't going to work. The good thing about this is that this didn't work, but we were able to correct a mistake, if you will, and we'll have that money available to invest in other players."
So, one day before the 28-year-old Yoon was supposed to report to Orioles minor league camp at Twin Lakes Park, he was instead flying back home to South Korea, according to a source. Yoon signed a four-year deal with the Kia Tigers, the team he pitched nine seasons for before coming to the United States, going 73-59 with a 3.39 ERA. A three-time KBO all-star, he won the league's Most Valuable Player award in 2011 for Kia, going 17-5 with a 2.45 ERA.
"He released us of any financial obligations that we had to him as part of the agreement and we released him from his contract so he could sign with Kia," said Duquette, who said Yoon requested his release about a month ago. "His former team, I think, really wanted him back. Kia was the team that he played with before and he was a franchise player for Kia before signing with the Orioles."
Even though his time in the United States wasn't a success, he will be handsomely rewarded by returning to South Korea. His deal with the KIA Tigers is worth a total of $8.2 million and is the highest handed out to a free-agent pitcher in team history, according to Yonhap News.
Despite being under a major league contract, Yoon was not invited to big league camp this spring. That disappointed Yoon, according to a source, especially given the Orioles' reputation as an organization that gives players opportunities.
"I'm sure he was" disappointed, manager Buck Showalter said before the Orioles' split-squad road game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. "Pitch better.
"He's going to be fine," Showalter added. "We wish him well. I don't know if we have first dibs if he comes back or not. I imagine we would. It worked out well for him, and for us, for that matter."
Yoon's struggles with the Orioles began on Day One. He got a late start last spring because of visa issues — he had to leave camp to fly to Canada to apply for work papers — and pitched just three Grapefruit League innings before being sent to Triple-A Norfolk.
He didn't pitch well for the Tides, going 4-8 with 5.74 ERA in 23 games. Opposing batters hit .317 against him.
In 18 starts for Norfolk, he made just three quality starts and went more than six innings just twice. The organization experimented with Yoon as a reliever in his last month with the Tides and he posted a 7.71 ERA in five relief appearances.
Yoon was removed from the Orioles' 40-man roster in August and outrighted to Triple-A.
He was not invited to either major league camp or the club's January pitchers minicamp. He also did not attend a minicamp for top minor league players in advance of regular minor league camp.
"There's all kinds of pressure, especially when you come over and get a nice little bonus there and maybe the expectations weren't met, maybe on both sides," said Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who briefly caught Yoon in Triple-A. "I think, for us, we take pride in our pitching and we depend a lot on our pitcher and I'm just not sure that he was going to have a real, legitimate chance to crack the top of 12 or 13 guys. That being the case, he probably thought he maybe has a better opportunity in Korea."
The Orioles paid Yoon $1.425 million last season — a $675,000 signing bonus and $750,000 base salary — and were slated to pay him $1.75 million this season and $2.4 million next season.
Yoon spent nearly a month this offseason working out at the Orioles' major league spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla., but left shortly before big league camp opened to continue his training in Southern California, an indication all was not well between him and the Orioles.
One Orioles official said Yoon's report date is still listed as today. If he doesn't show up, the team can't simply void his contract. Their only recourse for a player who doesn't attend camp is to place him on the restricted list. That player wouldn't get paid while on the restricted list.
The Orioles have had mixed success with signing players out of Asia under executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette.
Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen has been a staple of the starting rotation for the past three seasons, averaging nearly 12 wins a season. But the Orioles' two-year deal with Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada passed without his pitching a major league game for the Orioles after Tommy John elbow surgery in 2012. Wada has since had success with the Chicago Cubs.
The Orioles also drew criticism in South Korea in 2012 for signing 17-year-old pitcher Seong-min Kim without following the proper protocol, prompting the country's baseball governing body to ban Orioles scouts from games.
Duquette has said that making smart international signings will be important to sustaining the club's success. Duquette has signed players out of Cuba, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Guatemala, New Zealand and Brazil.