Earlier this year, as his father lay in the hospital, Lotte Giants outfielder Ah-seop Son asked if he could stay behind as the team left town. The Giants said no to their longtime star. Soon after Son left with the Giants on a road trip, his father died. People around Korea were abhorred, and the media rightfully flayed the team.
A few months later, Son finds himself in the midst of one of the more fascinating stories of a baseball offseason playing itself out halfway around the world. On Monday, Lotte opened up blind bidding for major league teams on Son, a 27-year-old left fielder with a lifetime batting average of .323 and an on-base percentage near .400.
Some executives, meanwhile, are even more interested in Jae-gyun Hwang, a third baseman and Son’s teammates with the Giants. The problem: Korean Baseball Organization rules prevent a team from accepting bids on two players in the same season through the posting system, the official conduit that sends Koreans under contract to Major League Baseball.
Not only does Lotte’s conundrum illustrate how much more risk teams are willing to take on Korean players, it brings drama to the posting of Son, on whom final bids are due Friday. If Lotte accepts the highest bid for Son – it is not expected to reach anything near the $12.85 million the Minnesota Twins paid earlier this month for slugger Byung-ho Park – then the team runs the risk of losing Hwang without a posting fee next season, when he qualifies for free agency. Son is not a free agent until after the 2017 season, and Lotte would maximize its earnings by turning down the bid for him and posting Hwang instead.
At the same time, there’s a perception among sources familiar with Korean baseball that Lotte’s mistreatment of Son during his father’s passing could put pressure on the team to accept the posting bid and not even take one on Hwang. Lotte’s choice to post Son first came for a more simple, straightforward reason: He asked before Hwang.
Who’s the better player isn’t a clear choice based on talent alone. Some scouts prefer the consistency of Son, a four-time Gold Glove winner as the best all-around left fielder in the KBO. At 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, he profiles as a potential everyday outfielder with contact ability and some power. Others like the ceiling of the 28-year-old Hwang, who last season bulked up to 6-foot-1, 210 pounds and set career highs in home runs (28), RBIs (97) and slugging percentage (.521).
Faith in Korean players from major league teams stems from the excellent rookie season by Jung-ho Kang, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ infielder and one of Hwang’s best friends. They were drafted the same year in Korea as Dodgers starter Hyun-jin Ryu, who set the record posting fee at $25.7 million, and outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, himself a free agent who should command significant interest from major league teams.
With either Son and Hwang coming, the market won’t be too overcrowded, especially if Park, Kim, slugger Dae-ho Lee and others expected to go to the United States find anywhere near the success of Kang. Both Son and Hwang can take solace in that. Even if they want to be in the big leagues next season, both are likely to be major leaguers by the 2017 season, continuing the Korean influx and adding a new dimension to the player pool of MLB.