By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 11 (Yonhap) — The annual Major League Baseball (MLB) Winter Meetings wrapped up Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee, with a trio of South Korean free agents still without their first big league contracts.
Lee Dae-ho, first baseman/designated hitter, was the only one among the group to travel to the Music City and may be closest to signing a deal, while outfielder Kim Hyun-soo chose to stay home and let his agent handle matters. Reliever Oh Seung-hwan had traveled to the United States last month to gauge interest but was forced to return home over pending legal issues.
Lee, who bats and throws right-handed, is coming off a successful fourth season in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). The 33-year-old set his NPB career highs with 31 home runs and 98 RBIs in 141 games for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and then won the Japan Series MVP as the Hawks knocked out the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in five games.
Lee, a former regular season MVP in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), is now trying to parlay the strong year into his first big league deal, after opting out of his contract with the Hawks.
Free agent slugger Lee Dae-ho waves to photographers at Incheon International Airport on Dec. 7, 2015, as he leaves for the United States to attend Major League Baseball Winter Meetings. (Yonhap)
Through his South Korean management company, Montis Sports Management Group, Lee said Thursday that he was pleasantly surprised by the high level of interest in him from MLB clubs.
“I was surprised that the teams knew about me, even though I announced my intent to play in the majors only recently (in early November),” said Lee, who is scheduled to return to South Korea on Sunday. “I hope to be able to deliver some good news soon.”
According to Montis, which is working with the U.S.-based MVP Sports Group to represent Lee, one MLB club official said that many scouts had watched Lee’s games on DVD, and there’s little doubt about his hitting prowess.
Montis said that another MLB team official noted that Lee, despite his hefty, 194-centimeter and 130-kilogram frame (6-foot-4 and 286 pounds), is a nimble athlete who has been able to stay healthy for most of his career.
During the Winter Meetings, however, teams that appeared to have pressing needs at first base addressed them via a trade and a signing.
The Seattle Mariners, with new general manager Jerry Dipoto wheeling and dealing, earlier traded away two first base options, Logan Morrison and Mark Trumbo, and then acquired first baseman Adam Lind from the Milwaukee Brewers this week.
Lind, who bats and throws left-handed, is a 10-year veteran who hit 20 home runs and drove in 87 runs this past season. The 32-year-old is a career .274 hitter in 1,102 games.
The Colorado Rockies have reportedly agreed to terms with Mark Reynolds, who can play both first base and third base. He’s expected to offer some right-handed power at first, joining left-handed hitting Ben Paulsen.
Reynolds, 32, is an all-or-nothing type of slugger who led his league in strikeouts every year from 2008 to 2011. He hit at least 21 home runs in seven consecutive seasons starting in 2008, and had 13 in 140 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015.
The Houston Astros could also use a first baseman after Chris Carter became a free agent, a major league source told Yonhap News Agency. The Astros are one of a handful of clubs with no scouting presence in Asia and may not have much knowledge about Lee beyond what they may have seen on DVD.
Left fielder Kim Hyun-soo, who bats left and throws right, posted the best power numbers of his KBO career for the Doosan Bears in 2015 with 28 home runs and 121 RBIs, along with a robust .326/.438/.488 line. Long known for his ability to put the ball in play, Kim struck out only 63 times in 630 plate appearances while drawing 101 walks.
An informed source earlier told Yonhap News Agency that the 27-year-old, represented by Wasserman Media Group, had offers from multiple big league clubs but didn’t identify them, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations.
The Atlanta Braves were among the teams that took an active interest in Kim, on one occasion even following the Seoul-based Bears on a road trip. During the Winter Meetings, though, they acquired versatile outfielder Ender Inciarte from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for starting pitcher Shelby Miller.
Inciarte, 25, had a breakout sophomore season in 2015 with the D-Backs, setting career highs with a .303 average, 73 runs scored, 27 doubles and 21 steals, while playing stellar defense in all three outfield positions.
ESPN.com reported that a dozen teams have called the Braves about Inciarte since the trade, though they aren’t likely to move him unless they get an offer they can’t refuse.
The Oakland Athletics, who have compiled an effusive scouting report on Kim, haven’t been busy this offseason and could still go after the Korean All-Star. The Los Angeles Angels, the Baltimore Orioles and the Detroit Tigers are among other clubs with a corner outfield need. After losing Inciarte, the Diamondbacks may go searching for an outfielder themselves.
Kim, who can also play first base, finds himself in a crowded market for outfielders, however, with All-Stars Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Alex Gordon and Jason Heyward still unsigned. Teams that lose out on those players could go after Kim, who will certainly come cheaper.
During the KBO Golden Glove Awards ceremony Tuesday, Kim said that his future would likely be determined, one way or another, “within 10 days.”
South Korean free agent outfielder Kim Hyun-soo (R) answers reporters’ questions before the Golden Glove Awards in Seoul on Dec. 8, 2015. (Yonhap)
Oh Seung-hwan, right-handed closer for the NPB’s Hanshin Tigers the past two seasons, may have to wait a bit longer to see if he will end up in the majors next season. A baseball contract may be the furthest thing from the mind of the free agent pitcher, who was grilled for five hours by Seoul prosecutors this week over illegal overseas gambling charges. He partially admitted to them, saying he’d borrowed chips worth hundreds of millions of won in Macau from a gambling house owner with an organized crime connection, but the actual number of times he gambled and the amount he bet were insignificant.
Prosecutors are considering indicting Oh without physical detention, as long as they can establish that he didn’t gamble away as much as suspected.
Oh, 33, led the Central League in saves in each of the past two seasons. Despite a leg injury that cut his season short in September, Oh tied Tony Barnette with 41 saves this year, along with a 2.83 ERA, striking out 66 in 69 1/3 innings. Last year, his first in the NPB, Oh recorded 39 saves with a 1.76 ERA while striking out 81 in 66 2/3 innings.
Oh is the KBO’s career leader in saves with 277, coming in nine seasons with the Samsung Lions.
The Cleveland Indians have reportedly shown interest in Oh, and there are other clubs that could use extra bullpen depth for next year and beyond.
It remains to be seen whether MLB teams will look past Oh’s charges and still pursue him. One American League club official recently told Yonhap News Agency that he doubted Oh’s charges could be a big problem for MLB teams, if the situation was sorted out quickly and if Oh avoided a jail term.
On the other hand, Japanese media reports have said that the Tigers will no longer try to bring back the South Korean for his third season.
If Oh were to return to the KBO, he may only sign with the Lions. However, since the Lions have already released pitcher Lim Chang-yong over similar gambling suspicions, it’s unlikely they will acquire Oh for his second tour of duty with the club.