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Free Agent Spotlight: Hae-seong Kim

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One team will get him for a bargain, and that one team will not be the Cardinals

KIA Tigers v Kiwoom Heroes Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images

(This is apparently Ha-Seong Kim day. Expect a scouting report on the player later by Aaron. He started his first so this is my fault, but after reviewing what we he wrote, we take two completely different approaches, so I think both articles can exist together.)

It is a simple truth that we as Cardinals fans do not expect the Cardinals to do much, if anything, over the offseason. The Cardinals’ words and actions have suggested as much. Teams do not typically allow players such as Kolten Wong to leave over money if they plan to spend money. Because if they planned to spend that money, they’d just take the path of least resistance and keep the guy with a guaranteed contract.

Nonetheless, I write for a Cardinals-themed website and we have a long offseason, so I’m somewhat forced to pretend there are practical, possible solutions that the Cardinals may explore. Much like how keeping Wong would be the path of least resistance, signing a free agent would be the path of least resistance. So that takes up the majority of my possible solutions to the Cardinals’ problems.

But before I get to the practical solutions, the players the Cardinals might theoretically sign, let’s spend time on at least one more player the Cardinals will likely not sign. And the only reason I’m talking about this player instead of ignoring him is because the market for him is more uncertain than your average free agent, because he has not posted a single professional statistic in the United States. That player is KBO superstar shortstop Ha-Seong Kim.

So with that level of uncertainty, we truly don’t know what type of MLB contract he’s looking at, which hypothetically puts the Cardinals as a possibility. His price will likely outpace the level they are willing to pay, but they have dipped their toe in this market before. Between Kwang-Hyun Kim and Seung-Hwan Oh, they have two pretty successful examples of doing so in fact. But both of them are pitchers and he’s a hitter. Not to mention the age differences.

Who is Kim and why might the Cardinals want him? Kim is a 25-year-old shortstop who split his time between short and third base in 2020. He has virtually no experience at second base, which is a downside, but considering he’s been a full-time shortstop for most of his career, I have to imagine he can play there as well. So positionally speaking, he hits one of the Cardinals main needs, replacing Wong, but who can fill the versatile role that Edman did, hopefully without the outfield thrown in.

His stats at the KBO are of course excellent or I wouldn’t be talking about him. He walked more than he struck out with 75 BBs (12.1%) to 68 Ks (10.9%) with a whopping 30 HRs (.218 ISO) and 23 SBs with just two caught stealing. He had a 141 wRC+ last season. Lest you think it was a fluke, he had a 142 wRC+ the year before. Best news of all, he turned 25 just last month.

This is against KBO competition, so we can’t just take those numbers literally, but they are elite enough that we can expect him to be pretty good in the MLB. Dan Szymborksi of ZiPS translated his KBO stats of 2020 into MLB stats and he comes out to a .274/.345/.478 hitter with 29 HRs. And as you can imagine, his 2019 translated stats were slightly better, just like the wRC+ suggests.

But what’s important is not the past, but the future, and ZiPS projects that too. In 2021, he is projected to be a 3.8 fWAR player. He’s expected to repeat that in 2022, and then they project to him to be even better in 2023 with 3.9 fWAR. Only in 2024 does ZiPS project him to decline... to 3.7 fWAR. He stops at 2025 with a 3.5 fWAR season, but it’s probably fair to guess you can roughly take the usual decline of 0.5 fWAR at that point and I don’t think he’s getting past a 5-year contract anyway.

With his offense, we can be pretty sure he can hack it in the majors. His OPS+ (which ZiPS uses instead of wRC+) goes from 117 to 120 in those five projected years. Whether he’s that good (or better), his high projection leaves some room for him to fall for him to still be an above average hitter. His defense on the other hand, is virtually a complete unknown. ZiPS too uses defense in its translations, although as far as I know, the system may as well be looking at a player who played in the 1970s, because it only uses GB/FB adjusted range factors.

What information we do have is someone who seems like an essentially average fielder. On average, the translation provides a total of +6 defensive runs saved over six seasons. On the downside, he was a -4 last year, and he split his time between 3B and SS. I can’t stress enough how little this actually means, but it also does mean he might be a -10 fielder when he gets to the states. I may be reading too much into this, but his KBO team choosing to play him half the time at 3B does not to me suggest a guy who is someone who will be better than average at short.

I point all of this out to say that, even though he is very consistently rated as a 3.8 fWAR player for his first three years, defense alone makes him more uncertain than that. ZiPS assumes average defense for his first three years, which I don’t think is bad for a projection, but it’s not hard to blink and see that being wrong for me. But still 3.8 fWAR player - lot of room to fall for his defense before you get to the point where you’re worried.

I’m going to go with some inter-blog consistency here and take John LaRue’s lead and assume that the price of a win on the market is $6 million. At this point, we’re just throwing our hands in the air and guessing. Robbie Ray signed for 1 year, $8 million and while we don’t have his ZiPS projection yet, he has 1.9 fWAR projection from Steamer. But he had an awful 2020 and I honestly don’t think he’d get a whole lot more than 1 year, $8 million in a normal offseason, so he doesn’t help much.

Since he just turned 25, and we have five years worth of projections, let’s just call it a 5-year deal. I will also say though that - I don’t think teams are going to pay him as if he’s going to get 18.7 WAR over the next five years. Projections are not perfect, but projections based off KBO stats seem rather unlikely to be paid as fact. And I’d say that in a normal offseason. Hence, why I’m writing about Kim, because his price may drop to “acceptable” levels.

So I’m going to put an arbitrary 20% cut on his projected WAR for his future contract. First, it will remove some of the risk in those projections, and more importantly, I have to pretend the Cardinals have a shot at this guy, so the scenario where they get him, he’s going to have to be had for a steal. Where John Mozeliak aggressively nudges Bill Dewitt and says “Hey, uh, we can get a 4 WAR player for 2 WAR prices, we have to jump on this” which Mozeliak may already be trying to do, to presumably no avail.

So Kim at 80% of the price comes out to a 5 year, $90 million deal. Even at that price, I somehow think he’ll go for less than that, which would be absurd to pass up at that point. I mention in my Realmuto post that I think the Cardinals may have a free agent budget of around $15 million, which is optimistic I’ll grant you, but at $18 million per year, he’d suck up that entire budget. Which probably means getting Wainwright and Molina would prevent a signing of him.

Which... we knew already, I just wanted to put some numbers to the game. Unfortunately, Kim is just a whole different ballgame than the Cardinals other international signings. Signing Kwang-Hyun Kim to a 2 year, $8 million deal is a very different type of gamble - some would say no gamble at all - than an $18 million a year deal. It’d be cool to sign him, but obviously it’s not happening.