Kiley McDaniel is strongly tapped into the scouting side of things, domestically and internationally, so although I’m interested in his free agent rankings and projections regardless, I especially wanted to see his take on Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim.
Kim, 25, is being posted to MLB later this offseason from the KBO, where he’s been a star. A high-contact, good-power bat at any infield spot, with quality baserunning as the cherry on the top, Kim could easily slide in the Cubs’ mix as a much-needed different type of bat, and a second baseman or third baseman or shortstop, depending on what shakes out this offseason. Moreover, at just 25, he could wind up become a core player for many years at a time where the Cubs have sparingly few of them after this season.
So, anyway, back to McDaniel’s take on the top free agents, which you can read here at ESPN+.
Kim is ranked as the 15th best free agent in the class, one spot behind Tommy La Stella (another potential Cubs second base target), which is interesting. And while La Stella is projected to get a very healthy two-year, $20 million deal, Kim’s projection comes in at just five years and $20 million.
YES. PLEASE. DO IT.
Among McDaniel’s comments on Kim and his market:
Kim put up crazy numbers in the KBO (basically between Double-A and Triple-A for a domestic comparison) in his early 20s and can play a solid shortstop. Getting the rest of his 20s for a reasonable figure is a unique free-agent opportunity for rebuilding teams that normally spend only on relievers they can trade at the next deadline for prospects. For the numbers crowd, he’s a low-end starting shortstop due to the performance; and for the scouting crowd, he’s a little more like a nice-to-have utility piece who might not have an above-average carrying tool in the big leagues.
In this situation, interested clubs would want to sign Kim to a six-year deal to get all of his controlled years before he’s entitled to free agency, but a bidding war would get that to a lower number with a clause allowing him to get to free agency quicker, along with a shot to opt into arbitration if he thinks he’ll make more there in Years 4-6 rather than the guaranteed money. The guarantee past a third year is more for Kim to have security if he becomes a non-tender (basically if he’s a stone-cold backup) rather than to collect it if he’s playing well. I’ll guess there’s enough competition for him that he can get $20 million in less than a six-year deal.
You’d have to believe the market – in terms of volume of interested teams – will be robust for Kim, though I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that (1) he’s coming over at a time when teams are going to be squeezing every penny, (2) he’s coming over one year ahead of the deepest and best shortstop class in recent memory, and (3) even this year’s class of middle infielders is not wholly bereft of guys that teams might want to take a swing on (in addition to La Stella and obviously D.J. LeMahieu at the top, there’s Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, Kolten Wong, Didi Gregorius, Cesar Hernandez, Brad Miller, Jurickson Profar, Jonathan Schoop, and likely some non-tenders).
Still, that price tag on Kim seems really, really low, given the potential upside (throw in a posting fee of only about $3 million). It makes me happy to see that the Cubs might actually have a chance.
Of course, the flip side of that joy is knowing that Kim’s price tag would project at that level only if the market didn’t see him as a starter. Specifically, I’d venture a guess that the biggest concern with Kim is going to be his ability to handle big league velocity – several clicks up on average from what he’s used to in the KBO. And it doesn’t take much in the way of velo struggles to take his gorgeous 13-ish% K rate and make it more like 20%, and take his .200-ish ISO and make it more like .130. Those changes, alone, take Kim from being a .300/.380/.500 guy in the KBO to something more like a mere .240/.320/.370 guy in MLB. That’s maybe a useful bench guy if the glove is good enough all over the infield and if he runs well (both probably true for Kim), but it’s hardly a guy who even justifies 5/$20 million, let alone something more.
In other words, a 5/$20 million type price tag bakes in the upside that he’s a productive regular in his prime, while also discounting for the possibility that he isn’t worth rostering at all. In normal times, you’d say that’s a $20+ million risk worth taking. We’ve heard it repeatedly from this front office when it comes to the rare free agent in his mid-20s. You get only so many opportunities to land a guy like that for only money. But is there money available this year?
… and if there isn’t, is there some way to be forward-looking, absorb the impact this year, knowing that your ability to stomach risk (financially) should increase dramatically in the future?
I still hope this is a risk the Cubs take. The realistic downside is that you have a light-hitting utility player who runs the bases well, and covers you at multiple spots in case of injury. Not worth what you’re paying, but probably still a decent bench player. The upside, obviously, is that you got a quality regular at a position of need, who hits for contact and takes his walks (his ZiPS projections are strong), and all through his 20s for an extremely reasonable price. A price that might not be available in a booming market.
All things considered, Kim is probably *the* singular guy I hope the Cubs go after this offseason with what little money they can scrape together. It’s not risk free. But it’s a good risk.