Reflecting on Hyun Soo Kim's tenure with the Orioles

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Hyun Soo Kim's departure from the Orioles as what proved to be a salary makeweight in the team's deal with the Philadelphia Phillies to bring in right-hander Jeremy Hellickson marks an ignominious end to a spell with the team that saw him idealized as the cure for the club's most glaring offensive ills.

As a contact hitter with a keen eye for the strike zone, Kim's $7 million arrival from the Korean Baseball Organization ahead of the 2016 season was what a particular subset of fans craved — a steady presence in a lineup full of swing-and-miss sluggers who would take a walk and keep things relatively stable.

His fulfillment of that prophecy last season was quixotic; that his ultimate downfall came because of the emergence of another quintessential Orioles product — the overlooked pure hitter Trey Mancini — is cruelly fitting. Kim was a misfit who would have fit perfectly, only his place was never really his own.

My first dive into what he could contribute to the 2016 Orioles came before his first spring training, when a combination of quotes from Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter plus his KBO-adjusted Steamer projection via FanGraphs had him hitting 16 home runs while batting .273 with a .758 OPS in his first season with the Orioles, created plenty of optimism.

It proved ambitious on the power side — his first home run came in late May. But that was at the beginning of his time as a regular in the Orioles lineup. It was deserved and necessary, given how the league caught up to Rule 5 draft pick Joey Rickard and how every ball Kim slapped seemed to be finding grass. His batting average never dipped below .300 and was over .380 when Showalter put him in the lineup for good.

But it wasn't always looking that way. The initial plan for our 2016 preview section was a story on the local Korean community's palpable excitement at the KBO hero joining the hometown Orioles. But halfway through spring, it didn't look like there was much to be excited about. He was put in a batting practice group with a bunch of natural sluggers and quickly lost his swing.

Guest coach Hee Seop Choi, the first South Korean hitter to make it big in America, knew Kim wasn't being true to himself. That story morphed into one on the unknown when bringing Korean players over and some of the challenges they faced, and Choi's perspective in there proved prescient. Kim wasn't a power hitter. He was a "shoot hitter," as he called it.

By midseason, Kim proved to be the light-hearted man off the field that the Orioles heard about when he was training in California two winters ago with vice president Brady Anderson, and worked himself into the steady hitter they expected, too.

That Kim was vilified by a portion of the fan base after that spring was unfortunate. He was fortunate to get the choice not to go to the minor leagues. His friend and peer from a talent perspective, infielder Jae-gyun Hwang, spent three months in the minors this year before the San Francisco Giants finally called him up and hasn't caught on in the majors.

The animus ultimately didn't last long. An overwhelming guilt over the Opening Day treatment turned him into a fan favorite, and he carried that all through 2016. The team even made a Korean-script jersey that has been ubiquitous both in Baltimore and at visiting parks.

Such was his success in his rookie year, batting .302 with an .801 OPS and a 119 wrC+, that Showalter said at the winter meetings in December that Kim was probably capable of hitting both left-handers and right-handers and playing right field, too.

A month later, Duquette traded for Seth Smith, who ultimately proved better at Kim's role. Two months later, Mancini started playing the outfield so the team had a way to get his bat on the roster. Kim started on Opening Day, getting the ovation down the orange carpet that many felt he was owed after last year. But within weeks, Mancini started taking the at-bats against right-handed pitching earmarked for Kim all winter.

Even when Mancini moved to first base for a month when Chris Davis strained his oblique, Kim never seized a significant role. Kim never complained, but a few weeks ago, Showalter acknowledged it was probably creating a crisis of confidence. Kim was still in the dugout after every home run, throwing sunflower seeds and keeping things fun, but the problem was he was always in the dugout.

It was almost an inevitability that his time was running short, but it was still a shock. The entire Orioles clubhouse respected how Kim handled his situation, and now he'll go to the National League, where he might find everyday at-bats in one form or another with the Phillies.

When his contract is up this fall, he could sign back in South Korea and return a hero. Or he could sign with another major league club and capture the imagination of a city the way he did here. Even if this year wasn't what he hoped, Kim did all he could have been expected to under the unique circumstances laid out in Baltimore.

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