Baltimore's botched signing of Korean lefthander Seong-Min Kim set off chatter throughout the industry, and not just because the Orioles violated the standard protocol for signing a Korean amateur.
The Orioles reached an agreement with Kim, 17, for a $575,000 bonus on Jan. 17. The signing drew the ire of the governing body of Korean baseball, the Korean Baseball Association, and the country's top pro league, the Korean Baseball Organization, because Baltimore didn't follow the standard protocol before contacting and signing Kim. Now the deal is off, as Major League Baseball reviewed the contract and decided not to approve it, meaning Kim is no longer under reserve to the Orioles or any other team.
"We made a mistake, we made an administrative mistake, which I apologize
for," Orioles general manager Dan Duquette said. "We messed up a step in the protocol agreement. It was an inadvertent mistake, not intentional . . . Essentially there's no contract because we didn't follow the protocol."
If a major league team wants to talk to a Korean player, it must submit a status check on the player to MLB, which then sends it to the KBO. The KBO says whether the player is eligible to sign, and MLB lets the American team know if it has clearance to contact the player. The Orioles did not follow that process, and have since issued a public apology for their "unintentional breach of protocol."
Jee-Ho Yoo of Korea's Yonhap News Agency cited KBO officials who said MLB has fined the Orioles an undisclosed amount, though neither Duquette nor an MLB spokesman would comment on any disciplinary action. Korean baseball officials also called for a "trilateral commission" of officials in Japan, Korea and Taiwan to discuss how to regulate the scouting of their amateur players by major league teams.
More notable than the breach of protocol, however, was the amount the Orioles agreed to pay a player regarded by most teams that scouted him as a marginal prospect. Duquette declined to comment on Kim's scouting report now that he's no longer under contract.
However, Duquette told MASN Sports in a Feb. 3 story that Kim threw 88-90 mph with "an excellent breaking ball and very good command of it . . . He throws hard. Some scouts may have seen him in a tournament where it was 30 degrees, basically freezing and they may not have seen the velocity, but we've seen this player several times and we've seen him work in a range of 88 to 90 mph."
A Jan. 23 story in the Baltimore Sun cited an anonymous Orioles official who called Kim the top high school lefthander in Korea, and the Orioles' press release announcing the signing lists Kim at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. The Orioles official said Kim could grow to 6-foot-1, 195 pounds.
However, Baseball America surveyed 11 other teams that scout Asia (two of which did not have a report on him on file) and could not find any organization that had interest in signing Kim or had a similarly glowing scouting report. While scouts often disagree about the futures of international teenage prospects, most of the other teams' reports on Kim's present ability and future potential were consistent with each other.
According to the other teams, Kim's fastball ranged from 78-85 mph. The maximum velocity another team had on Kim was 87 mph. Other scouts called his breaking ball a slurvy curveball in the mid- to high 60s and graded it from 20-30 on the 20-80 scouting scale, which rates as well below average. Scouts say he's likely an inch or two shorter than his listed height of 5-feet-11, has little projection and some funkiness in his arm action. Scouts were mixed on his command, though some said he was generally around the plate and would be able to pitch in the KBO.
Many believed the Orioles were the only team interested in Kim. Several teams turned him in as a non-prospect.
"Where was the competition," asked one international scouting director, "to drive the bonus to $575,000 when they could have signed him for $5,000?"
Duquette said he never personally had seen Kim pitch and was going off the team's internal scouting reports, though he declined to identify the scouts who had seen him or what other teams they believed were interested in Kim.
"I've been doing this for a long time," Duquette said. "I don't have to answer for the integrity of our scouts (from people) outside the organization. We've signed players based upon their ability and their capability to help the team, period."
After hiring Duquette in November, the Orioles announced the hiring of Ray Poitevint as their new executive director of international baseball in a Jan. 9 press release. Poitevint has extensive experience signing players in Asia, including during Duquette's tenure as Red Sox GM from 1994-2001. The two have worked together since Duquette began his career in baseball with the Brewers in 1981. Poitevint said in an interview that Duquette started out as his assistant, and the two were together in Milwaukee until Duquette left to join the Expos after the 1987 season.
Poitevint said he scouted Kim for two and a half years, and that he and an associate he has known for 30 years—whom he declined to name—evaluated Kim for the Orioles. When asked who else was interested in signing Kim, Poitevint said, "Everybody," adding, "This is the type of guy who draws scouts."
"What he has is difficult to come by as a scout," Poitevint said. "He has mental toughness and emotional control. Those are a couple of things that are hard to find. He's advanced in his composure and things of that nature. He's a little advanced in his physical tools, but what's really going to get him over the top is his mental toughness and the way he can control himself."
Kim did not appear to have any formal representation. Poitevint said he didn't deal with an agent and worked out a deal with Kim's mother and father.
"We'll see what happens," Poitevint said. "If we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves again to him, we'll try to sign him, just like anyone else. We know there's going to be a lot of competition."
Before joining the Orioles, Poitevint was involved with Seven Figures Management and helped them represent a handful of players, including 33-year-old reliever Tae-Hyon Chong, another player who had a tentative deal with the Orioles this winter that didn't go through. Chong reportedly agreed to a two-year major league deal worth around $3 million at the end of November, but he failed his physical, returned to Korea and signed with the Lotte Giants of the KBO instead, reportedly to a four-year, $3.1 million deal. Chong told Yonhap News Agency that the failed physical was due to an issue with his liver.
Chong had pitched for Korea in several international tournaments, but Poitevint said major league teams showed little interest until Duquette took over with the Orioles. Last year in the KBO with the SK Wyverns, Chong had a 1.48 ERA with 28 walks and 39 strikeouts in 53 innings. Scouts from other organizations expressed concerns about Chong's knees, and he did end up having knee surgery after signing his deal in Korea.
In the press release announcing the hiring of Poitevint, the Orioles noted Poitevint's scouting experience with the Orioles, Brewers and Angels, as well as his nine years with the Red Sox as their director of international operations beginning in 1992. However, the release made no mention of Poitevint's most recent major league job, working as a special assistant to White Sox general manager Ken Williams in international operations from 2005-08. A White Sox spokesman said Poitevint's final month with the team was October 2008 but declined to comment on why he left the organization. Poitevint said he left because he was considering retirement.
While Poitevint and Duquette were with Boston, the Red Sox signed several Koreans for large bonuses. Korean righthander Seung Song, signed for $800,000 in 1999 at age 19, reached Triple-A and became Boston's No. 1 prospect, but never pitched in the big leagues. Neither outfielder Chul Oh ($700,000 in 1999) nor lefthander Tai-In Che ($750,000 in 2000) made it out of Rookie ball. Korean lefthander Byeong-Hak An ($750,000 in 2001) was another Korean signing the Red Sox touted at the time who never pitched in the majors
Korean righthander Jin Ho Cho ($850,000 in 1998) pitched 58 big league innings and compiled a 6.52 ERA. Korean lefthander Sang-Hoon Lee signed for a $1.05 million bonus as part of a two-year major league contract. Lee, who was 28 in 1999 when he signed, pitched 12 innings in the big leagues. Boston's best Korean signing during the Duquette/Poitevint tenure was righthander Sun-Woo Kim, who signed for $1 million when he was 20 in 1998. Kim pitched in six MLB seasons, logging a 5.31 ERA in 337 innings.
For now, the Orioles have been banned from scouting in Korea in any KBA-sanctioned games, ranging from the professional ranks to high school and college tournaments. Kim, who is scheduled to begin his senior year of high school next month, has been suspended indefinitely by the KBA, which means he won't be able to play or coach in Korea.