SARASOTA, FLA. — In their quest to add a veteran outfielder this past offseason, the Orioles acquired Hyun Soo Kim of South Korea, entering them yet again into a corner of the international market in which even the most established stars are hard to evaluate.
More and more teams recently have tapped the Korean Baseball Organization to lure its stars to the American talent pool, and that it's small-market teams such as the Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins suggests that there's value in doing so.
But combine the scant major league track record of players coming over from the KBO, the stark cultural adjustment required when they come over and perhaps most importantly the heaps of personal and national pride at stake, and there's plenty of uncertainty involved in bringing these players to the United States.
Because few have paved the way before them, they know their play could affect those who have yet to arrive. And Kim wasn't initially able to break camp with the Orioles, starting the season off the 25-man roster.
"They want to show how Korean players is good enough for you guys," said Hee-Seop Choi, the first South Korean-born position player in the major leagues and a guest instructor at Orioles camp this spring. "They want to show out. If I do make a mistake, it's not just me. It's all the Korean players."
Kim, 28, has long been regarded as one of the best hitters in Korea, and after signing him to a two-year, $7 million contract, executive vice president Dan Duquette pointed out that the Orioles had added a career .318 hitter — a rare find in today's game, regardless of the level. Kim had a career .895 OPS and hit a career-high 28 home runs in 2015 before coming to America.
The only position player with any major league track record to have come directly from the KBO was Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, who like Kim capped a decorated KBO career with a monstrous final season before coming to America. Except for Choi and Kang, the only Korean-born hitter to reach the majors without having moved to America during his youth is Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
In Kang, evaluators have the first blueprint for how long the adjustment between the two leagues — and different worlds — could take.
Kang struggled badly early in 2015, his first season in America, enduring a 1-for-24 slump during spring training similar to Kim's 0-for-23 drought to open his first Grapefruit League campaign. Kang started the regular season slowly, too, but finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
Based on the success of Kang and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, teams have given more attention to Korean players recently. Kim came to America this year at the same time as slugging first baseman Byung Ho Park, who signed with the Twins.
An American League scout who went to South Korea last year to evaluate one of the players who came over this year said he equates the quality of play in Korea to Triple-A baseball in the United States, even with some of the unusual factors relating to the environment and the way the game is played.
Choi, who signed as an amateur in 1999, debuted at age 23 for the Chicago Cubs in 2002. He played four major league seasons with the Cubs, Dodgers and the then-Florida Marlins, and after spending 2006 in the minors returned to Korea to play eight more seasons in the KBO. He said there might be one position player and one pitcher on each of the KBO's 10 rosters who are of major league quality.
Though 12 Korean-born pitchers have reached the majors since Chan Ho Park debuted for the Dodgers in 1994, it's still a pitching-light league. Combine that with the smaller ballparks and lighter baseballs, and hitting stats need to be evaluated with caution.
Behind Byung Ho Park, who led the KBO with 53 home runs last season, fringe major leaguers (and former members of the Orioles organization) Yamaico Navarro and Eric Thames were second and third in the KBO with 48 and 47 home runs, respectively.
It could only be a happy coincidence that Kang — a career .298/.383/.504 hitter who averaged 20 home runs over his seven full seasons in Korea — hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 home runs last year with the Pirates.
As they do in small American towns all season, the scout said evaluators look at a KBO player just as they would when breaking a player down in the context of a minor league game.
"You look at the guys whose tools, whose abilities will translate to the big leagues," the scout said. "Can they do the things that the big leaguers do?"
He said Byung Ho Park's most impressive tool was the major league power in his hands. Kang, whom the scout saw last spring after the Pirates signed him out of the KBO, had undeniable athleticism and carried himself with a major league attitude.
Kim's skills — his hit tool and plate discipline — are a bit harder to translate than the physical ones. The tools the scout identified in Kang and Byung Ho Park need time to adjust, but show at any level. Kim's bat-to-ball ability and pitch recognition will determine whether his skills carry over against better pitching.
What the Pirates found out with Kang last year, and the Orioles are finding out with Kim this year, is that the jump in talent to the major league level and all the societal trappings that come with such a transition cannot be overlooked.
Kim said through his translator, Danny Lee, that even with advice from Ryu and Kang on how to handle the baseball aspect of the transition, he still found himself struggling upon his arrival.
"Even in the beginning of the training, I thought everything was in order and I thought I'd be able to focus on baseball," Kim said. "But there was a bit of a language barrier and language problem that I was going through, which kind of made me to be nervous and kind of shrunk down a little bit."
Choi said Korean players of this generation benefit from the path he laid out in that they can prepare for life in America ahead of time. For Choi's generation, success in Korea would lead to a contract in Japan. Players such as Kang and Kim studied English for years, observed the American game and had time to plot their move to the United States. The piece of advice that stuck out to Kim didn't relate to baseball, though. It was about food.
"They actually gave me a lot of advice so I can be ready," Kim said. "Other than baseball, they said, 'Make sure you eat well. Make sure you eat well, even though it doesn't look like you fit into it. Eat well so your body is in good condition.'"
Kim cooks most of his own meals, eliminating some of that difficulty, but the Orioles were still cognizant of that adjustment.
During the first week of spring training, manager Buck Showalter had bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish, prepared for Kim to give him a taste of home.
Still, the baseball transitions exist for every player coming over, something scouts have found exists for every hitter coming from Japan or South Korea. The KBO, especially, is a hitters' league, without premium velocity or many secondary pitches. A year after Ryu signed with the Dodgers before the 2013 season, the Orioles signed fellow South Korean Suk-min Yoon, who never reached the majors before returning to the KBO.
Showalter said the team is aware of that adjustment period and spent the spring trying to determine just why the Kim they saw in the first two weeks of games was so different from the one they signed. He came up with several reasons. Among them was a batting practice group that included some of the Orioles' top sluggers, which made Kim conscious of his own power. That might have caused Kim to change his approach somewhat to play up his pull power instead of staying in his plan and going the opposite way with pitches.
Choi, who met frequently with Kim during spring training, describes Kim as a "shoot" hitter who goes the opposite way often.
Three weeks into Grapefruit League games, Kim met with Showalter and Choi, and the group reviewed tape comparing his KBO at-bats to the ones he had had in Florida. The early Grapefruit League version of Kim was selling out and trying to cheat on fastballs, trying to show pull power that's not part of his repertoire. In the next day's game after that meeting, Kim was more patient, letting fastballs get deeper into the zone before slapping them the other way.
Choi said through his interpreter, Kyong Butz, that Kim had an idea of what the problem was before that meeting, and all parties agreed the only way for him to succeed in America was to go back to the hitting approach he used in South Korea.
"If Kim changed to the American style, it would probably not work," Choi said. "So let him do his style work, and that will be better for him and the team."
And Kim suddenly seemed more like the player the Orioles were describing, getting on base with increased regularity and accumulating hits without trying to hit the ball too hard.
"Now, I'm more free of mind, and kind of used to these surroundings," Kim said. "Now, I'm trying to be more myself, to be how I was before."
That's what he'll need to be to fulfill his nation's hopes for him, to reach the major leagues and succeed.
"They're proud of their country, and they play harder when they go overseas," Choi said. "Soccer, too. Every player, individual, playing with Baltimore or Pittsburgh, it doesn't matter. They are here thinking, I'm the Korean.
"I'm not Kim. I'm not Park. I'm Korean."
And two nations wait anxiously to see how that looks in America.