2021 KBO Position Players to Watch
By TED BAARDA
With Spring Training underway, baseball fans can look forward to enjoying more baseball in 2021 than we had in 2020. While MLB teams are ramping up, so are players in NPB and the KBO, Japan’s and South Korea’s top leagues respectively. NPB is starting up the earliest, on March 26, while the KBO is starting their season about a week later, on April 3. Both leagues will also be taking a break from mid-June through early August to allow players to represent their countries in the Olympics, which should result in both Japan and South Korea fielding competitive teams in the event. In addition to fielding Olympians, both leagues feature players that have the upside to be future Major League contributors.
We previously looked at prominent KBO pitchers. Here are some of the most intriguing hitters playing in the KBO this year. Some of these players have some MLB experience, some will be Olympians this summer, and some are young players with bright futures. To capture a variety of players, I will be filling out a full defensive alignment (and adding a DH).
Catcher: Eui-ji Yang – NC Dinos
Like many KBO players, Yang gained some international recognition with his strong play in a year where the KBO was more of a focus for baseball fans. Despite being 33 years old with a lengthy catching career, he posted one of the best offensive seasons in his career, with career highs of 33 HR, 124 RBI and a .603 SLG. Yang’s .328/.400/.603 line in 2020 is certainly impressive, but he actually produced his lowest OPS in his last three years, with his 1.003 OPS in 2020 being slightly below the 1.012 OPS he produced in both 2018 and 2019.
Yang is on a truly impressive three year run at the plate, which is especially remarkable when considering the toll catching takes on one’s body throughout a season. Defensively Yang is a standout as well, winning the inaugural Fielding Bible Award for KBO catchers for his defensive work in 2020. While Yang is older than most players who may have a MLB future, he could attempt a brief cameo like Dae-ho Lee did in 2016 with the Mariners to challenge himself at the highest level.
First Base: Baek-ho Kang – KT Wiz
Baek-ho Kang was the first overall pick in the KBO draft before the 2018 season, and he made that look like a wise choice with a monster year. Despite being 18 when he debuted, he went on to post a .290/.356/.524 line as a rookie in 2018 and has made improvements to his game in the following years. Kang cut his strikeout rate from 21% in 2018 to 16% in 2020, while raising his walk rate from 9% to 11.5% over the same time period. His OBP has sat in the low .400s the last 2 seasons and he brought his SLG up to .544 last season, though he still has the potential to turn some of his doubles into home runs in the coming seasons.
Defensively, Kang is a first baseman and only a first baseman, and the metrics were not appreciative of his glovework, with him ranking near the bottom of the KBO DRS leaderboards for first baseman. He still has four years before he is eligible to be posted, and he still has room to grow, but Kang is the most exciting KBO first base prospect since Byung-ho Park.
Designated Hitter: Roberto Ramos – LG Twins
Ramos was a 16th round pick of the Colorado Rockies in the 2014 MLB Draft, and he slowly moved up through their minor league system. As a lefty-swinging first baseman, Ramos didn’t display much power early in his minor league career (outside of a .610 SLG at Asheville in 2015, where the dimensions are 297 ft down the right field line and 373 to straightaway center). He started to show more pop in 2018, breaking out with a .305 ISO split between High-A Lancaster and AA Hartford. He followed that up with a .309/.400/.580 line in 2019 in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. After that season, his sixth in the Rockies organization, the team released him to pursue an opportunity in the KBO.
Ramos continued to hit well in his debut season in Korea, slashing .278/.362/.592 over 117 games and finishing second in the league with 38 HR. He also finished second in the league in hard hit rate, behind only MVP Mel Rojas Jr. While the power is undeniable, Ramos can have problems making contact at times, as evidenced by his 28% strikeout rate in his first year in the KBO, which lines up with his career 26% strikeout rate in the minors.
While a 28% strikeout rate is not bad for a Major Leaguer, MLB pitchers consistently generate many more strikeouts than their KBO counterparts. This means that MLB teams eyeing Ramos are likely concerned about a big strikeout spike should they sign him to a MLB deal. Ramos is young enough, at 26, that he has time to learn to cut down on his whiffs while still producing power at the plate. That will be necessary if he wants to sign with a MLB team in the future.
Second Base: Min-woo Park – NC Dinos
Min-woo Park is a throwback type of middle infielder, with a high-contact, low-power profile at the plate. He debuted in 2013, and became a regular fixture in NC’s lineup the following season. Park has hit over .300 in each year since 2015 and has a career slash line of .330/.404/.433. While his career slugging percentage is low, Park has beaten that mark in each of the last four seasons with a career high of .475 in 2020. He has never reached double digits in home runs, but will mix in his share of doubles and triples.
Early in his career, Park’s offensive game was supported with speed on the bases as he went 96 for 122 in stolen base attempts from 2014-2015. Since then he has not topped 20 steals in a season, though he still uses his speed to help him leg out triples, of which he has 43 in his career. Defensively Park looks like he could play about an average second base in the Majors, but he doesn’t have the arm to consistently play on the left side of the infield.
Min-woo Park has played more than seven seasons in Korea, so he is eligible to be posted and will likely gain free agency rights in two years. He is 28 now, but profiles as more of a backup at the MLB level, and the posting process has not been kind to players who aren’t viewed as having starter potential. As a 30 year old in two years, reaching free agency then might provide him with his best chance at signing with a MLB team.
Shortstop: Dixon Machado – Lotte Giants
Dixon Machado has some similarities to Min-woo Park, as a middle infielder without much power who likely profiles as a bench player on a MLB team. Machado spent nearly a decade with the Tigers organization, who signed as an amateur with the team out of Venezuela, before spending 2019 with the Cubs AAA team.
Machado’s career MLB line of .227/.285/.295 in 172 games is uninspiring, and his career minor league line is not much better at .247/.328/.331 over 10 seasons. Throughout his time in the minors, defense was always Machado’s strength. This is shown on his 2017 scouting report from FanGraphs, where he was given future grades of 60 on his fielding and throwing.
Machado put up a solid .280/.356/.422 line in his first year in the KBO with 12 HR. He also went 15 for 16 stealing bases and played in every game for the Lotte Giants. His glovework was again recognized as he won the Fielding Bible Award as the best defensive shortstop in the KBO. For Machado to get another opportunity at a MLB role, he will need to continue to improve at the plate and maintain his strong fielding skills. He just turned 29, so a strong season this year could open up the opportunity for a bench spot on a MLB team in the future should he want to go that route.
Third Base: José Miguel Fernandez – Doosan Bears
While it is a stretch to call Fernandez a third baseman (he primarily is the DH for Doosan), he did play 11 innings at the position for the Los Angeles Angels in 2018. This also allows me to include Fernandez along with Kang and Ramos on this list, as all three are among the best hitters in the KBO.
Fernandez has had a unique career path, debuting in the Cuban National Series as a 19-year-old in 2007 and playing in the league until 2015. In his eight seasons in Cuba he hit .319/.403/.423, demonstrating both his ability to make solid contact but also less power than is expected for a corner infielder. In 2017 Fernandez played in the Dodgers system and signed with the Angels in 2018. He made a brief appearance in the Majors with the Angles and hit .267/.309/.388 in 123 plate appearances.
In 2019 Fernandez joined Doosan, and in the two years that have followed he has turned into one of the most prolific hitters in the history of the KBO. The KBO single-season hits record is 201, set in 2014 by Geon-chang Seo. In 2019, Fernandez ended the season with 197 hits, and last year he had 199. During this time Fernandez has slashed an impressive .342/.407/.490 while hitting 36 home runs over the two seasons, again demonstrating remarkable hitting ability but with less power than the typical corner infielder.
Jose Miguel Fernandez has already appeared in MLB, and he could find his way back again in the future. It is hard for contact-over-power first basemen to find a home in the Majors, so he would need to find a team where his skill set fits in. Due to the nature of his career, Fernadez is on the older side for a “prospect,” set to turn 33 in April. He could have the opportunity to return to the Majors, or continue to build his legacy in Korea and take a few more shots at Seo’s record.
Outfield: Jung-hoo Lee – Kiwoom Heroes
The Kiwoom Heroes have been the best team in the KBO at producing MLB position players, with Big Leaguers Jung-ho Kang, Byung-ho Park, and Ha-seong Kim all coming from Kiwoom. 22 year old Jung-hoo Lee might be the next one, as he has demonstrated a strong offensive game early in his career. His career batting line of .336/.397/.468 is impressive considering his youth, and his power is still emerging. 2020 was the first year that Lee produced a SLG over .500, at .524, and his first year reaching double digits in home runs with 15. He also set the single-season KBO record for doubles with 49 last year. With his evolving power, Lee has maintained his elite contact skills, with a career strikeout rate of 9% that matches his career walk rate. He has walked more than he has struck out in each of the last two seasons.
Listed at 6’1 and 172 lbs, Lee has some raw athleticism. He has stolen between 11 and 13 bases in each of his first four seasons, with his most efficient season being the most recent. He has graded out as only slightly below MLB average in right field by DRS, again demonstrating overall athleticism without any outstanding defensive tools.
As a young player who debuted early, Lee has played four full KBO seasons already, leaving him three years from posting eligibility. With Kiwoom’s openness to post young stars, Lee could be posted when he is 25, the same age as Ha-seong Kim was this past off-season. Assuming he keeps developing his power and maintains his elite contact skills, a 25 year old Jung-hoo Lee could be a hot commodity in the 2023-2024 off-season.
Outfield: Sung-bum Na – NC Dinos
Na was posted by NC this past off-season, though he was unable to find a deal to his liking and returned to NC for the coming season. I wrote a scouting report on Na before he was posted.
Na is known for being a prolific hitter in Korea, as shown in his career .317/.384/.542 line, and he set career highs in home runs and total bases in 2020. Offensively, strikeouts have always been a bit of a problem for him, with a career 22% strikeout rate and only a 8% walk rate. His strikeout rate spiked to 25% in 2020, with a career high of 148 strikeouts recorded in just 130 games.
His 2019 season was cut short by a gruesome knee injury, which cut off a terrific start to the season where Na was hitting .366/.443/.645. Since the injury, Na hasn’t been able to get back to his previous levels of athleticism, as he attempted a career low 4 stolen bases in 2020. He also spent more time as a DH in 2020 than he had in previous years. His glovework in right field was graded as below average when he did take the field, due to his lost range from his knee injury.
While Na was unable to reach a deal this past off-season, he could try to come stateside again in the future. He will have limited chances, since he is 31 already, but he could be a platoon bat in MLB..
Outfielder: Preston Tucker – Kia Tigers
Preston Tucker showed significant improvement in his second KBO season and established himself as one of the better hitters in the league. Tucker joined Kia in the middle of the 2019 season and managed only 9 home runs in 95 games with a .479 SLG. In 2020 he finished the season with 32 home runs and a .557 SLG, while walking more than he struck out. He finished 2020 with the fifth highest OPS in the league at .955.
While his bat took off in his second season in Korea, Tucker struggled in the field. I noted in my scouting report of him that his defense could use some work, and he ended up grading out as the worst defensive right fielder in the KBO by DRS. Tucker lacked the ability to get good reads on balls in the air last year, and he doesn’t have the speed to make up for poor routes and jumps.
Tucker will turn 31 in July, and another strong year with the bat may convince a team to take a flier on him. He might also benefit from a position change, though that is unlikely to happen with Kia.