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Schmuck: Could Orioles be evaluating alternatives for struggling Hyun Soo Kim?

Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim, of South Korea, reacts after getting called out on strikes as Toronto Blue Jays' Jesse Chavez get set to toss the ball to the pitcher during the first inning of a spring training game Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Dunedin, Fla.
Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim, of South Korea, reacts after getting called out on strikes as Toronto Blue Jays' Jesse Chavez get set to toss the ball to the pitcher during the first inning of a spring training game Tuesday, March 15, 2016, in Dunedin, Fla. (Chris OMeara / AP)

DUNEDIN, FLA. — The Orioles are withholding judgment on the likelihood that South Korean outfielder Hyun Soo Kim will win an everyday job in left field, but it certainly appears they are preparing for an alternative scenario.

Manager Buck Showalter said that the surprise appearance of first baseman Christian Walker in left field Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays bore no relation to the uncertainty at the corner-outfield positions that has been one of the continuing narratives this spring. But it's hard not to connect those dots.

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Kim has put his lengthy Grapefruit League hitting drought behind him, which should have come as some relief to a team that paid him $7 million to improve their overall on-base percentage for the next two years. He has not, however, done much to ease doubts about his ability to compete at this level.

Showalter has been patient and positive throughout the Orioles' second attempt to bring a successful Korean player into their talent pool. But you have to wonder how long that is going to last now that the Orioles have reached the halfway point in the exhibition season.

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"I've had enough people tell me that this isn't him, that he just doesn't seem to be the same guy [he was in Korea]," Showalter said. "I don't know if it's the better velocity, the better pitching …"

No one is ready to call Kim a bust, of course, since there is still time for him to get more comfortable at the plate and in the outfield. It's just that the contrast between Kim's first three weeks in a major league camp and the performances of a number of the Orioles minor league prospects has been dramatic.

The game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium provided some obvious examples. Walker has been swinging one of the most productive bats in camp, and he went out to an unfamiliar position Tuesday and held his own — making a key outfield assist to blunt what was shaping up to be a big first inning for the Blue Jays.

Late in the game, minor league outfielder Alfredo Marte replaced Walker in left and made one nice play after another, one of them a diving grab in the seventh inning and another a tough catch in left-center field that ended a Toronto rally in the ninth to preserve a 6-6 tie that would not be played out.

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Marte also hit a two-run home run that temporarily boosted the Orioles into the lead and elevated his exhibition batting average to .368 (7-for-19).

This has been a pleasant development that has not gone unnoticed by Showalter, who has dropped his name into a number of postgame press briefings. Marte is a 26-year-old corner guy who played a total of 71 games in the majors for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels before he was signed as a free agent by the Orioles in December.

"He came with some unknown about him defensively," Showalter said. "He had a misplay the very first game he played and since then he's played really well out there. I was telling you all along, he takes a quality at-bat just about every time he goes up there."

Marte's performance doesn't directly connect to the Kim situation either. He's not even on the 40-man roster, so it would take a string of unforeseen circumstances to get him anywhere near Camden Yards on Opening Day.

Walker is a far more realistic possibility, even if Showalter is trying to cast this as largely a move to diversify his minor league depth at a time when he already has three big-time sluggers on the projected 25-man roster who play first base. One of them — Chris Davis — is signed through the 2022 season.

"Just thinking now and in the future," Showalter said. "I think Christian's got a good chance to be a good offensive performer in the big leagues. I love the fact that he's always driven in runs. He's just got a little different gear he goes to when there's somebody out there."

Which brings us back to Kim, who escaped from his long hitless streak with a pair of infield hits and a ground ball single to the outfield over the past four games. He walked and was hit by a pitch in four plate appearances Tuesday, which raised his on-base percentage to .171, but has yet to display the bat speed or plate presence that would indicate he's going to suddenly bloom into a productive major league hitter. His outfield skills also are still open to question, which would figure to be an issue for a team that might have to depend heavily on its defense to prop up an inconsistent starting rotation.

So, if you're the Orioles, what do you do if Kim doesn't begin to show signs of real life at the plate in the next two weeks?

That probability presents an uncomfortable situation on a number of levels. The Orioles already have been down that road with Korean pitcher Suk Min Yoon, who asked out of his contract and went home when it became apparent he was in over his head.

The club certainly does not want to release Kim and burn $7 million, and he cannot be sent to the minor leagues without his permission. The Orioles also do not want to embarrass him and damage their chances of competing for talent on the Pacific Rim in the future.

It's a very sensitive situation that might not end well, but the Orioles know that they must be ready to put someone else out there on Opening Day.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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