For the Orioles it’s been an offseason of mostly quiet contemplation, interrupted only by brief attempted dalliances with Grant Balfour and Tyler Colvin. At last, though, they are stirring again, reaching a three-year agreement with Korean righty Suk-min Yoon worth a reported $5.75 million. The contract, like the others were, is pending a physical, so perhaps it would’ve been wiser to hold off on writing this for another few days, but let’s just assume this is going to be official. Let’s assume the Orioles know what they’re getting into.
Yoon’s a risky sort with limited upside, and there are real questions here that’ll be discussed later on. There’s a reasonable chance Yoon never throws quality innings in the bigs, and there are reasons why he’s signed for less than the market rate of one single win. But let’s just get something clear: this is hardly any money, especially given the three-year guarantee. More money this offseason was thrown at Garrett Jones. A similar amount of money was guaranteed to Willie Bloomquist. Michael Morse got more money. Chad Qualls got more money. Edward Mujica got a lot more money, despite ending up last year with shoulder fatigue. It should be recognized that this is a small commitment, with upside more in terms of potential value than potential ability on the pitcher’s part.
The good: Yoon’s 27, and he’s been able to get his fastball into the 90s, and a few years ago he was Korean Baseball’s most valuable player. He has a full arsenal, and while people like his slider and changeup the most, he’s also been said to throw a curveball and a forkball.
The bad: Yoon’s come down from his MVP season. He split last year between the rotation and the bullpen, due in large part to a recurring shoulder issue that some have characterized as serious. Yoon isn’t thought to be on the same level as Hyun-jin Ryu, and there’s not even a consensus on whether he’s a future starter or reliever. It should be noted again that Yoon signed for considerably less money than Garrett Jones did.
Here’s one video of Yoon pitching:
Here’s another video of Yoon pitching. Below, some .gifs, selective for better pitches since nobody wants pitcher .gifs of mediocre pitches:
Something Yoon doesn’t have is pinpoint command. He also seems to have a tendency to leave pitches up, so he’s probably not going to match Ryu’s 51% groundball rate. For the Orioles, right away, he’s going to compete for a rotation slot, but it might be that he needs some time to adjust to living here and playing here, and the organization has at least three years to get value out of his arm. Yoon doesn’t necessarily need to pay off right away.
In Ryu’s last season in Korea, he struck out more than ten batters per nine innings. In Yoon’s best season in Korea, he struck out nine batters per nine innings, and then his strikeout rate fell for two consecutive years. The dropping strikeouts are a concern, and the shoulder problem is a concern, and Yoon’s never going to get by by overpowering his opposition. He doesn’t have Ryu’s skillset, but then in his debut big-league season, Ryu was a 3- or 4-win starting pitcher. Yoon can be his own kind of good, and there’s value in being even just all right.
Hisashi Iwakuma was posted, and when he couldn’t reach an agreement with the A’s, he returned to Japan. That season he injured his shoulder and he later wound up signing with the Mariners at a bargain contract. Now Iwakuma looks like one of the better starters in baseball, despite a pedestrian fastball and an assortment of health questions. This would be the best possible way for Yoon to work out.
But then, the Orioles don’t have to look that far for reasons to be optimistic. They’ve squeezed 300 adequate innings out of minor-league acquisition Miguel Gonzalez. More pertinently, they’ve had a positive experience so far with Wei-Yin Chen. Chen signed out of Japan for three years and a little over $11 million. He had and has a repertoire much like Yoon’s, and in Chen’s last two years in Japan, his strikeout rate collapsed from 20% to 14%. He didn’t have a shoulder problem that I know of, but there were reasons to stay away from Chen, and yet what the Orioles have gotten is 4.3 WAR over 330 innings. Or 4.7 WAR, depending on your preference. Chen’s been an average starting pitcher, and while there’s nothing particularly exciting about that, there’s something more exciting about having an average starting pitcher at a fraction of what you’d expect to pay for that. That’s how a team like the Orioles can boost its effective payroll.
Yoon isn’t Chen; Yoon isn’t anyone but himself. He’ll have his own professional experience, and it will either work out or it won’t. He throws fine pitches, yes. He has some issues, yes. But over a three-year period, the Orioles are paying him the free-agent rate of almost one whole win. People disagree on how to calculate that rate, but pretty much all the current estimates are north of Yoon’s $5.75-million guarantee. So that sets for Yoon a very low bar. Even if you figure the Orioles need to be a little more efficient than the market average, Yoon just doesn’t have to do much for the Orioles to come away with this having been worth their while. And if he can be an average starter for, say, the equivalent of two seasons, that’s several millions of dollars of surplus value. Even Yoon as a reliever could be more than worth the salary.
If he’s busted, he’s busted, and shoulder problems are some of the worst problems to have. But as recently as a year or two ago, Yoon would’ve been a pretty high-profile potential acquisition, and he’s still well shy of 30 years old. So this is a relatively inexpensive roll of the dice, with a distinctly unsexy sort of upside. Yoon might turn himself into a perfectly fine big-league pitcher. And for the cost, the Orioles would be ecstatic. Value’s value, however you get it.
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