There were the days leading up to Opening Day last year, when the Orioles tried their best to send the South Korean to the minor leagues to open the season, but couldn’t because his contract wouldn’t let them without his approval.
Then there was the opening month last season, when Kim made just four starts before finding his way in the lineup more often once he showed he could provide something the Orioles really needed, someone who got on base among the team’s tall-treed lineup of sluggers.
This spring, the talk was about Kim getting more opportunities against left-handed pitching, but that never truly happened in Sarasota, and now, the Orioles’ Opening Day left fielder can barely find his way into the lineup at all. The outfield is at full strength, and rookie Trey Mancini’s hot start has led to more opportunities against right-handed pitching, leaving Kim as the odd man out.
In South Korea, Kim was known as “The Ironman” because he played every day. But with the Orioles, he is now the last man on the end of the bench on a tight 25-man roster that will likely need more squeezing.
“It’s nice to be in the lineup every day, but if I start thinking that way, it’s only going to get tougher,” Kim said through interpreter Derrick Chung when asked whether frustration has mounted. “So I try not to think about it that way. I try to be positive, and we’re winning. We’re playing well. I think that’s the most important thing for our team, that we’re playing well and we’re winning.”
Even after being swept three games in Kansas City, the Orioles entered Monday’s day off — the team opens a three-game series in Detroit on Tuesday night — with a 22-14 record, just a half-game behind the first-place New York Yankees.
On Sunday, Kim — who is hitting .234/.321/.319 in 53 plate appearances this season — got his first start in nine days and his third start since April 29. The only time he was used in between was as a pinch hitter for the pitcher Wednesday in a National League park during an interleague game against the Washington Nationals. Kim responded Sunday by reaching base twice in three plate appearances, going 1-for-2 with a walk — the walk coming against a left-hander — in the Orioles’ 9-8 loss to the Royals.
“[He hasn’t played] as much as last year, but first off, he has shown us what he can do,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He did last year. Who has a higher on-base percentage, him or Seth Smith? Who do you play? It’s a good luxury, but I can’t play 10. I don’t think they’re gonna change the rules for us. I just can’t play 10. We haven’t had that issue in the past. But he’s handled it well, all things considered.
“But you’d think he knows from last year that at some point he’s going to get an opportunity and he’s going to have to be ready for it,” Showalter added before Sunday’s game. “He always puts his work in. I think there are a lot of people who are pulling for him today. I’d love to see him get going.”
Showalter said it’s difficult to find playing time for Kim because of many underlying factors. The development of Mancini, one of the club’s top position-player prospects, is critical. The Orioles need to see whether he’s ready to be more than a platoon player in his first extended big league season by giving him at-bats against right-handers and seeing how he endures the grind of a regular role. The argument can be made that that decision is more important to the club’s long-term success than ensuring Kim — who is in the final year of a two-year, $7 million contract — gets at-bats.
And Kim isn’t bumping Smith, the team’s other left-handed outfield platoon hitter. Smith has a .301/.395/.507 hitting line through 23 games, and has done it while filling the team’s leadoff spot against right-handers. In a lot of ways, Smith fills the role Kim did for the club last season, and is a more seasoned and complete player.
That leaves Kim, who is making $4.2 million this season, left waiting for his next opportunity.
“It is somewhat out of my hands,” Kim said. “Yes, I could have played better and gotten myself better prepared for the season. But right now, I’m just trying to control what I can control. … I’m always hitting with the hitting coach just trying to hit as much as I can, try to hit off the machines so that I can stay fresh and stay with the [speed of the game] and just keeping working and trying to be as prepared as I can be so when I get my shot, I can do well.”
Showalter has always applauded the way Kim has handled himself through lean playing time. He has often said that Kim is a “watcher,” and he learns from watching games develop from the dugout. Showalter said he keeps an eye on Kim’s body language to ensure his morale is up.
“I think he knows,” Showalter said. “He’s smart enough to know. But I’d love for him to get hotter and what have you. … I watch his body language and everything. He’s been great. I think it’s just kind of a cultural thing. He’s very respectful. But I don’t take it for granted and I try to stay communicative with him, making sure that he doesn’t think I’m mad at him, or that it’s not something he did. It’s kind of what Trey’s been doing.
“It’s not like I’ve got him in here every day he doesn’t play, but you do observe to make sure he’s [engaged]. He’s not really new to this thing.”
The Orioles face more challenges with their outfield mix in the coming weeks. Veteran outfielder Michael Bourn has been playing at Triple-A Norfolk for a week after a finger injury that ended his spring training before it really began, and he soon could be another option as a left-handed-hitting outfielder.
In some ways, this is the result of putting too much faith in the platoon formula the Orioles orchestrated heading into the season. It was possible that over the course of the season someone would emerge as an everyday player, and Mancini — whose seven homers and 20 RBIs trail only Manny Machado's totals on the club — did that sooner than anticipated.
So where does that leave Kim? The trade market isn’t necessarily clamoring for platoon outfielders six weeks into the season, let alone a player like Kim who carries a significant salary that offers little roster flexibility.
So for now, everyone remains patient. And Kim can’t help but look back on those limited opportunities this season, thinking that maybe he put more pressure on himself early.
“I am more comfortable definitely with my surroundings, in the clubhouse, just with the staff, but I never thought it would be easier in the batter’s box [this year],” Kim said. “It’s never easy. ... I think I put just a little bit of pressure on myself to be a little too good. I guess I was trying to be too perfect and I think I have been putting a little more pressure on myself than I needed to. I’m just trying to be prepared for when I get my shot. I’m sure the team is doing what it needs to do to win every day and if the team is doing well, I’m 100 percent behind it. Just be prepared.”