Top 10 MLB Prospects To Know In The KBO

Image credit: Ha-Seong Kim (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

When Chan Ho Park made his MLB debut for the Dodgers on April 8, 1994, he became the first South Korean-born player to play in the major leagues.

Since then, South Korea and its major professional league, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) have become important sources of talent for major league clubs.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shin-Soo Choo and Ji-Man Choi are among the current notable players who signed out of South Korea. The Cardinals gave lefthander Kwang-Hyun Kim a two-year, $8 million deal just this past offseason.

More recently, American players on the fringes of major league rosters have gone to play in the KBO, improved their games, and returned to MLB on guaranteed, multi-year contracts. Eric Thames started the trend with a three-year, $16 million contract from the Brewers in Nov. 2016 after three seasons starring in the KBO. The D-backs signed righthander Merrill Kelly to a two-year, $5 million deal out of the KBO prior to last season and the Brewers signed righthander Josh Lindblom to a three-year, $9.125 million contract this offseason after he won the KBO’s MVP award.

The KBO season begins May 5, becoming the highest professional baseball league to resume play since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. ESPN reached an agreement with the KBO to broadcast one game per day, starting with the NC Dinos and the Samsung Lions in the season opener at 1 am ET.

Here are the top 10 prospects in the KBO to watch this season. This list was compiled with extensive input from scouts and front office officials who cover the Pacific Rim as part of their scouting territories.

1. Ha-Seong Kim, SS, Kiwoom Heroes

Kim is expected to be posted after this season and will command considerable interest. He’s a 24-year-old shortstop who hit .307/.389/.491 with 19 home runs, 104 RBI and 33 stolen bases in 37 attempts for Kiwoom last year. Kim is a solid all-around player who projects to stick at shortstop. He is a good athlete with good instincts at the position and has the average arm strength to stay on the left side of the infield. He projects to be an above-average hitter and has enough power to hit 12-15 home runs per year in the majors. Kim is likely to face an adjustment period at the plate when he first arrives in the U.S., but he has the athleticism and twitch to adjust and eventually hit major league velocity. He is a plus runner who adds value on the bases as well. Kim projects to be an everyday shortstop who makes an impact on both sides of the ball and on the basepaths. He would be a Top 100 Prospect if he signed today.

2. Jung-Hoo Lee, OF, Kiwoom Heroes

Lee is a 21-year-old outfielder with an explosive swing. He jumped straight from high school to the KBO at 18 years old, bypassing the minor league KBO Futures League, and set a new KBO rookie record for hits while winning the Rookie of the Year award. He hit .336/.386/.456 last year as a 20-year-old. Lee has excellent bat-to-ball skills and controls the strike zone. He is a plus runner and profiles as a potential leadoff or No. 2 hitter in the order. Lee hit only six home runs last year, but he is still growing and getting stronger and could hit 10-15 home runs per season once he matures physically. He is limited to a corner defensively and is a passable right fielder with an average arm. His father, Jong-beom Lee, is a former KBO MVP who also played in Japan.

3. Baek-Ho Kang, OF/1B, KT Wiz

Kang has promising potential but is further away. He set the KBO rookie home run record in 2018 and hit .336/.416/.495 with 13 home runs last season as a 19-year-old. Kang projects to be an above-average hitter with plus power, but he’s only 20 years old and is far from actualizing that potential. He has a chance to develop into a middle-of-the-order, lefthanded slugger if all goes well. Kang lacks a position and was moved from right field to first base for the upcoming season. He threw 90 mph off the mound in high school and was thought to be a two-way candidate in the KBO, but KT has limited him to being strictly a position player so far.

4. Hyeon-Jong Yang LHP, Kia Tigers

Yang is one of South Korea’s most decorated pitchers and will be a free agent after the season. The 32-year-old won the KBO ERA title (2.29) last year and helped South Korea qualify for the 2020 Olympics with a strong showing at WBSC Premier12. Yang is a command-oriented lefthander who effectively mixes four pitches. His fastball sits 89-90 mph and his curveball, slider and changeup all play up to average with his command. He rarely walks anyone and is a poised, mature presence on the mound. Yang lacks big stuff, but his command and pitch mix give him a chance to pitch at the back of a rotation a la Tommy Milone.

5. Sung-Bum Na, OF, NC Dinos

Na is one of the KBO’s most famous prospects. He put together five straight 20-home run seasons before suffering a serious knee injury on a slide last year that limited him to 23 games. Na is a thick, physical 30-year old who has above-average pull power and uses his hands well to stay inside the ball. He hits fastballs but struggles with offspeed pitches and changing speeds in general, resulting in too many swings and misses and limiting him to a projected below-average hitter. Na’s lefthanded power and plus arm give him a chance to win a job as a reserve or platoon outfielder in the major leagues. He is primarily a right fielder.

6. Min-Woo Park NC, 2B, NC Dinos

Park is a potentially plus hitter who can stay in the middle infield. He’s 27 years old and hit .344/.403/.434 for the Dinos last year. Park is a plus runner who makes a ton of contact and walked more than he struck out last year. He has minimal power and is limited to second base by a below-average arm. Evaluators see him as a potential 2B/LF utility type with his speed and penchant for contact.

7. Wan-tae Choi, RHP, Kiwoom Heroes

Choi is a 23-year-old righthander with above-average command and growing stuff. He went 11-5, 3.38 with 105 strikeouts and 36 walks for Kiwoom last year. Choi has a strong lower half and great balance in his delivery, allowing him to command four pitches. His fastball sits 91-92 mph and touches 95 and his changeup is an out pitch that draws consensus plus grades. His slider flashes average and he can flip in his curveball for an early-count strike. Choi mixes his pitches well and is a smart, mature pitcher for his age. He has a chance to throw harder as he gets older and should miss more bats as he matures.

8. Chang-Mo Koo, LHP, NC Dinos

Koo is a younger version of Yang in many ways. The 23-year-old lefty went 10-7, 3.20 with 114 strikeouts and 41 walks for the Dinos last season. He is a soft-tossing lefty who mixes four average pitches and has a chance to add strength and throw harder in the future. Koo’s command isn’t as sharp as Yang’s, but that’s largely a product of experience and could come in time.

9. Won-Tae In, RHP, Samsung Lions

In started in Samsung’s rotation as a 19-year-old last season, a rare occurrence in the KBO. He impressively stayed afloat against older competition and went 4-8, 4.82. In has advanced, above-average command of a four-pitch mix and should grow into more velocity. He has strong legs and a low-90s fastball that should tick up as he strengthens his upper body. His curveball projects to become above-average and his slider is a usable, if fringy, pitch. His changeup needs to improve, but has some projection.

10. Sang-Woo Cho, RHP Kiwoom Heroes

Cho took a step forward as Kiwoom’s closer last year and has some of the best pure stuff in the KBO. The 24-year-old has a fastball that sits 95-96 mph and will touch the upper 90s. He previously lacked competitive secondaries, but his splitter has been getting progressively better in scouts’ looks and he is able flip his breaking ball in for a strike. Cho is maturing and becoming a pitcher as opposed to just a thrower. He has always been a reliever and projects as one in the majors.

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