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Scouting Ha Seong Kim

Looking into one of the more intriguing players on the market this offseason.

Lotte Giants v Kiwoom Heroes Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images

This offseason will present one of the strangest, toughest challenges of pretty much any offseason we’ve ever seen, I would imagine. Teams will almost certainly refuse to spend following a season mostly wiped out by a pandemic, a complete loss of in-stadium revenue, and a very uncertain future, at least in the near term. A case could be made, of course, that an offseason in which most of your competitors are not spending would be the absolute perfect time to spend, to attempt to take advantage of a terrible market to potentially pull in assets at a price well below where they should be valued.

A case could be made, but I will not be making that case, I don’t think. We all know the Cardinals will not be doing that. They will not be that aggressive, they will not be that creative. If the market goes conservative, the Cardinals will go full Barry Goldwater, probably refusing to do anything at all of value to improve this team, because of their own narrowly-defined band of what is acceptable and what is not, both in terms of budget and risk. The Cardinals of fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, would have zigged when the market zagged and made a move or moves to take advantage of other teams hunkering down and selling off assets. The current Cardinals, with a much older Bill DeWitt at the helm, do not deviate from the budget. This front office does not get that sort of latitude. It will be a long December, to quote Counting Crows, except I don’t think next year will be better than the last.

However, in these electronic pages, I need something to write about, and so while I will not pretend that I think the Redbirds are going to have an exciting, dynamic offseason about which to write (my grand reshaping of the roster column centering on a Francisco Lindor deal is pretty much completely pointless), I will go through the motions of talking about moves that could be made, and players that could be acquired, and I will scout said players.

Thus, we have today’s column, about a player who is really quite exciting. Prepare to get your hopes up, and then watch them slowly deflate like sad, week-old mylar birthday balloons.

The player in question is the top international free agent on the market this year, Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. The good news, the exciting news, is that Kim is an extraordinary talent, and a very, very good baseball player. The bad news is that everyone knows it.

Of course, the fact pretty much everyone in baseball knows Kim’s name and thinks pretty highly of his skills is not a bad thing for Kim. It’s really only a bad thing if you happen to be one of those teams that might be interested in him, particularly coming off a season in which every club legitimately lost a large chunk of change. And, of course, in a roundabout way, we come back around to where this whole thing maybe is kind of bad for the player, because even if lots of teams know he’s good, and like him, and would be willing to pay handsomely for his services most years, this particular year is not the one to be on the market hoping to extract top dollar for your services. Trickle down economics are lousy for spreading prosperity, but somehow always excel when it comes to pain.

For now, though, talking about what the player might get, or what teams might be willing to spend, seems mostly pointless. We won’t know what the market does this offseason until we get further into it, so I won’t do too much speculation on that front. Rather, let’s talk about the player himself.

We’ll start off with the hard facts: Ha-Seong Kim is currently employed by the Kiwoom Heroes, who will post him this offseason. He is listed at 5’9” and just under 170 pounds, which is, admittedly, on the small side for a major league baseball player. That leads to the prime concern one might have about him going forward, which I’ll get to later. He was born the 17th of October, 1995, and played his first season in the KBO at the tender age of just eighteen, back in 2014. That means he will play the 2021 season, wherever he ends up, at just 25 years of age.

In this most recent season, Kim put up some very eye-catching numbers, with an overall .306/.397/.523 batting line, 30 home runs, 23 stolen bases, and a 141 wRC+. He drove in 109 runs and scored 111. In other words, Ha-Seong Kim can do a little bit of everything with a bat in his hands.

The upside for Kim is substantial, as he should be able to hold down a starting shortstop job going forward in MLB, although it is a fact that most import players go through an adjustment period as they get used to the speed of the game in the big leagues. Kim has more than enough range to play the position, good hands, and an arm that gets the job done, even if it doesn’t really jump off the page. That arm is maybe the one real limiting factor for Kim, and if a club were considering what to do with him long term there would have to be at least some consideration of moving him across the diamond to second base. If a club lacked a good shortstop, Kim would absolutely be fine there, I believe. If, on the other hand, a club looking at Kim was already set at the position (like, say, the Cardinals are), then a keystone assignment would seem to be a natural move to make.

Offensively, Kim is one of the more intriguing players on the market this offseason. A right-handed hitter, he boasts plus bat speed and is particularly good at pulling his hands in to hit inside pitches harder than you might expect. Time after time, pitchers make pitches they think will jam Kim, only to have him yank the ball hard to left. His contact skills are at least plus, maybe better, and he has surprising power for his size. If you’re looking for a hitting comp, Kim reminds me a bit of former Cardinal middle infielder Aledmys Diaz, only with better plate discipline.

When Kim first got up to the KBO, his strikeout rate hovered in the ~20% range. Within a couple years, though, he had cut that substantially, down into the mid teens and then down to nearly 10%. This past season, for the first time in his career, Kim actually posted a higher walk than strikeout rate, drawing free passes at a 12.1% clip, compared to just 10.9% strikeouts. As I said, the raw contact ability and pop in the bat remind me of Aledmys Diaz, but where Diaz struggled to get on base once he was in the league awhile and pitchers had a book on him, Kim has gradually increased his patience at the plate year over year, becoming an elite on-base guy with time.

If we look at the potential package of what Kim could offer a major league club, you could be looking at a 15-20 home run hitter annually, with a similar number of stolen bases and plus on-base ability. If that package comes with an average glove at shortstop, you’re potentially talking about an All-Star level player.

Now let’s talk about where things could fall short of that.

Really, there is no one flaw in Kim’s game that a person could look at and say, ah, there’s his Achilles’ Heel. Rather, in much the same way that a player like Randy Arozarena or Dylan Carlson may find doubts about their respective ceilings, where Kim might fall short in upside has more to do with each of his tools being somewhere between solid and plus, rather than having a single carrying ability.

In the 2020 season, Kim hit 30 homers. He had never hit more than 23 in a season before, though to be fair he had also never hit fewer than 19 dingers in a full season. The KBO has long been somewhat notorious as an offense-inflating league, though they did take steps to deaden the ball a bit the last two years, I believe. Still, translating Kim’s power from the KBO to MLB is going to be a potential pitfall for a club looking to sign him. That 30 home run number looks like a bit of a fluke — though it is possible it’s also just a mid-career power surge that will stick around, at least somewhat — and if he’s more of a 20 homer guy in Korea, what does that mean in MLB? If he’s still a 20 homer guy here, no problem. If he’s closer to a 12-15 homer guy, well, the ceiling on the bat drops a bit.

Similarly, Kim has become an elite contact and on-base hitter over the years. However, of all the things which are most different from the KBO to MLB, velocity stands alone as the single largest. Players in Korea do not face velocity of the sort one sees from nearly every pitcher now in the major leagues. Every team has half a dozen late-inning relievers who come in working 95 and above, and players coming from overseas simply do not face that sort of velocity (or, more generally, that level of swing and miss stuff), before they make their way stateside.

The question, then, of course is not if Kim’s strikeout rate will increase, but rather how much. If he goes from being an ~11% strikeout hitter to a 15% guy, probably no problem. If his K rate jumps up closer to 20%, that puts significantly more pressure on the power to come through. Or on the glove.

The speed probably plays, without a whole lot of translation needed. It does seem MLB is more conservative in terms of baserunning than any other league around, but speed is more or less speed, regardless of the context. Kim is not a burner, but he runs well and should add value on the bases. Speed is also the tool which has the smallest impact overall, so it’s probably less important how large or small the error bar is.

So what we have with Kim is the classic scouting report of the all-around player, with the typical pitfalls built in. If he ends up being good, it will be because his power, and contact rate, and plate discipline, and defense all end up grading out as 55s and 60s. If he’s not, it will be because he loses just a little off every one of his tools in the translation. Personally, I look at Kim and I think he could be a better than league average hitter, with 15-20 home run pop and average defense at short, maybe plus defense at second base. In other words, I lean toward the optimistic side on projecting Kim to MLB, and I think he could be a 3+ win player right off the bat. Now, how certain am I of that? Certain enough to invest someone else’s money?

The real separating factor when it comes to Kim and why he is so very exciting really comes down to one number: 25. That number in the ‘age’ column of his scouting report is a huge deal. In much the same way Francisco Lindor is a special trade target this offseason not only because of his quality as a player, but because an acquiring club would be getting prime years in any trade-and-extend situation, entering the Ha-Seong Kim lottery has the potential to pay off with four to six peak years of value, rather than seasons which all fall on the backside of the aging curve. In other words, if you believe Kim is an above-average major leaguer, you can expect him to be that, without much loss of value, for the next half-decade. Assets with this kind of potential payoff very rarely come on the market at so young an age.

I began this column talking about what the Cardinals will not do, and how in order to do this job I must pretend reality is something different than it is. The reality is the Cardinals will make no meaningful investments in the ballclub this offseason. If they were to, though, purchasing a second Kim for the club would be an excellent place to start, at least in this writer’s never-quite-humble-enough opinion.

via GND TV: