The St. Louis Cardinals announced the signing of free agent LHP Kwang Hyun Kim to a 2 year, $8 million deal this afternoon. The deal also includes up to $1.5 million in incentives in each season of the contract. The Cardinals’ 40 man roster is currently full, so they will need to make a corresponding move when the contract is filed with Major League Baseball.
Kim, 31, had a 2.51 ERA over 190.1 innings for the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Association last season while winning their Best Pitcher award. Since missing the 2017 season with Tommy John surgery, Kim has a 2.70 ERA in 326.1 innings over 55 starts.
This isn’t the first time he’d considered coming to the United States. He was posted following the 2014 season and negotiated with the Padres, but was unable to come to an agreement on a contract. At that point in time he was a 25 year old coming off a season with a 3.42 ERA whose prospects were likely hampered by control issues indicated by his 4.2 BB/9. When originally reading about Kim, those control issues are what took front and center when he was talked about.
However, those seem to have cleaned themselves up post-surgery, posting a 1.9 BB/9 the past two seasons. His control reminds me a bit of another pitcher the Cardinals brought over from Asia, Miles Mikolas. Over his final two seasons in Japan, Mikolas threw 279.2 innings and posted a 1.5 BB/9. Mikolas won 18 games and led the league in BB/9 in that first season back.
That’s a tall ask for a pitcher who has yet to throw a pitch in a Major League game, but it also represents the kind of success story that Kim could be on a small contract. The complaint about the Cardinals being that the organization isn’t in the running for even the second tier of free agent pitchers like Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Kuechel, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The reality is that Kim likely has just as much upside as any of those pitchers do at this point in their careers, and will come at a small fraction of the cost.
The reality is that while the Cardinals have a reputation for being cheap, they have just $17 million of luxury tax space remaining. Part of the reason is because they handed out contracts to that second tier of free agents.
Scouting reports are pretty unanimous that Kim has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, like Ryu and former Cardinal Seung-hwan Oh, especially his slider which should get plenty of swings and misses from big league bats. Most the older scouting reports indicate that the hurdle to him becoming an exciting big league prospect is his control issues. As I talked about earlier, he seems to have figured out how to get the walks down.
Sung Min Kim, a former writer for Fangraphs and The Athletic, suggested on Twitter in August that Kim has become a better pitcher in recent years, using his secondary pitches with better control. That suggestion holds up in the stats.
With Kim now onboard, the Cardinals have six starting pitchers for five spots. The obvious battle going into spring training will be Kim against Carlos Martinez. The team is still waiting on news to know how Martinez is progressing from his latest surgery and whether he’ll be ready to pitch out of the rotation next season. If not, he seems the odds on favorite to head up the bullpen next season.
Kim was asked whether he prefers to start or be a relief pitcher, but Kim indicated that he’s ready to compete and will respect the club’s decision for where he best fits on this roster. John Mozeliak echoed that that willingness was an advantage for Kim, pointing out that many of the other pitchers they’ve talked to don’t want to sign if they aren’t guaranteed a spot in the rotation. It seems clear that the Cardinals want to give Martinez every opportunity to make the rotation.
Mozeliak did also add that they believe they have enough innings covered now with their current pitching staff, which would seem to indicate that they are off the pitching market. That leaves a left handed hitter as the last item on their shopping list to round out their winter.
The Cardinals have had success bringing Oh and Mikolas over from Asia, so I’m obviously giving them credit for that in my assessment of Kim. But I think that he is very well positioned to earn a spot in the rotation and put together a solid season.
The more immediate question is what will be the team’s corresponding move to put Kim on the roster. There is some suggestion that the Brett Cecil era may be coming to an end, but if the Cardinals insist on seeing what Cecil has in the spring there are other options in Rangel Ravelo, Ramon Urias, or Aroldis Garcia. Since the move wasn’t announced with the signing, which would have been expected, there’s some speculation that they may be pursuing a trade to open up a roster spot.