This is Sung Min Kim’s second piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.
For the first post of my residency, I examined the biggest names in Asia who could soon come over to U.S. Because of the massive amount of attention MLB gets from local media and fans, people keep their eyes peeled on potential Asia-to-MLB transactions.
What does not get as much attention, however, is the reverse. Teams in Asia (for the purposes of this article, I’m specifically referring to teams in Japan and South Korea) diligently scout players Stateside, mainly scouring the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and sometimes even Mexico or independent ball to fill out their foreign-player roster. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league, has a cap of three foreign players per team, while the Nippon Professional League (NPB), a 12-team league, has a cap of four foreign players on its major-league rosters, and no cap on its minor-league rosters.
Sure, it may not be as newsworthy as an MLB team signing an exciting talent from Asia (remember the buzz Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani generated this offseason?), but there are reasons to keep track of players crossing the Pacific to the Far East. In recent years, the players traveling to Asia are likely quite familiar to everyday baseball fans in the U.S. That hasn’t always been the case. For some time, playing baseball in Asia was seen more as a destination of last resort for players who could not find their way in the majors or were past their prime. Rather than signing ex-big leaguers looking to “collect their last paychecks,” however, Asian clubs are now signing younger players on the fringes of the big leagues — the so-called “Quad-A” player — and even, in some instances, players who are on a major-league 40-man roster.
Players are also now realizing that their careers don’t “go to die” in Asia. Rather, it is sometimes an opportunity for them to play well, get better, and return to Major League Baseball. With MLB teams having increased their scouting presence in the NPB and KBO, we have seen notable recent cases of American players thriving there and securing a guaranteed MLB contract.
One such player is, of course, Milwaukee 1B/OF Eric Thames. After recording a .799 OPS in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems in 2013, Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO, where he proceeded to record video-game numbers, slashing .349/.451/.721 with 124 home runs and a 188 wRC+ from 2014 to 2016. Following the third of those season, the Brewers signed Thames to a $16-million contract with a $7.5 million club option for 2020. In his first season back in the MLB, Thames produced a 124 wRC+ with a 2.1 WAR while hitting 31 home runs for the Brewers. Not bad.
This offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals signed right-hander Miles Mikolas on a two-year deal worth $15.5 million. Mikolas, who posted a career 3.23 ERA in 125.1 IP in Triple-A and had limited looks in the majors, went over to the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB at the age of 26 and posted a 2.18 ERA in 424.2 innings with 378 strikeouts and 69 walks before landing a deal with the Cardinals. RHP Merrill Kelly (SK Wyverns), a former Tampa Bay prospect who boasted a 2.76 ERA in 114.0 IP in Triple-A before heading to Korea, is entering his fourth season in Korea having produced a 3.80 ERA with 480 strikeouts and 159 walks in 571.1 innings. He has gotten serious looks by major-league teams.
Over the past few years, earning a contract in Asia and striving for stability has become one of the most sought-out options for Quad-A players with limited earning potential in the U.S. However, it was not always this way. Asia was not an option that many younger players wanted to pursue as an immediate alternative to remaining in affiliated baseball.
For example, back in winter of 2004, the LG Twins scouted former top Texas Rangers prospect Ruben Mateo. When their scout approached the then-26-year-old Mateo about the team’s interest in him, the outfielder allegedly remarked “Where? Korea? No way you dare try to sign me” and then brandished a gun. Instead of backing off, the LG Twins scout calmed Mateo down and started to convince him about the idea. Mateo was later sold by his pitch and signed with LG. Mateo was eventually released after only 34 games, hitting a measly .223 with five home runs during that span.
Flash forward to the winter of 2017, and the market has changed drastically. Han Lee, a player agent and founder of the agency GSI, has advised and overseen several players who have gone on or expressed desire to go play in Asia. He has observed a changing trend of the players’ desires to play in the NPB and KBO.
“Competition has dramatically increased in the last two to three years,” Lee said. “Now you’re seeing guys heading over in their prime, a lot of them in their late-20s. We have seen some guys go as early as age 25 or 26, whereas five to seven years ago, you saw more players going in their mid-30s to essentially collect their ‘last paycheck.’”
There have been plenty of cases where NPB and KBO clubs were burned by ex-big leaguers who were “over the hill” and played poorly. Some of them could not adapt to being in a new atmosphere and some flat-out underperformed. For instance, back in 2012, former two-time MLB All-Star Brad Penny headed to Japan to pitch for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a lucrative $4 million contract. Penny requested his release after making only one start, however, a combination of an injured shoulder and unfamiliar surroundings leading to his decision.
In 2014, the SK Wyverns of the KBO signed former Orioles cleanup hitter Luke Scott. He was released after playing only 33 games and left in the middle of a dispute with the team’s manager, calling him a “coward” and “liar” in public. Suffice it to say that he simply did not get along.
As more of these high-priced experiments with “big names” failed, the NPB and KBO teams have changed their approaches by getting younger and thinking long-term.
“I want my clients to understand that going to Asia is no longer their last option,” Lee said. “I’ve spoken to so many players in the past about Asia while they were a fringe guy on the 40-man roster or just had a solid season in Triple-A. When I would bring up Japan and Korea as an option, these players would brush me off and ‘look down’ upon the idea of playing there. Fast forward a year, when the same players are no longer on the 40-man roster or couldn’t find jobs in the States after a bad year, then they would all of sudden entertain the idea of going to Korea and Japan. But, by then, those clubs moved on and were no longer interested.”
Not only are the players promised more playing time. Financial stability, too, is another significant factor in the decisions to make the jump. Almost all first-year foreigner contracts for the 2018 season in NPB and KBO surpass the MLB minimum wage ($545,000 in 2017). First year contracts for new foreigners in both Korea and Japan are now easily upwards of $700,000 to $900,000 — or even $1,000,000 guaranteed. Here is a list of new KBO signees for the 2018 season, their age, and how much they are set to get paid.
|Seth Frankoff||Doosan Bears||RHP||29||$850,000|
|Jimmy Paredes||Doosan Bears||IF/OF||29||$800,000|
|Keyvius Sampson||Hanwha Eagles||RHP||27||$700,000|
|Jared Hoying||Hanwha Eagles||OF||28||$700,000|
|Jason Wheeler||Hanwha Eagles||LHP||27||$570,000|
|Tyler Wilson||LG Twins||RHP||28||$800,000|
|Adonis Garcia||LG Twins||3B||32||$800,000|
|Felix Doubront||Lotte Giants||LHP||30||$1,000,000|
|Wei-Chung Wang||NC Dinos||LHP||25||$700,000|
|Logan Verrett||NC Dinos||RHP||27||$600,000|
|Tim Adleman||Samsung Lions||RHP||30||$1,050,000|
|Lisalverto Bonilla||Samsung Lions||RHP||27||$700,000|
|Angel Sanchez||SK Wyverns||RHP||28||$850,000|
All the newcomers listed here are set to make more than the MLB minimum. If they can prove themselves and stick around for another season, then they will have another year of a six- or seven-figure salary guaranteed playing the game they love. For the 2018 season, the average salary for all 30 KBO foreign players is $1.03 million. The reigning Korean Series champions Kia Tigers lead the league with $4.025 million total spent on three foreigners: RHP Hector Noesi at $2.0 million, OF Roger Bernadina at $1.1 million, and LHP Pat Dean at $925,000.
Why pay the big bucks? Over the years, clubs have seen the level of success that long-term foreign players can bring to the team. Starting pitcher Dustin Nippert is a prime example. The former Rangers prospect spent the 2011 to 2017 seasons with the Doosan Bears. In those seven seasons, Nippert compiled a 94-43 record with 3.48 ERA in 1,115.1 innings while leading the club to two Korean Series titles and winning the league MVP in 2016. With the salaries foreign players are demanding nowadays, pitchers are expected to lead a rotation and hitters are expected to be a central figure in the lineup. With so many variables outside of baseball, it has not been easy for clubs to scout talent that has the potential to stick with the team long-term. But when they do, it becomes a mutually beneficial proposition.
In that regard, the NPB can be favorable destination for the right kind of player. Top-level foreigners in Japan can make a low- to mid-level MLB salary. Consider the case of left-hander Kris Johnson, for example. A former Red Sox supplemental first-round pick in 2006, Johnson went 14-7 with a 1.85 ERA in 194.1 innings during his first year with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 2015. The club rewarded him with a three-year deal that could top around $15 million.
Johnson isn’t the only example. Former Seattle Mariners outfielder Stefen Romero signed a three-year extension worth around $2.5 million per year with the Orix Buffaloes, in the middle of his first season in Japan. RHP Dennis Sarfate (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks), who won the 2017 Pacific League MVP after posting a 1.09 ERA with 102 strikeouts and 10 walks in 66 innings, is currently signed to a three-year contract at 150 million yen (around $13.3 million).
The NPB has become a place where players have a chance to make a competitive living by performing. By contrast, the KBO has a rule that bans signing foreign players on multi-year deals, though sources have told me that it has been done in rare cases. “Generally speaking, Japan is going with the model ‘if you can prove yourself first, then we will reward you,'” Lee said. “With the KBO foreign-player salaries getting extremely competitive for first-year foreigners, we are now seeing instances where the KBO pay is on par [with] — if not more than — the NPB for first-year guys.”
In addition to the financial security, the NPB and KBO also present an opportunity for players to get regular playing time. Whether they allow five runs in an outing or go 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, they generally don’t have to worry about being taken out of the lineup. It should be noted that this is more so the case in the KBO than the NPB. With no player-cap restrictions in the minor leagues in Japan, NPB teams will often shuffle guys back and forth, just like they do here in the States.
“While Japan may potentially offer a larger payday, players have to think about a team’s ability to send him down to the minor leagues and sometimes keep him there,” Lee said. “It is not a concern that players need to have in the KBO. It’s something that I discuss with my clients when choosing between Japan and Korea.” One could argue that, because they get consistent playing time, players stay sharper, play better and improve parts of their game. “A lot of players tell me about not having to worry about essentially being perfect in every opportunity to secure your spot, and how much that helps with their performance.” Lee said.
One obstacle that’s often overlooked in a player’s success in Asia is his ability to make the successful adjustment on and off the field.
“Something I want the players to understand that these teams are paying them high salaries, and they expect players to respect and understand the cultural differences on and off the field,” Lee said. “Yes, many things are done differently over there. But the quicker a player can accept and respect the differences, the better off he will be. If you look at the guys who have succeeded over the years in Korea or Japan, the cultural adjustment has been a huge part of the players’ success.”
Lee himself knows firsthand the importance of a successful transition. Back in 2015, Lee and former colleague and ex-San Francisco and Lotte Giants pitcher Ryan Sadowski ran a three-day seminar for four new foreign players — OF Jim Adduci, RHP Merrill Kelly, RHP Josh Lindblom, and LHP Brooks Raley — heading to Korea.
The results speak for themselves: Kelly and Raley have successfully stuck with their respective clubs and now enter their fourth season abroad. Kelly has seen his salary jump from $350,000 to $1.45 million since arriving in Korea, Raley’s from $500,000 to $1.17 million. Lindblom pitched for Lotte Giants from 2015 to 2016, left Korea briefly for 2017, and returned for the second half of the season. He is set to pitch for the Doosan Bears in 2018 with a $1.45 million deal. The only player who has not stayed in Korea is Jim Adduci, who had a very good 2015 but was released during the 2016 season after testing positive for oxycodone that he took to treat nagging lower back pain.
Lee’s main point is that the players must learn to embrace the differences in culture, both in life and baseball. “Things are just different over there,” he said. “That’s just a fact. A lot of guys try to fight that and that can ruin one’s experience.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that Asia will remain a popular destination for many players in the States. With the level of competition continuing to rise, it has become more challenging to stick for more than just a single season. Those who do, however, may find opportunities that surpass those open to them back in affiliated baseball. Kris Johnson, as I noted, could earn up to $15 million from his three-year extension with the Hiroshima Carp. Compare that to the career earnings of Joba Chamberlain, who was taken a pick after Johnson during the supplemental first round of the 2006 draft. Despite pitching in parts of 10 major-league seasons, Chamberlain made only an estimated $13 million.
That’s further evidence that people need to pay more attention to who goes east during the Hot Stove season. Many players want to play in NPB or KBO to chase the financial stability and increased playing time. At the same time, teams are utilizing different methods of assessing and selecting foreign players. Those who make it must face the challenge of adjusting to a new culture on and off the field. You may not think about successful foreign players in NPB or KBO all that much, but they have overcome some major hurdles to get to where they are right now.