International Free Agent 2013 Recap and Look Ahead: Part II, South Korea

Charlie Crowhurst

The international market is a regular source of prospect, rookie, and veteran baseball talent. What players might become available next offseason?

Last week, I looked back at some of this winter's international free agents and ahead to some players who might international free agency in the future. Here are a few more who might be attractive options on the IFA market in the future.

Jeong Choi (3B)

Jeong Choi is the South Korean David Wright, the pretty boy star third baseman of the SK Wyverns. The 2008 Korea Series MVP, Choi broke out that year and has more or less maintained that elite level of play since. Reportedly, the right-hander is interested in playing in MLB, though there are doubts as to whether or not he has what it takes to be a productive major leaguer. The 26-year-old should be granted his international free agent status at the end of the 2013 season, so there is a chance he will be coming to North America next offseason.

Choi is a very sound player, and likely someone who could be considered a five-tool player, at least in Korea. Offensively, he hits for a high average, he has a bit of power, and he has some decent speed. Defensively, he has a strong arm, which he showed as a pitcher in high school. Fielding data's hard to come by for international players, so it's tough to judge his work at the hot corner. I can say, however, that according to observers, he's a good defender, though his footwork is sometimes a little messy and his arm slot sometimes results in inaccurate throws. He won a Gold Glove in 2011, but as we know, winning a Gold Glove does not necessarily mean one is a good fielder. His stats are as follows:

Year Age G AB AVG OBP SLG HR K BB SB CS
2009 22 99 410 .265 .376 .478 19 64 40 11
2010 23 123 493 .300 .396 .533 20 72 49 12 4
2011 24 113 403 .310 .402 .526 20 72 46 15 5
2012 25 130 474 .300 .385 .538 26 98 49 20 8

Youtube user ssub411 uploaded this video of Choi fielding:

In addition to all of that, he doesn’t strike out at an excessive rate, knows how to take a walk, and is one of those guys who has shown the ability to sustain a high hit-by-pitch rate year after year — he averages 20 HBP per season! He is a spray hitter who uses all fields, and his swing is very upper-cutty, which is why he hits so many flyballs instead of groundballs.

Clint Hulsey of MyKBO.net says that he does not see a major leaguer in Choi. His rationale is that Choi’s offensive numbers will not translate, and, being a third baseman, he does not have the positional value to stick on an MLB team's roster.

While Hulsey is certainly more of an authority on these matters than I am, I do think that he is overlooking the fact that Choi is an excellent athlete and has experience playing other positions at the high school level. Given some of the lumbering behemoths that are trotted out as major league corner outfielders — hello, Lucas Duda — I think it would be an intriguing idea to see if Choi would be able to play the outfield. He possesses a strong arm, so he would profile well enough in either corner. That does not make up for the fact that, according to Clint’s research, he might not be a good enough hitter to make it in MLB, but it might at least give him the chance to stick on a big league roster as a substitute player.

Woo-Ram Jung (RP)

Woo-Ram Jung is the current closer for the SK Wyverns. Before he was moved into that role, the left-hander was the team's top set-up man. Though only 27 years old, the South Korean native is an eight-year veteran of the KBO. He will be serving his mandatory South Korean military service in 2013, but can be eligible to be posted afterwards, and will be an international free agent in 2015. Along with the rest of the bullpen, Jung's performance has been one of the strengths of the Wyverns, and a bigreason for the team's success since 2007— three championships, and nothing lower than a third-place finish. His stats over the last five years are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 23 2.09 3.46 77.2 7.4 3.7 5.7 0.5
2009 24 3.38 4.27 56 7.4 4.7 9.0 .8
2010 25 3.53 3.29 102 9.8 3.9 7.1 0.6
2011 26 2.83 1.81 94.1 6.4 2.2 5.8 0.3
2012 27 2.20 1.51 49 10.1 1.7 6.1 0.0

Of note is the usual "this player's BB/9 and HR/9 rate won't stay so miniscule against MLB competition" schpiel. Another thing to keep in mind is Jung's workload. In the last three years, the lefty threw 102, 94.1, and 49 innings. While a reliever throwing 49 innings is about right in today's day and age, 102 and 94.1 are a lot. Had he not been promoted to closer in 2012, the right-hander would have likely thrown around that mark for a third year in a row; KBO teams seem to work their set-up men and ‘relief aces' more than their closers, who simply pitch during save situations.

Though his 2011 was already very good, Jung stepped up his game 2012, embracing his new role. His strikeouts skyrocketed, and he exhibited more control. Assuming that he can maintain the elevated K/9 rate and depressed BB/9 rate while his other stats stay in line with his body of work, and he is open to leaving Korea, I would not be surprised if Jung moves on from the KBO. He will get paid more in both America and Japan. Where he might go, if he goes anywhere, is a bit more speculative. Though you don't see older Korean pitchers coming to MLB as often as you do older Japanese pitchers, I think Woo-Ram Jung could make it in America.

Seung-Hwan Oh (RP)

Seung-Hwan Oh is the current closer for the Samsung Lions, and an international free agent after the 2014 season. The Lions could allow the right-hander to become a free agent, but there's also a chance they post the 30-year-old, opting for the financial compensation in lieu of his presence on the mound in 2014. Though only a relief pitcher, the Lions could theoretically get back a decent price on Oh if they post him next winter. The former Rookie of the Year (2005) is a six-time All-Star (2005-2008, 2011-2012), two-time KBO Relief Man of the Year (2006, 2008), and is a two-time Korea Series MVP (2005, 2011).

Oh debuted in 2005 as a 22-year-old, and was absolutely dominant from the get go. When the year wrapped up, he had a 10-1 record, a 1.15 ERA, 115 strikeouts (10.45 K/9) to 20 walks (1.81 BB/9), and recorded 10 holds and 16 saves. In the Korea Series, his dominant pitching (seven scoreless innings, with eleven strikeouts) won him the Korean Series Most Valuable Player Award. In addition, he also won the KBO Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second in MVP voting. His second year was just as good- he set the Asian continental record for saves recorded, with 47. For the next few years, the right-hander would be lights out and one of the top relievers, if not the top reliever, in KBO.

In 2009, he injured his shoulder, and the injury would limit both his effectiveness and his ability to pitch. The next season saw more of the same, and in the prime of his career, it seemed as if the dominant reliever he had been was no more. Luckily for the Samsung Lions, their All-Star closer returned to form in 2011. His shoulder fully healed, and Oh returned to his dominant form. In 2011, he set a world record for fewest games to reach the 200 save mark, with 333, breaking Jonathan Papelbon's former record (359 games).

Seung-Hwan Oh is your typical power pitcher. His primary pitch is a fastball that sits in the mid 90s, but he doesn't have much more gas than that. It also exhibits some sinking action, which is why Oh is able to limit home runs to the degree that he has. He also throws a slider. His stats over the last five years are as follows:

Year Age ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/9
2008 25 1.40 -- 57.2 -- 5.31 -- --
2009 26 4.83 4.47 31.2 14.5 4.8 8.0 2.0
2010 27 4.50 5.27 14.0 12.2 3.2 8.4 2.6
2011 28 0.63 1.56 57 12 1.74 4.26 .31
2012 29 1.94 1.22 55.2 13.1 2.1 5.34 .16

Youtube user ssedope7 uploaded this video of Oh pitching:

Oh's shoulder problems are something of which to be mindful. The fact that he returned to his dominant form in 2011 and 2012 after suffering those shoulder problems should belay most concerns, though. Obviously, if he came to North America, his stats would be nowhere near as sparkling, because his strikeouts would drop precipitously, his walk rate would likely rise somewhat, and both his hits per nine and home runs per nine would balloon to some degree. If he makes the decision to come to the U.S. to play baseball, though, I think his skill set would translate well, more or less.

Suk-Min Yoon (SP)

Profiled back in December, Yoon was never posted by the Kia Tigers. An international free agent next winter, it is likely that he leaves Korea, regardless of what his 2013 stats look like. Over the last three years, the right-hander has been good (3.12 ERA/2.82 FIP in 153 IP in 2012), very good (2.45 ERA/2.75 FIP in 172.1 IP in 2011) and alright (3.83 ERA/3.05 FIP 101.1 IP in 2010), so it is likely that his 2013 season fall somewhere in that range. The kind of contract that Yoon receives will very likely be affected by how his fellow countryman Hyun-Jin Ryu does. If Ryu has a poor 2013 season and is seen as a bust, Yoon will be viewed through the same lens. If Ryu has a successful 2013 season and is seen as a good investment, Yoon will be in for a payday.

*Note: I apologize for many of the holes and missing data regarding Korean pitchers. Unlike Japanese baseball, in which numerous English-speaking outlets exist to record data and discuss recent happenings, Korean baseball is largely missing the exposure to non-Korean audiences that Japanese baseball has to non-Japanese audiences. Regarding Japanese players, one can jump on to Patrick Newman's wonderful NPBtracker.com, or Gen Sueyoshi's Yakyubaka.com, or just go to Nippon Professional Baseball's official website itself (in English). For Korean players, resources and data is much more limited. The guys at MyKBO.net do what they can, but their data is limited, and is really the primary source for English speakers; the KBO website is entirely in Korean. While I can figure out some numbers, there is only so much I can do, and for that, I again apologize. I will admit, though, figuring out those numbers was kind of fun; I now have the FIP and X/9 formulas memorized.

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