After a number of long, desolate years at the bottom of the food chain in major league baseball, there’s finally legitimate reason for optimism regarding Detroit baseball. Although the product on the field was still poor in 2020, the team had a widely-applauded draft class, briefly flirted with a playoff berth, saw their top prospects debut in the majors, and hired a progressive coaching staff shortly after the season drew to a close.
Departing free agents left the payroll wide open for spending this offseason, which puts the Tigers in a great position relative to the rest of the league, which is frequently predicted to keep a firm grip on the pursestrings.
One of this season’s marquee free agents is Korean shortstop Kim Ha-Seong, who the Kiwoom Heroes made available for negotiation with MLB clubs on the morning of Thanksgiving. While the Al Avila-led Tigers have not been active participants in the market for Asian players, this offseason could be the time to change. With the exception of Shohei Ohtani, Kim is perhaps the best MLB prospect to come out of Asia since Ichiro and plays a position where Detroit doesn’t have a long-term solution.
Kim debuted in the KBO at the age of 18. Understandably, he struggled a bit in his first season. It didn’t take long for him to realize his monster offensive potential, though. In 2015, his second year as a pro, he batted .290/.362/.489 and never looked back. In the five subsequent seasons, he has blossomed into one of the KBO’s most dynamic players, consistently generating enormous offensive output and holding down the left side of the infield for the Heroes.
His most recent campaign proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s nothing left for Kim to accomplish against Korean competitors. As a 24-year old in 2020, he reached his peak, batting .306/.397/.523. That line is just as impressive as it looks — it was 41 percent above league average, according to wRC+. Peripheral statistics indicate that it wasn’t a mirage, either, because he created that line with a sustainable batting average on balls in play and more walks that strikeouts.
Of course, not everyone who can hit in the KBO can also hit stateside. Remember Kim Hyun-Soo? He was a KBO superstar who washed out of the the MLB in two seasons. After his return to Korea, he’s picked up right where he left off and finished the 2020 season 13th in wRC+. However, there are two factors that separate Kim Ha-Seong from other cautionary tales of KBO stalwarts who failed to perform in the states: his youth and the multiple paths he could take to major league success.
Because Korean players cannot be posted by their clubs until they have accrued seven year of KBO experience, most who come to the MLB are much older than the 25-year-old Kim.
Kyle Glazer of Baseball America wrote in May that Kim would be a top 100 prospect if he signed with an MLB club. “Kim is a solid all-around player who projects to stick at shortstop,” he added. “He projects to be an above-average hitter and has enough power to hit 12-15 home runs per year in the majors.”
That assessment is basically echoed throughout the scouting landscape. “If, as a Double-A shortstop, Kim hit .290/.362/.489 at age-19, he’d have been considered an ultra-elite prospect,” wrote Dan Szymborski in October. “And he’s certainly done nothing since that season to inspire disappointment!”
ZiPS, a leading performance projection system designed by Szymborski, is also enamored with Kim. If ZiPS’ take on his future is correct, Kim could be one of the foundational building blocks of a competitive team. Take a look at the system’s projections for his first five years as a major league player, which were compiled into a handy table in the article referenced above.
Those are some hardy projections!
Even if Kim is unable to translate his impressive offensive talents to the major league level, he could still be a useful player for an MLB team. He’s a good athlete who clocks as a plus runner. Additionally, his instincts in the field are sufficient to stick at short and his arm strength will play at any of the infield positions. Even as an average hitter, he could be a complementary piece with useful versatility in a pinch. Those qualities could make him into a useful bench player even if the bat doesn’t play as well as the forecasts suggest, minimizing the risk factor.
It’s fairly obvious why the Tigers should be interested in signing Kim. Without a foundational piece up the middle, he has the chance to fill that role and be a cornerstone of the next competitive Detroit club. What can the team do to attract him, though? Without much track record of recent success or a legacy of great Asian ballplayers, there’s not much on the surface to tempt him here.
For one thing, the Tigers can offer him guaranteed playing time. There’s likely to be a learning curve as he adapts to better pitching than he’s ever faced, and if he struggles at first, there will be a long leash for him in Detroit.
The same can’t be said for other other clubs who have more frequent participation in the Asian market. The Dodgers, for example, would need to find a way to fit him into their plans around Corey Seager and Gavin Lux. Being able to get on the field is a big deal for a competitor like Kim, who is determined to make a name for himself in the MLB.
What’s more, AJ Hinch has a reputation as a recruiter. That’s a big part of what helped get another managerial job even after his reputation was sullied in the Astros’ cheating scandal. He has consistently put together quality coaching staffs, even pulling in Chris Fetter for the Tigers after he turned down multiple big-league coaching gigs in the past. That skill may matter less with MLB players — some of whom still harbor resentment against the Astros — but Kim may be a different story, as he was not impacted by the sign stealing scandal.
Most importantly, the Tigers are in a much freer financial position than many MLB teams. Ownerships across the sport have been insisting that 2020 was a disaster from a financial standpoint and have been telegraphing their intent to spend as little as possible this winter. The Tigers, on the other hand, have made no such public statements. Additionally, Chris Ilitch was more willing to spend last offseason than in winters past. If that trend continues, The Tigers can set themselves apart from the pack by offering more money and more guaranteed years than other suitors.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the team will be green-lit to shell out money to better free agents than have come though Detroit in recent years. Arranging a payday for Kim could be especially tricky because signing a posted player comes with hefty fees. However, without the burden of Jordan Zimmermann’s enormous contract, it makes sense that the team would be able to splurge a little heading into 2021.
A player of his Kim’s age and tools might typically expect a contract near the $100 million range, but with teams dealing with revenue loss and some uncertainty as to what the 2021 season will hold, something like five years, $60 million would presumably get the job done. Possibly that’s even on the high end, as MLB Trade Rumors suggests a $40 million figure.
From a zoomed out perspective, it makes sense for Detroit to be bidders on Kim Ha-Seong. He’s a young, dynamic player entering his prime and the Tigers are not far off from being competitive if they are willing to spend. The Tigers have been slow to change under the Avila regime, but they have come a long way since launching into their rebuild in 2016. Making a big splash in the Asian free agent market makes sense as the next change for the team to make.