The Loss Leaders, Part One

Baltimore's disastrous, recently voided signing of a Korean baseball prospect was strange, but it was also part of a disturbing career-long trend for GM Dan Duquette.
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Is that any way to respond to being in first place?

Illustration by David Rappoccio.

On January 17th, 2012, the students of Daegu Sangwon High School in South Korea are enjoying their winter breaks; they will return to class in early February for a week, then take another short vacation until March when their school year will officially begin. One student in particular, 17-year-old Seong-Min Kim, is enjoying it more than most. After all, he has just made over half a million dollars.

In a few weeks, Kim is set to enter his senior year—South Korean secondary schooling lasts three years, not four—as one of the top left-handed high school pitchers in his home country. He pitches not only for his school but for the South Korean 18U team, the equivalent of a national juniors squad, and his precocious mastery of the curveball has not only drawn attention from scouts in his homeland but from overseas in America—from Major League Baseball.

Kim knows what that means. Just about every kid in the world with a curveball and a dream knows what it means. Major League Baseball is the promised land; the font from which all good things (and a good deal of money) flow; the alchemical means by which a guy who can throw a ball 60 feet without hitting anything but a catcher's mitt can become something unto a walking god.

For a couple months, men from one of these teams—the Orioles, an American League team in Baltimore—have been telling Kim and his family that they think he could be one of those guys, and today they back up that talk with a promise: a minor-league contract to play baseball professionally in their organization with a $575,000 signing bonus.

Kim signs. Of course Kim signs. Elite professional players in South Korea—the very, very best of the Korean Baseball Organization—earn maybe $200,000 a year, tops. And here are the Orioles, offering him almost three times that much money and telling him to come over to America to see if he can earn a whole lot more. That's not even counting the cachet that comes with being in a MLB organization; as nice as being a top left-handed high-school pitcher is, the KBO, NPB, and Taiwanese professional leagues find an MLB roster credit more enticing. That $200,000 a year that the elite of the elite South Korean-born players make in the KBO? That's where the compensation scale for former MLB players begins. Everyone will overpay for a ringer.

And this is all part of the sell: a whole lot of talk about best possible outcomes. Perhaps it seems strange to Kim that the Orioles are the only team interested in him; that they're offering him over half a million dollars when they're the only bidder at the table. Even if it does, the Orioles are giving Kim 575,000 very good reasons why that shouldn't matter. After all, if the Orioles didn't think he was worth that much money, they wouldn't be offering it, would they?

So on January 17th, Seong-Min Kim becomes the richest kid in his class and celebrates, because he's taken a crucial first step to true greatness—and the Baltimore Orioles announce that they're buying fully into the East Asian international free agent market, as new Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette had promised when he took the reins of the American League East's resident disaster in November.

The disaster doesn't take long to spread. On February 2nd, the Korean Baseball Association and Korean Baseball Organization file a formal complaint with Major League Baseball regarding the conduct of the Orioles in signing Kim.

On February 8th, Kim is banned from baseball in his home country of South Korea indefinitely at both the amateur and professional levels.

On February 16th, Major League Baseball voids the contract between Kim and the Baltimore Orioles.

It is the third week of April now, and in both South Korea and America, the baseball season is underway without Seong-min Kim. He has nowhere left to play.

***

It was a match made in Hell: a man no one would hire for a job no one would take.

Dan Duquette assumed control of the Baltimore Orioles at the end of a job hunt that more resembled a public scouring crossed with a death march. Like most executives in America, the general managers of professional baseball teams are often fired but rarely unemployed; Duquette, however, hadn't held a job in Major League Baseball since the Red Sox cut him loose in 2002, after John Henry bought the team.

The widely accepted reason for this was that Duquette lacked one very essential talent of a manager in any line of work: he couldn't manage. Not in baseball terms—his baseball instincts were good enough to acquire Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez, and he hired people who drafted passably well. Duquette was unable to manage in the most basic sense of the word: he could not handle people. He was known for being uncompromising and acerbic, and he had a fatal weakness for the brilliance of his own ideas.

Take, for instance, South Korea. The winter of 2011 into 2012 was not the first time that a Dan Duquette team tossed money around one of the smallest and least fruitful regions for player development in East Asia—baseball does not have a hold in South Korea like it does in Japan, and among professional sports, soccer takes much of their young talent. When Dan Duquette ran the Red Sox, they would routinely hand out bonuses of over a half-million dollars to South Korean players who wouldn't make it out of the minors. In the few instances that they did, Sox fans soon wished they hadn't.

The most effective of the South Korean signings was Sun-Woo Kim, a right handed starting pitcher the Sox signed at age 24 in the last year of Duquette's reign. He started two games in the majors that season, appeared in relief in another 18, and pitched to a 5.63 ERA in 41.2 innings. ERA is not a perfect stat, especially for relief pitchers in sample sizes as small as Woo's 2001—but then Woo went on to throw another 300 innings of major league ball over the next five years and ended up with a career ERA of 5.31. It seems safe to say he found his talent level.

That was Duquette's most successful South Korean signing with the Red Sox. There are a great many competitors for the honor of being his least successful, but for the guys that never made it out of the minors he usually only paid $750,000 or so. Sang-Hoon Lee, however, is probably the best and brightest choice. Red Sox fans who recall years before 2004 might remember Lee as an orange-haired maniac of a reliever that Duquette handed $3 million over two years back in 2000, with over a million of that packaged as a signing bonus. Lee was 29 years old at the time.

Lee pitched 71 quality relief innings in Triple-A Pawtucket, got called up, got smacked around by the Baltimore Orioles one night in late June, went right back down and didn't show up again until rosters expanded at the end of August. By the end of the year he'd recorded only 11.2 innings of major league mound time, though he at least kept his ERA at 3.09. You shouldn't trust that ERA, though. Not only did Lee's season represent about as much work as the average reliever logged last month in Spring Training, but he walked four and struck out six, and probably should have been blown up to the tune of twice that tidy three-spot.

After Spring Training the next season, Lee was optioned to Pawtucket again, threw 50-odd innings of substantially less impressive relief pitching, then disappeared back to South Korea. Lee retired late last decade; the most recent American news item about him of any substance comes from Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe back in 2004, when he appended the following note about Lee to the bottom of a piece profiling Mo Vaughn on the eve of his retirement:

Remember Sang Hoon Lee, the Korean reliever who was a bust with the Red Sox after being given more than $3 million by Dan Duquette? According to the Korean Times, Lee signed a $500,000 contract with his new team, the SK Wyverns, the same salary he had with his former team, the LG Twins, last season. That made him the highest-paid player in Korea. He was traded by the Twins, the paper said, "due to a conflict with the manager over his increasing focus on playing guitar."

If, however, 11.2 innings of mediocre relief just doesn't do it for you when talking about "worst signings," Duquette's Red Sox gave Korean right-hander Jin Ho Cho $800,000 in 1998 and received 58 major league innings of 6.52 ERA pitching in return. Why did Cho get 58 innings to pitch the Red Sox out of games while Lee's relatively successful 11.2 get rewarded with a demotion? Different seasons, different circumstances; maybe Lee picked up the guitar too often in the Sox clubhouse as well.

But let's say instead of bad major league stats, you want guys getting paid a whole lot of money to not even make the show—Duquette Red Sox's have a wide selection of those, as well: Seung Song (1999, $800,000), Chul Oh (1999, $700,000), Byeong-Hak An (2001, $750,000). There's a couple more who accomplished so little that the spellings of their names can't even be verified against an online minor league baseball entry. One "Tai-In Che," a right-handed pitcher that Baseball America's Ben Badler mentions in his fantastic breakdown of everything Duquette and Korea, does not seem to have his brief presence in American professional baseball recorded anywhere on the internet. Which is perfectly understandable considering that, after Duquette gave him $750,000, he was unable to make it out of Rookie Ball.

It's not that South Korean players from that period couldn't succeed in the majors, either. The Red Sox were not the only team active in South Korea (or in Japan, in whose professional league many of the elite South Korean-born players compete) around the turn of the century; while all Duquette had to show for his efforts was a cadre of pitchers not even fit to mop-up in the majors, Byung-Hyun Kim (Diamondbacks, 1999), Hee-Seop Choi (Cubs, 2002), and Cha Seung Baek (Mariners, 2004) were all useful MLB players for a time, and Chan Ho Park (Dodgers, 1994) pitched in the majors for more than a decade. That's not to say these were the only South Korean players those teams signed, but to sign as many as Duquette did and not even get a serviceable utility infielder or middle reliever out of the bargain is quite frankly amazing.

Duquette's tenure with the Red Sox is more or less ancient history. Since his last move as Boston's boss a pair of new Collective Bargaining Agreements, the rise of the regional cable sports networks, team-owned channels, and the resulting advertising and media right mega-deals have changed baseball's economic landscape. As far removed as Duquette's experience at the end of Boston's bad old days is from the modern baseball landscape, it's important to remember this: the ongoing catastrophe described above formed the backbone of Duquette's interview pitch to owner Peter Angelos and manager Buck Showalter. (Yes, according to multiple reports Duquette interviewed with the field manager present.)

Perhaps it speaks to Duquette's persuasive abilities that his history of failure in South Korea could be spun into a vast wealth of experience and evidence of deep industry knowledge in the international free agent market. Duquette gets a lot of credit for beginning to scout the Dominican and other parts of Latin America for the first time in Red Sox history, but here too the attention of his scouting department led to a surprising lack of results. Hall of Fame lock Pedro Martinez was acquired in trade from the Montreal Expos, and his fellow countryman Jose Offerman was signed as a free agent. Nomar Garciaparra is of Mexican descent, and Duquette's front office did draft him—but Garciaparra was born in California, attended Georgia Tech for four years and signed out of college. The most successful Latin American free agent signing in Dan Duquette's time running the Red Sox was probably Wilton Veras, a third baseman from the Domincan Republic. If you don't know who that is, well, that's the point. But that's the experience Dan Duquette leaned on in the race for Baltimore's top front office job and that's where he sits today, for even a man with a broken crutch wins when he's racing alone.

That's the experience the Orioles will lean on when they scout Seong-Min Kim, when they sign Seong-Min Kim, and when they end Seong-Min Kim's career.

Read Part Two


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