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Considering Jae-Gyun Hwang

Could the newest free agent coming out of Korea be the upgrade the Cardinals need?

2014 Asian Games - Day 9 Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

A couple days ago, over at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote a very nice piece on Jae-Gyun Hwang, and I was immensely grateful he did so.

Now, I’m sure that opening sentence probably brings up two questions in your mind immediately (particularly if you’re reading this without having clicked on the link). First is who, exactly, is Jae-Gyun Hwang, and second, why would I be grateful Jeff Sullivan wrote about him?

Well, Jae-Gyun Hwang is a third baseman. More specifically, Hwang is a Korean third baseman, who has played the six-plus years of his career for the Lotte Giants of the KBO. More specifically still, Jae-Gyun Hwang is a Korean third baseman who is currently a free agent, and appears likely to sign with some team or other in MLB.

As for the reason I was grateful Sullivan wrote about Hwang, the answer is equally straightforward: I was grateful to read about Jae-Gyun Hwang because I had forgotten entirely about Jae-Gyun Hwang.

See, here’s the thing: last year, right around this time, Hwang was one of few Korean players posted by their KBO clubs, in a form of the posting system that more closely resembles what the Japanese system used to look like, before MLB and the NPB (Japan’s top league), agreed on a system that limited the fees major league clubs could offer to the clubs posting the players. MLB clubs were worried about the exploding size of the posting fees, while certain teams in the NPB didn’t like the selling of players for competitive balance reasons, economic reasons, and other less tangible reasons that, I gather, had a lot to do with the perception of the league. So the posting fees were capped at $20 million, Japanese clubs were disincentivized from the outright selling of star players, major league clubs gained some cost certainty, and Japanese players gained the ability to negotiate with any and all teams who offered the maximum posting fee — if, in fact, the bidding got to that point — rather than only the winning bidder.

The biggest name on the Korean market last year was Byung-Ho Park, the slugging first baseman of the Nexen Heroes, who ultimately signed with the Minnesota Twins. I wrote about Park last offseason, concluding that Park was an intriguing option for a club like the Cardinals, coming into 2016 with a very unsettled first base situation. In his first MLB season, Park struggled to make contact at times, and was hampered by injuries for much of the season, but showed the kind of thump the Twins were hoping for when they signed him, as he mashed a dozen home runs in just 244 plate appearances. His overall line was negatively impacted by a .230 BABIP that suggests some poor fortune, considering he hit the ball hard in the air often enough to homer once ever 20 trips to the plate, but he also has a similar batted-ball profile to Jedd Gyorko, who has consistently posted low BABIPs. In other words, Park was sort of what you might have expected, showing an adjustment curve to MLB pitching, a bit too much swing and miss, and a fairly one dimensional batting profile. The one thing he did well, though, he appeared capable of doing quite well indeed.

Hwang was a secondary concern on the market last year, with much of the air being sucked up by Park and Kenta Maeda, the Japanese righthander picked up by the Dodgers. Hwang was posted by the Giants, but didn’t end up generating any bidders, which is mildly fascinating to me. Considering the success of Jung-Ho Kang and the contributions of players like Park and Dae-Ho Lee of the Mariners, who didn’t necessarily make an impact but did manage to be right about a league average hitter in his first season of American ball, I would have thought Hwang, whose game definitely resembles that of Kang, would draw a fair amount of interest. (Then again, considering I looked at him last year at the same time I did Park, decided I would circle back around to him, and then completely forgot, perhaps it’s more an indication that Hwang’s profile was just a little light to be really intriguing.)

However, as noted by Sullivan in his piece, Hwang had made a change to his body and his approach prior to the 2015 season, trying to hit for more power. He did so, jumping from 12 home runs in 2014 (550 PAs), to 26 in 2015 (596 PAs). The downside? In making the power adjustment, Hwang’s K rate jumped as well to a troubling degree, and I would think that was probably the biggest culprit in the limited interested MLB clubs seemed to have in him. After all, most if not all of the clubs looking at him here have some form of algorithm that translates stats from league to league, and I would bet that a 20%+ strikeout rate in the KBO just translated too high for many of the clubs to believe in the bat.

Well, a very interesting thing happened in 2016: Hwang continued to hit for power, but cut his strikeouts almost in half. He went from whiffing in just over twenty percent of his plate appearances to a K rate of just above 12%, and his walk rate improved as well.

So what we have here is a Korean player, primarily a third baseman, who has hit like a star the last three seasons in the KBO. He hit for average and a high on-base percentage in 2014, revamped his approach in 2015 and sacrificed some of that on-base ability for power, and then brought back the plate discipline and contact skills, while keeping the power gains, in 2016. If I didn’t know any better, I might make some comparison between Hwang’s evolution in recent years and that of Matt Carpenter in 2015 and ‘16. Hell, I might be tempted to make that comparison anyhow, even if it’s not incredibly instructive.

Now that Lourdes Gurriel, my number one offseason cheeseball, has signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for a shockingly low amount of money that I cannot imagine a club like the Cardinals not being interested in matching, I must turn my eyes elsewhere. And so, I turn them East.

Let’s watch a little bit of Hwang playing, shall we? via 2080 Baseball:

First off, I like the swing. A lot. He keeps the front elbow flexed through contact, not overextending, and uses his torso very well to generate the torque and bat speed needed to hit the ball a long way. The pitch he hit for a homer in that first at-bat came in about 97 mph, so at the very least we can assume he’s capable of turning around good velocity if it’s in a bad location. He just misses another homer in his third trip to the plate, getting slightly under a fastball at 94.

If I were to watch Hwang, focusing on his footwork at the plate, I would worry about him opening up too much and pulling off balls, considering he uses a leg kick but actually brings his foot down slightly open, rather than closing up the front side the way someone like Carlos Gonzalez does. However, looking at some highlight videos of Hwang, he actually appears to have an outstanding ability to wait on a pitch and take it the other way.

At third base, the tool that really stands out is the arm strength. It’s obvious, even just watching Hwang make a handful of throws, that he has a gun over at the hot corner. His defense draws generally positive reviews, though he isn’t renowned as an all-world fielder or anything. He runs well — probably a 55 runner here, maybe closer to a 60 in his home league — and is known to be very aggressive. That’s pretty much what I’ve got on him. He’s very good going to his backhand in the field, thanks to that arm strength that allows him to plant and get the throw over in cases where many players would have to simply put the ball in their pockets, and I think he has a very good chance to hit. Beyond those two things, I simply haven’t seen enough to have a great feel.

The biggest question, of course, is whether or not the Cardinals would have interest, and right behind that query is whether or not they should. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have expected the club to give a Korean player anymore than a cursory look, but that has changed for the Cards. Two offseasons in a row prior to this one they’ve been involved in the pursuit of a Korean player; Jung-Ho Kang two years ago (they finished second to the Pirates, and considering Kang’s off-field issues over the last year, I don’t feel nearly as bad about missing on him as I did at the end of 2015), and Seung-Hwan Oh just last year. Admittedly, Oh was actually coming off a two-year stint with a Japanese club, but the majority of his career was spent in the KBO, and the Cardinals specifically called out their efforts in Asia to increase their scouting operations when Oh was signed.

Given that context, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Redbirds were on Hwang. As we all know by now, third base is going to be a bit of a concern for the Cards in 2016, and considering they felt comfortable enough with Oh’s potential — and it certainly helps that Oh rewarded their belief in him with a monster season — I don’t think they would shy away from another player coming out of the same league.

As for the second question, whether or not the Cardinals should be interested, that’s slightly more complicated.

The third base market this year is absolutely dire, at least on the free agent side. Justin Turner is the big name, the player who seems most likely to offer a sizable upgrade to whatever team might like to sign him. He’s been worth almost thirteen wins over the past three seasons, and is coming off the best performance of his career, a 5.6 WAR campaign built largely on the back of a huge defensive rating. The downside? Turner has never put up anything close to his 2016 defensive rating in the past, making it look like a huge outlier, unlikely to repeat. (Admittedly, he moved around more prior to the last couple seasons, and make of that what you will.) He will be 32 years old in about ten days, so there’s question about how long he will maintain anything like his current production, even if it is legitimate.

That is the market into which Hwang will be stepping this offseason, and given that reality the Cardinals should absolutely be interested. If they wish to upgrade at third base, there’s only one name, really, before you get into the area of the list we’re talking about with Jae-Gyun Hwang.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. While Hwang’s potential contributions will be quantified and projected in a vacuum, the actual value he could bring would not occur in one. I personally like Jae-Gyun Hwang. I like the swing, the power, the arm. I like the bat flip. But even I, who like him as much as anyone you’re going to find out there, have to conceded that, honestly, his ceiling is probably fairly modest.

And we’ve heard this story before, haven’t we?

The Redbird roster right now is simply rotten with league-average-or-maybe-a-tick-above players. The Cardinals are lousy with 1.5-2.5 win players. How much better, really, could Jae-Gyun Hwang possibly project than, say, Jedd Gyorko for 140 games at third?

And so we fall right back into the frustrating quagmire of trying to upgrade this intensely solid-average lineup. There are no Sammys Hagar on this roster; everyone can drive 55. And run 55, and throw 55, and hit for 55 power...not to mention those guys who prefer to cruise at a relaxing 52, or 50, or 48 over in the righthand lane. When we sum up the tools and roster, though, we are presented with that puzzling mathematical question of how to fix something that isn’t broken, but refuses to rise much beyond the level of competence.

Signing Hwang would, I should say, represent a very good timeframe. He’s 29 years old, so there are probably two to three good years available from him, barring either a failure to launch or an unusually long aging curve, and that makes him a good fit. The Cardinals’ best third base prospect at this point is probably Bryce Denton, just nineteen years old and having finished his first full professional season this year. Paul DeJong looks to be being groomed to move around the diamond, playing as much shortstop as he is third now, and so Denton might be the top guy right now. In the case of signing Hwang, you would be hoping for a three-year run of contributions, while a player like Denton develops, or Delvin Perez outgrows shortstop, or another long term solution can be drafted. So there’s that aspect, of hopefully getting a couple prime years of this player to bridge the gap to another.

There is also the possibility the Cardinals could work out a greater number of deals, working more creatively, and perhaps move in-house pieces in exchange for future assets, and then spend on someone like Hwang as the money-only option to essentially purchase talent. I have my doubts the front office is willing to work that creatively, though; the path of least resistance is to simply hang on to Gyorko and Jhonny Peralta and then wonder why doing the same thing in 2017 you did in 2016 failed to yield a different result.

I like Jae-Gyun Hwang. Partially just because I tend to like Asian players in general and the way they play the game, but also because I admire his specific toolbox, his skillset especially. But at the same time, I don’t know how much I like him, how hard I think he should be pursued, and how great an upgrade he would actually represent over the options already on the roster. Making half a dozen moves to grab some minor league talent in exchange for a player already in the system, then signing a former KBO star to replace said player might be attractive to armchair GMs like yours truly, who are willing to imagine more things, even if the margin on each thing is razor-thin, but it’s hard to figure out whether or not those moves are likely to make a real difference in the real world.

So my final verdict is a soft, unresounding endorsement; a hope for a pursuit I freely admit I might have more enthusiasm for than is actually warranted.

Gotta love the bat flip ability, though.

Hey, Leonard?

Tell me a story about my country. Please?

Thank you.

Goodbye, old friend. And godspeed.

To us all, really.