Lost in Translation: How Kwang-hyun Kim Got Away

(You are entering a hot take free zone.)

The last time we discussed Korean pitcher Kwang-hyun Kim, we were fumbling through a translation from a Korean sports website, Naver Sports, about how the Padres had won the posting fee for Kim with a $2 million bid.

It seemed likely that the Padres and Kim, with 30 days to strike a deal, would agree to a contract, making Kim an intriguing potential 2015 contributor either from the rotation or out of the bullpen. There was, at least, some concern that inking Kim to a deal might be tougher than anticipated, however, since Kim’s Korean team, the SK Wyverns, expected a much higher posting fee for the left hander’s services.

With such a low winning posting fee bid, it was clear that major league teams didn’t see Kim as a potential impact arm, making his subsequent contract offer likely lower than anticipated. Either way, the deadline to sign Kim quietly approached against the backdrop of the frantic San Diego-based Winter Meetings and, in the end, on a day where the Padres made the much-ballyhooed Yasmani Grandal-for-Matt Kemp swap, they didn’t come to an agreement with Kim. AJ Preller described the negotiation breakdown matter-of-factly:

Just couldn’t agree on contract dollar amount.

Fair enough. So, how much were the Padres offering Kim? According to the Yonhap News Agency (hat tip: Vocal Minority David):

The source, privy to major league player transactions, told Yonhap News Agency that Kim rejected a two-year offer worth $2 million, all guaranteed. It had been speculated earlier that the Padres would only offer Kim a minor league or a split contract, which offers different salary rates for a player’s time in the majors and the minors, because they didn’t see Kim as big league starter material.

Jon Heyman chipped in the following:

That’s a two-year, $2 million offer, and a paltry one in today’s market. But did the Padres really low-ball Kim? Well, not really, at least not based on other posted players from Japan and Korea over the years. In fact, most posted players end up signing a major league contract that nearly equals their posting fee:

-List includes only players with posting fees $1M or greater
-List doesn’t include Masahiro Tanaka because the new MLB-NPB posting rules throw everything off

That’s a trend so tight that it makes you wonder if major league teams use a player’s posting fee as a baseline for what they plan on paying them. On average, teams spend about 12 percent more on a player’s contract than they do on that same player’s posting fee. Using those numbers, the Padres “should” have offered Kim a $2.24 million total deal. They were close enough.

While it might seem like the Padres could have gone higher with their offer — and they certainly could have — because of the surprisingly low posting fee that won the rights to negotiate with Kim, remember that that surprisingly low posting fee indicates that major league interest in the Korean lefty was almost non-existent. Kim’s KBO team, the SK Wyverns, were expecting to get closer to $10 million for posting Kim and, although they reluctantly accepted the Padres offer to appease Kim, that probably meant that Kim and his agent were also expecting to get a figure closer to $10-plus million to head to the majors.

Further, the Padres are constantly dealing with a 40-man roster crunch, as Dennis Lin notes. There’s a chance they just ultimately didn’t think that Kim deserved a roster spot, especially if additional offseason moves lead to an even more crowded 40-man. Heck, there’s probably a good chance that the Padres, with their $2 million bid, didn’t actually expect to win the bargaining rights for Kim. (On a somewhat related note, the guy at Gwynntelligence had an interesting discussion on posting fee bidding strategies in their most recent podcast.)

That’s not to say that losing out on Kim doesn’t sting just a little bit. The fact that his posting fee only ended up at $2 million made it likely that the Padres could nab him for a reasonable total investment. And considering the prices on the domestic free agent market (Brandon McCarthy is good and all, but he just signed for four years and $48 million as a league average pitcher with an injury history), foreign markets remain one of the best places for major league teams to invest. The list above is littered with success stories, even after you figure in the cost of the posting fees. Then there’s Cuba, where big stars have one-upped each other in recent years, from Yoenis Cespedes to Yasiel Puig to Jose Abreu. Even the Padres have benefited from a foreign flyer of late, as a $1 million initial investment into Odrisamer Despaigne turned into 96 and 1/3 league average innings last year. None of those players have anything to do specifically with Kwang-hyun Kim, however, and we’ll trust that the Padres did enough homework on the lefty to make a sound decision.

Kim, who made just under $250,000 last year in South Korea, will return to the SK Wyverns in 2015, reportedly with a salary over $500,000. He can be posted again next winter and, after he completes two more seasons in the KBO, will become an unrestricted free agent, allowing him to sign with a major league team without the red tape of the posting system. That’s not a bad outlook for the 26-year-old lefty, as he doesn’t lose out on too much money in the short-term and has a chance to improve his stock going forward, all without having to leave the comfort of his home country.

The latest international player of interest is Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang, who was posted on Monday. Kang bombed 40 home runs last year in the hitter-friendly KBO, but the usual questions exist about how the power will translate to the majors (Eric Thames hit 37 home runs and Felix Pie posted a .887 OPS in the KBO last year, as well) and whether he can stick at short. The soon-to-be 28-year-old Kang is apparently looking for a three-year, $24 million deal, which when combined with the posting fee likely means he’ll cost $35-plus million overall. The Padres, though they haven’t been specifically linked to Kang, will almost certainly do some serious tire kicking given the current situation at short.

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  • ballybunion

    I’m not too sure Kim can be posted again next off-season. That option, I thought, was for players who didn’t get any bids. If that’s true, and I’m not sure it is, he has to wait two years, until he’s 28, but is free of the posting system by then. Two pitches may be an ace in Korea, but three good pitches are the minimum to start in MLB, and an average (at least) fourth pitch is desired. Now he has one year or two to develop his secondary pitches.

    • Dustin

      Hmm, I know a couple of articles mentioned that he could be posted again next winter, including the Yonhap News Agency one I linked to here. They could be wrong, of course.