Illustration by David Rappoccio.
Illustration by David Rappoccio.
Seong-Min Kim's deal is strange even before it ends life as he knows it.
When the Orioles first announce the signing, people in the baseball media are confused—once they figure out who Baltimore's talking about. The money wasn't necessarily bad in and of itself; the new CBA's hard cap on amateur signing bonuses won't go into effect for another six months, so if the Orioles feel a kid is worth it there's nothing stopping them from giving him half a million to sign.
The questions begin on January 23rd, when unnamed sources in the Eutaw Street Warehouse leak the following description of Kim to Baltimore Sun beat writer Eduardo Encina:
Kim—who won’t turn 18 until April—is a project, but the organization feels he has the tools to make it to the majors. He’s 5 feet 10, 180 pounds, but projects to be about 6-1, 195 pounds when he’s fully grown. His fastball tops off at 90 but usually hits the high 80s. His 12-to-6 curveball is well above average—especially for his age—as is his change up. The team expects him to progress with age.
The only part of the pitcher described in the above two paragraphs that resembles the Seong-Min Kim that the rest of baseball knows is that both of them have birthdays in April.
"The O's gave $550K to a 5'9" Korean HS lefty throwing 80-83 with no feel for a breaking ball," ESPN's Keith Law says as the news is breaking. "Nice use of savings from cutting pro scouting." And while the rest of the league isn't about to start issuing statements everytime the Orioles do something unwise—their PR people are busy enough as it is—Ben Badler of Baseball America took a straw poll of his contacts and came back with the following:
According to the  other teams, Kim's fastball ranged from 78-85 mph. The maximum velocity another team had on Kim was 87 mph. Other scouts called his breaking ball a slurvy curveball in the mid- to high 60s and graded it from 20-30 on the 20-80 scouting scale, which rates as well below average. Scouts say he's likely an inch or two shorter than his listed height of 5-feet-11, has little projection and some funkiness in his arm action. Scouts were mixed on his command, though some said he was generally around the plate and would be able to pitch in the KBO. Many believed the Orioles were the only team interested in Kim. Several teams turned him in as a non-prospect.
The rest of the industry isn't shocked, angry, or dismissive; they're confused. And that's is the worst thing they can be. Even laughter is better than confusion; after all, you can only mock a decision once you're reasonably sure why it was made. But there's a very specific and very basic problem with Encina's description of Kim, and it isn't that a 17 year old who projects as a 6'1", 200 lb. left hander with a fastball sitting in the 90s and two plus breaking pitches by age 19 or 20 isn't worth $575,000.
It's the opposite: that kind of pitching prospect is rare and valuable enough to draw twice that amount in a bidding war, especially as June approaches and the closing bell sounds on the amateur free agent market. That kind of pitching prospect is so rare and valuable that every scouting department in the region knows each one of them by name and has someone on staff on speaking terms with either the kid's coach or parents. Kim didn't get noticed because he just happened to be playing catch with a buddy a lot over from an Oriole scout watching some other guy take batting practice; he's one of the starting pitchers for the team's national juniors squad.
Growth spurts like that aren't entirely unheard of, though they are uncomfortably anecdotal; there's a breathless article from 2007 about Erik Bedard having an even more extreme jump in height and velocity still up on Baltimore's website. "My senior year in high school, I was 5'4 and 120 pounds," it quotes Bedard as saying. "That summer, I grew to 5'11 and 150 pounds and went to college, where I gained about 30 pounds in four months. I never lifted weights before that or ate anything to try to get big—I didn't know anything about that stuff.
Later in the article, Bedard says his fastball went from 81 to 91 MPH over that same period, which seems ridiculous; this also seems a good place to note that, while playing baseball is his job, Bedard's primary recreational activity is messing with reporters. That doesn't mean he's lying here. Such rapid, violent stress on his joints, ligaments, and underlying cartilege might help explain his inability to stay healthy as a pro.
But supposing Kim were to undergo such a change in frame and projectability, there's no way to just hide that. And make no mistake, Kim wouldn't be hiding it: Kim and his coach would be showing off that 90-touching fastball and those two polished breaking pitches to every MLB scout they could find. It makes no sense for Kim to improve his value drastically, then negotiate only with the Orioles to drive down the price.
So putting aside the whirlwind about to descend on the heads of Kim, Duquette, and the Baltimore organization in less than a month's time, something has to give. Either through a freak chain of great fortune, amazing genetics, and general laziness Seong-Min Kim grew a couple inches and racheted his fastball up 4-5 MPH over the past month, then negotiated a deal exclusively with the Orioles—who in turn persuaded him neither to contact any other teams nor display his newfound talents in public—or the Orioles are misrepresenting the kind of pitcher Kim is for some reason. It wouldn't be the first time an organization made a prospect sound a tier or two better than he actually was.
But what would the Orioles have to gain from signing and hyping a teenaged non-prospect?
Dan Duquette's career in player evaluation outside the United States looks a lot better when he's given credit for his time as director of player development in Montreal—Vlad Guerrero headlines the class, but the Expos drafted Javier Vazquez and signed Orlando Cabrera as an amateur during his time there as well. There's a reason he's not given credit for those years here, however, and it ties into his main downfall as a top executive—his poor ability to manage and delegate. That reason is named Ray Poitevint.
Poitevint, who's at left, is currently Baltimore's Executive Director of International Baseball. Before that he held the same position in Duquette's front office in Boston. He is a scouting legend, which is both a compliment and a historical marker, and as it happens Baltimore was the first organization to hire him as a scout—in the 1960's. Poitevint briefly played minor league ball in 1949 and 1950 before going off to serve in the Korean War, and when he returned the Orioles, less than a decade old, gave him a job.
Over the course of his half-century in scouting, his hits at home and abroad include Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez (signed out of Nicaragua), Teddy Higuera, and hundreds and hundreds of minor league players. His contribution to baseball as an industry and a sport is not necessarily in the quality of his scouting, but his influence on expanding the talent pool and the reach of the game. That said, Poitevint is fast approaching his ninth decade on this earth, and since he and Dan Duquette began working together their greatest combined successes involve luring Tomo Ohka and Hideo Nomo away from NPB, the Japanese professional league, in the mid-90's.
It was reported by Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun among others that the part of Duquette's interview that really grabbed the selection committee was the way he described his approach to international free agency and the amount of polish on his process. But in Boston, his issue as a top executive wasn't the process; signing a crowd of young arms and bats from overseas to more money than they'd ever seen before in their lives and then hoping one or two of them turns out to be worth it is how every team worth its salt handled international free agency, at least until the new CBA signed this winter put a hard cap on the amount that teams could spend on amateur free agents. The problem wasn't giving guys like Seung Song or Chul Oh or Byeong-Hak An or even "Tai-In Che" three-quarters of a million dollars on a projectable body type and a dream; the problem was giving those deals only to those guys. Eventually one of them has to turn into at least Hee-Seop Choi, if not Shin-Soo Choo. None of them even came close.
If the struggles Duquette's Red Sox had finding success with international amateurs in any way mirror the struggles they're likely about to experience in Baltimore with their Asian professional league signings, it's that there seems to be very little recognition of what makes a quality major leaguer. Not only was their assessment of poor Seong-min Kim overenthusiastic, but of the four veterans of either Korean or Japanese baseball the Orioles tried to sign this offseason—Wei-Yin Chen, Tsuyoshi Wada, Tae-Hyong Chong, and Eun Chul Choi—only Chen had a fastball that scouts thought would stand up in the majors, throwing left-handed low-nineties heat with an acceptable amount of movement. Wada sat in the mid to upper eighties without remarkable breaking pitches; Chong and Choi were both relievers on the wrong side of thirty.
The Orioles signed Chen and Wada to major league deals; Chen will make his first appearance this week, while Wada is on the disabled list with elbow discomfort and pitching in extended Spring Training. The Orioles agreed in principle to a two-year deal with Chong for $3.2 million that fell apart after he failed a physical; he signed a contract with the NPB's Lotte Giants instead, and underwent knee surgery.
It's in examining the curious case of Eun Chul Choi that a possible explanation emerges as to what the Orioles were up to in South Korea. Choi agreed to a minor league deal with Baltimore on January 7th, little more than a week before Poitevint and company would convince Seong-Min Kim to sign. As a pitcher, Choi is...well, here's how Eddie Encina put it in the Baltimore Sun:
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Choi is a mostly unknown commodity. He pitched in the in Veracruz Winter League in Mexico last offseason. His only experience in the United States is a three-outing stint in the independent Golden Baseball League pitching for the Orange County Flyers in 2008, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He was 1-0 with a 16.20 ERA in 3 1/3 innings.
Incidentally, Encina has Choi's independent ball ERA correct, but has almost doubled the number of innings he pitched; Baseball Reference clocks him at 1 2/3 innings in his lone appearance with the Flyers, meaning that gaudy ERA really just represents 3 runs. It doesn't explain how he was able to vulture the win, but that’s not really important. This is: "Known or not, he is the first signee in what Duquette says will be a serious push into Korea," Encina writes. "'We're signing him because we're hoping to develop some pitching from Korea,' Duquette said. 'We signed a number of pitchers with the Red Sox from Korea.'"
Duquette is talking about Sun-Woo Kim, Jin Ho Cho and Sang-Hoon Lee, the orange-haired guitar aficionado. While amusing that Encina provides the line for Eun Chul Choi's two-hour long independent ball career and then neglects to give any background at all on the three Boston pitchers besides their roster status, the most interesting part of the above quote is that Dan Duquette wants someone, somewhere to see that the Baltimore Orioles are interested in Korean pitching. He encourages them to connect the dots between the Red Sox of the 1990's and the Orioles of today. He sees this as only the beginning of a push into the South Korean market.
The quote is certainly not for the benefit of the hometown fans. Eun Chul Choi was unable to pitch two innings of independent ball four years ago without things going horribly wrong. For all that people talk about how guys like Brian Burres or Daniel Cabrera—to name two Orioles washouts; fans of other teams are encouraged to substitute names of their own—aren't major league pitchers, that's not totally fair. They're right, but they're also wrong: for most players, the guys who aren't freaks, success in major league baseball is a dream balanced on the edge of a knife. How close did Daniel Cabrera come to being even a league-average starter making tens of millions of dollars? One mechanical change. If he learns to repeat his delivery, he's at worst the fourth starter on the Colorado Rockies or Pittsburgh Pirates right now and his family is set for life. And if Jose Bautista had returned to the Orioles and the tender, single-minded mercies of then-hitting coach (now team advisor) Terry Crowley instead of getting his last shot in Toronto, would he even still be in baseball?
Daniel Cabrera was a major league pitcher. Eun Chul Choi, to all appearances, is not. That’s not to say he isn't still better at throwing a ball to a crouching man ninety feet away than anyone reading this article, but he simply is not that caliber of player. Unless things get real interesting in Baltimore this summer, no casual fan will ever read his name in a program.
The remarkable thing, though, is that both Duquette and presumably Choi can live with that. As far as the Baltimore front office is concerned, the baseballing services of the actual, physical Eun Chul Choi are a happy byproduct of what the team actually reaps from signing him: a renewed foothold in the South Korean baseball consciousness. What was true before is true even moreso now that there's a hard cap on yearly amateur free agent spending: in a competitive market for a commodity that chooses its buyer, the most successful bring something other than money to the table. Call it cachet, influence, reach, but it's a lot easier to sign a kid when he's grown up watching the players he wants to be like wear your colors. It's a lot easier to set up a regional academy and develop reliable contacts within the local amateur organizations when you've got a history of treating their kids and pros right financially.
To the Orioles, Eun Chul Choi, Seong-Min Kim, and even Tae-Hyong Chong are investments from which they expect little return and which were made to generate good publicity in the market and stimulate other, more favorable investments. There’s a word for them in retail: “loss leaders.”
The Baltimore Orioles are certainly the bad guys of the drama that's played out over Seong-Min Kim over the past couple months, but that doesn't make the Korean Baseball Association or the Korean Baseball Organization good guys. Even if Baltimore sees Kim as a loss leader, that's still preferable to being a head on a pike.
The KBO was the first to respond, filing a formal complaint against the Orioles with MLB. Under the terms of an agreement between the two leagues, if a Major League team wishes to sign a South Korean player in their jurisdiction, the team must notify the KBO in order to get an acknowledgement that the player in question is eligible to sign. The specific point of protocol that confused the Orioles remains unclear—Duquette has only referred to it as an "administrative mistake" and hasn't gone into why the Orioles thought the rules didn't apply to them with Kim or if, indeed, they even knew the rules to begin with—but it likely has something to do with them believing Kim be under the jurisdiction not of the KBO, which is the professional arm of Korean baseball, but the KBA, which governs the amateur aspect of the sport.
Unfortunately for Baltimore, an eligibility check on amateur players is still required under the signed agreement between the two leagues. Unlike players signed to professional contracts, however, the KBO cannot actually prevent an MLB team from signing away their amateur talent; they can only advise the team that the player will soon be eligible for the KBO draft and that they would really rather MLB leave their high schoolers alone.
While there's been lip service paid to the notion that the Korean baseball organizations responded so harshly because it was the first time a top player had been signed before his last season of high school, Kim was weeks away from classes starting. The KBO's real goal is to get that agreement revised; they want the same sort of protection that Japan's NPB has, with amateurs strictly off limits to American teams until they become professional free agents—after they've played a good four or five years in their home country.
But that sort of agreement only works if the amateurs fall in line and abide by it; as Dan Duquette was so eager to remind everyone three months ago, he'd spent the better part of a decade poaching KBO-bound 18- and 19-year-old South Koreans and now he was back for more. So the KBO and KBA made perfectly clear what will happen to anyone on their side of the aisle that doesn't fall in line with the new rules. They banned the Orioles from scouting South Korean amateurs indefinitely, and they functionally banned Kim from baseball in his home country for life.
There is no appeals process for this; Kim could take the matter to court if he wanted, but beyond that he has very little recourse available. His ban extends to high school competition as well as the junior nationals team, and essentially ends any career he could have in Korean baseball before it even had a chance to begin.
He could appeal directly to the KBO and KBA themselves, of course, but it's doubtful that they'd overturn the ban. Why would they? Seong-Min Kim is serving the cause of South Korean baseball perfectly fine as he is.
And then came the final insult to Baltimore and the final injury to Kim: MLB refused to approve his contract with the Orioles.
This is not actually the first time something of this nature has happened, believe it or not. The Los Angeles Angels were subjected to the same punishment by MLB when they did the exact same thing Baltimore just did back in 2008.
"Back in 2008, the Angels' contract with South Korean pitcher Pil-Joon Jang was also not approved for 30 days because they didn't conduct a status check," the Sun's Encina wrote back in February. "But the Angels still ended up signing him to a $650,000 signing bonus."
The rest of the article is generally hopeful that Kim would not be poached, and that the Orioles would be able to re-sign him once the 30-day waiting period was up. "There's nothing here that says the Orioles still won't get Kim at the end of the day," Encina wrote, "[The Orioles] can still get their man."
A month later, Encina followed up. On March 22nd, 35 days after the contract was voided (or not-approved, if you like), the Orioles had not made any headway in either repairing their broken relationship with South Korean professional baseball nor in signing Kim to a contract that MLB would approve—at least none they saw fit to share with Encina or any other reporter. He reported that, in a bizarre twist, the Orioles were now stuck waiting for clearance to pursue the young left-hander—now, after he’d been banned from ever pitching in his home country again. Encina also reported that Kim had been training in Los Angeles in order to prepare for minor league camp in Sarasota, Florida, but since the voiding of the contract he’d returned home to South Korea.
It is unclear from the March 22nd article what the proper protocols are to follow in the pursuit of a player excommunicated by the only organizations that could object to his signing, as well as who, precisely, would be granting this clearance. The best part of the article, however, is its fifth paragraph:
Orioles scouts are reportedly still banned by the KBA from amateur baseball events in South Korea which include high school showcases and college games. But it’s difficult to enforce that rule.
“But it is difficult to enforce that rule.” Yes, obviously it would be a waste of KBA and KBO officials’ time and resources to do anything to dissuade Baltimore’s scouts except post signs clearly marking that the Orioles are persona non-grata at every ballpark entrance. But the clear implication here—that roguish Oriole scouts could still slip in unnoticed to KBA events, perhaps wearing Yankees or Red Sox caps, set their sights on a young man of justifiable talent and then secret him out of the country in the dead of night to America where he would proceed directly to A-Ball—ignores that not only would MLB again refuse to approve the contract, but that if the scouting department of any self-respecting franchise were found circumventing a ban put in place due to their own incompetence and impropriety mere months earlier, every head from “Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations” down to local cross-checker would roll. But then, we are discussing the Baltimore Orioles.
Whatever it is the Orioles are waiting for is unclear, but April 19th, 2011, marks 63 days since February 16th. Kim remains unsigned by any MLB team.
If Kim really does pitch like Duquette and Poitevint say he does and is no longer under the jurisdiction of the KBA and KBO due to his ban, he should be in camp somewhere, holding an offer comparable to what the Orioles gave him from one of the other 29 teams in baseball. What's the KBA going to do? Super-double ban him? Ban the offending team from their clubhouses and events for signing someone they explicitly exiled? Shoot Kim's dog? Even then, the stated reason for the ban was that Kim negotiated with a big league club before the beginning of his senior year of high school. Just about every high school Korea is in the second or third week of classes by now.
The Orioles have had three weeks to get him back on his contract and into camp. They haven't. Not a whisper about Seong-Min Kim has escaped the Orioles front office since Encina’s article in late March. There are a number of possible reasons for this; Encina’s sources could be correct, and the Orioles are closing that barn door real loud, just to make sure the KBA and KBO really see how committed to procedure they are. It’s slightly more likely that they’re trying to get Kim and his family to accept a more “reasonable” signing bonus for his true talent level now that there’s no reason to talk him up anymore—that would be between $5,000 and $15,000 dollars, and probably in the low part of that range. It's entirely possible that ten minutes from now, the Orioles will proudly announce they've signed Kim to his originally-announced deal, that MLB has approved it and that they expect him to report to extended Spring Training forthwith, and that there's a perfectly logical, perfectly reasonable explanation for everything the Orioles have done in South Korea this offseason. Perhaps if their PR people start returning the Korean sports media's phone calls, they'll be able to explain it to the community truly interested in what the Orioles are going to do to make this right.
But they haven’t yet, and as the days go by the silence grows more deafening. Kim returns to school and Duquette to the still-young 2012 season, where his Orioles remain near the top of their division after two weeks of play. The world moves on, and the simplest explanation for this end to the winter’s strange farce is obvious and grim: the Baltimore Orioles have no more use for loss leaders.
Thanks to Daum baseball writer Daniel Kim (@DanielKimW) for his assistance with background information for this piece. This piece does not necessarily represent his opinions or those of Daum Media.