Earlier this week, the Baltimore Orioles announced the signing of 17-year-old South Korean pitcher, Kim Seong-min, amidst little fanfare.
At least, little fanfare in the United States.
The Korean Baseball Organization, on the other hand, strongly rebuked the Orioles and Major League Baseball for “indiscriminately signing [Korean] players.” Kim was the nation’s top left-handed pitching prospect and was expected to join the KBO upon his completion of high school. Instead, he becomes just another face amongst the hundreds of young men from across the globe in Major League organizations who are all trying to realize a life-long dream of playing in the big leagues.
The Baltimore Orioles did not break any international free agency rules with this signing. The KBO used to have a draft, in which clubs retained rights to Korean players in high schools and universities. That practice was scrapped in 2009, however, and an open draft was installed. This caused South Korean players to be subject to the same international free agent regulations as every other country outside the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Free agents in South Korea can sign at 16-years-old, if they wish.
Thus, the outrage displayed by the KBO seems overwrought and misplaced. That is, until one reads the statement made by the KBO a bit further:
“If things do not change, we will either visit the MLB commissioner’s office in person, or team up with leagues in Japan and Taiwan to confront major league teams’ hegemonic rookie signings.”
Invoking Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league is no accident. Despite being well within the international free agency rules and regulations to sign teenagers out of Japan, Major League Baseball has largely been respectful of Japan’s amateur players, allowing them to play within their country before later courting them to the U.S. through the cumbersome posting process. Organizations rarely even scout amateur players in Japan.
Japanese amateur players also feel a strong sense of loyalty to Nippon Professional Baseball. No high school player has ever opted against the Japanese draft in favor of coming to the United States to sign with a Major League organization. Left-hander Yusei Kikuchi came close to breaking that barrier in 2009, but he ultimately declared for the Japanese draft.
The last amateur player to bypass Japan’s draft and sign with a Major League organization was Junichi Tazawa back in 2008. As mentioned before, though, no high school player in Japan has ever signed with a Major League organization. Instead, Tazawa was 22-years-old and had pitched for an independent league in Japan prior to coming stateside. A far cry from the teenaged bonus baby that is seen throughout Latin America and occasionally in South Korea.
The NPB’s Korean counterpart desperately seeks to have that same unwritten respect for their league. The KBO wishes to retain their homegrown talent — partially due to a deeply-rooted sense of nationalism and also due to a desire for the higher profit that comes with more talented players — and the league has largely been successful. After all, Kim is only the second high school sophomore to be signed by a Major League organization.
The letter of complaint by the Korean Baseball Organization will not amount to anything in terms of the Kim signing. The Baltimore Orioles will still retain the rights to the 17-year-old pitcher. What the KBO is attempting to do, however, is to draw a line in the sand and dissuade Major League organizations from signing more of the elite talent out of Korea. The league needs to look out for its own financial health — which is completely understandable — and it appears that the KBO has chosen the NPB as it’s model for success.