With the tightening market for relief pitching, the Jays might do well to look offshore to players like Hyeon-jong Yang
Ross Atkins’ comment about looking for talent offshore has already translated into action with the signing of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from Cuba. But this might not be the end of the Jays’ offshore search, particularly as the free agent market diminishes as players sign.
I wrote about one Korean outfield option that the Jays might consider – Ah-Seop Son – in a previous post. But the foreign leagues hold a number of potentially attractive pitching options as well.
So let’s talk about Hyeon-jong Yang.
Yang is a 28-year-old left handed starting pitcher with the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). In 2016, he pitched 200+ innings with a 3.68 ERA (4th best in the KBO) and 146 strikeouts (5th best). Yang has four pitches, including a 92-95 mph fastball, and has been projected to be a #3 starter at the MLB level with #2 upside.
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Yang is considered one of the aces of the KBO. When the Dongwon Choi Award – the Korean equivalent of the Cy Young award, given each year to the top pitcher – was created in 2014, he was the first winner.
Under the agreement between the KBO and MLB, a player who wants to move to MLB must be posted by his Korean team. The MLB team who offers the highest posting fee then has the exclusive right to negotiate with the player, provided that the KBO team accepts the fee.
In 2014, Yang was posted by the Tigers (at his request – he very much wants to play in the MLB). Unfortunately for him, the highest posting fee received was reported to be $1.5 million, which the Tigers declined as being far too low. Yang accordingly stayed in Korea for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. But he is now an unrestricted free agent, with no posting fee attached, and might prove an interesting option for the Jays.
Why are the Jays a fit?
I like the risk:reward relationship of a potential Yang signing. It is unlikely (though not impossible) that Yang will ever be a top starter in MLB. But his 2016 salary with the Tigers was 750 million won (roughly US$650k) so his salary demands should not be high by MLB standards. If he could be signed at an AAV of $1-3 million, the risk would be low enough to justify the gamble.
Second, Yang (a lefty) has indicated that he would consider a move to the bullpen. He could potentially serve as a lefty/longman/swingman in the Jays pen in 2017, with the potential to transition into a starting role in 2018 (when the Jays might lose Liriano and Estrada).
And finally, Yang will only be 29 at the beginning of the 2017 season. He could therefore be a viable bullpen or rotation option for several years, if he succeeds. This increases the upside associated with signing him.
The bottom line
I am likely starting to sound like a broken record, but the key to success in the majors is to take intelligent gambles and have them pay off. I see Yang, at the right price, as just such a gamble.