It’s not often that the Detroit Tigers dip into the burgeoning Asian baseball market, but things might be changing under general manager Al Avila’s regime. According to Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Tigers are one of four teams interested in Jae-gyun Hwang of the KBO’s Lotte Giants. A 29-year-old infielder, Hwang is looking to test his skills against MLB competition next season. He has a four-year offer from a KBO team on the table, but requires no posting fee to sign with a U.S. team.
Hwang is a 10-year veteran of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), but has broken out over the past few years. He is career .285/.349/.433 hitter, but has posted three consecutive seasons with an OPS of .864 or better. Last season, Hwang hit .330/.391/.558 with 26 home runs and 104 RBI in 118 games for the Giants. While those numbers are awfully impressive, it’s important to note that the KBO is an extremely hitter-friendly environment. The league average OPS last year was .802, and 64 qualified hitters were above the .800 OPS threshold.
Scouts aren’t so optimistic about Hwang’s major league future. 2080 Baseball’s Dave DeFritas gave Hwang a future value of 40 (on the 20-80 scouting scale), indicating that he would likely only be a utility player at the major league level. DeFritas compared Hwang to Mariners infielder Dae-ho Lee, another recent Korean import.
Here’s DeFritas’ full summary:
Corner-utility player with some track record of gap/doubles power and some on-base ability. Strong wrists and can turn on velo in, but tends to cheat by opening early. Makes a lot of contact and has some feel for the strike zone. Aggressive early on fastballs; can see him having issues with off-speed on outer 1/3. Below-average defender with some arm strength who will catch what he can get to. Average athlete, foot work limits him laterally. Not a base stealer, but runs better underway; not a base clogger. Will need to move around the diamond to see consistent at-bats - has value in that corner utility role in the right setting.
Sung Min Kim of Today’s Knuckleball took an in-depth look at Hwang earlier this offseason, and compared him to a couple recent Korean imports.
Another scout said he is different than other former KBO position players that made it to the majors in recent years.
“Hyun-Soo Kim had a ML-ready bat. But he can’t run, has an accurate but weak arm and is a relatively bad defender based on his raw skillset — but he was ready to hit ML pitching right away. Byung-Ho Park had clear holes in his swing but he has an advanced approach, plus major league power and his game wasn’t going to change significantly.”
Regarding Hwang, he said “Hwang has raw power, a big arm and an average runner — all solid MLB tools you look for in complete players. But his approach is less advanced, his footwork needs work, and his base-running instincts are below ML-average.”
According to Berardino, Hwang contract demands include a guaranteed spot on an MLB team’s 40-man roster. Brew Crew Ball’s Kyle Lesniewski noted that multiple teams have offered Hwang a minor league deal thus far, but no one has bitten on a guaranteed roster spot.
The Tigers’ interest in Hwang is a bit curious. DeFritas explained that Hwang could eventually become a player adept at handling the corner infield and outfield positions, but probably can’t handle the middle infield. While he seems appealing as a bench bat — assuming his offensive skills translate to the U.S., of course — the Tigers are already facing a roster crunch with four players out of minor league options heading into 2017.
Even if the Tigers don’t sign Hwang, their sudden interest in the KBO product is an encouraging sign. The club has largely ignored the Asian market over the last several years, with Fu-Te Ni the only recent import of note. While this is the only reported instance of the Tigers evaluating Korean talent, it indicates that they are willing to expand their scouting base across the Pacific.