At the moment, the Yankees appear focused on priority numbers-one: re-signing DJ LeMahieu. Until that piece of business is resolved one way or another, it doesn’t seem as though the team is likely to make another major move, whether on the free agent market or the trade market.
LeMahieu very well may be back in pinstripes next season, but it’s far from a certainty. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the Yankees will have to do something about their infield, lest they subject us to something like “Tyler Wade, Opening Day second baseman”.
Though LeMahieu is the top priority, there’s no shortage of options should he depart. Peter outlined Andrelton Simmons as a solid stopgap, while Josh put forth Trevor Story as a pie-in-the-sky trade target. And if we’re shooting for the moon, Francisco Lindor still looks likely to get traded this winter.
A less-discussed option exists in the form of Ha-seong Kim. A right-handed shortstop for the Kiwoom Heroes, Kim was officially posted earlier this month, and all 30 major league teams can bid for his services. There’s little tying the Yankees to Kim, and odds are he’ll land with another club, but at a glance, there’s plenty to like in the KBO stalwart.
Kim broke into the KBO with the Heroes in 2014 at the tender age of 18, meaning he’s accrued the requisite seven years of service to be posted ahead of his age-25 season. Off the top, this represents the most alluring part of Kim’s profile. He’s a very young player to be posted from South Korea, and his performance at young ages in a competitive foreign league bodes well for his chances of making the grade in the states.
At age-19, in his first full season as a starter, Kim ran a robust .290/.362/.489 slash line, stroking 19 homers and swiping 22 bases. The KBO is typically referred to as something like Double-A caliber. Had Kim put together an .851 OPS at shortstop as a teenager in the high minors, he’d likely have ranked among the top-25 prospects in the game. For example, Wander Franco ran an .872 OPS at shortstop as an 18-year-old one level down at High-A, a performance which made him the consensus top prospect in the world.
At least per his offensive stats, Kim has slowly grown as a player even after that sterling teenage debut. That growth culminated with his 2020 campaign, which saw an excellent .306/.397/.523 slash line, 30 homers, 109 runs driven in, and 23 steals in 25 tries. He ranked among the top ten hitters in the KBO by wRC+ according to FanGraphs.
Kim would also potentially bring some stylistic diversity to the Yankee lineup. I’m not one who thinks the Yankees need to bring in contact hitters or lefty-swingers in order to improve their lineup (good hitters are good hitters, even if they’re all right-handed sluggers), but aesthetically, it could be fun to have a different kind of hitter in the lineup. Kim profiles as both a disciplined and contact-oriented hitter. He’s struck out only 11-percent of the time over the past two seasons, and has consistently walked about 10-percent of the time throughout his career.
We have less insight into Kim’s play in the field. He’s played almost all of his innings at shortstop, but there’s no easy way to determine if those innings were exemplary, poor, or something like average. We may be able to assume that Kim is fine on the infield dirt, given that he’s just 25 and his team has seen fit to make them their everyday shortstop for seven years, but we probably can’t call him plus.
Ultimately, any signing team has to simply make an informed guess at how Kim would handle the middle infield at the big-league level, and try to translate his offensive statlines. Over at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborksi has taken a swing at the latter task using his ZiPS projections. ZiPS paints a very flattering picture of Kim’s bat. The system estimates Kim’s play in 2019 would have translated to into a .289/.355/.475 line with 23 dingers and 26 steals in the majors. His translated 2020 line comes out at .274/.345/.478 line with 29 homers and 17 steals.
If you believe those translated lines, Kim looks like a first-division starter in the majors with anything resembling respectable defense at the six. Such optimism seems at odds with Kim’s projected market. A 25-year-old who can man shortstop while hitting and running with aplomb should be near the top of every team’s free agent wishlist. Yet MLB Trade Rumors forecasted a more modest five-year, $40 million deal for Kim, while FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing spit out four years and $44 million. Such deals would also result in a posting fee paid to Kiwoom in the neighborhood of $7 million, a figure which would not count toward any luxury tax threshold.
So, are stateside executives and fans rightfully wary of Kim’s chances of producing in MLB given the lack of precedent for great middle infielders coming over from KBO? Or have observers in America allowed the dearth of precedents keep them from seeing a player whose skills could make him a high level starter for the next several years? The public seems to think Kim will sign for an AAV similar to, say, Kyle Gibson or Brett Cecil, while ZiPS portrays Kim as essentially 2019 Corey Seager.
Signing a shortstop would obviously allow the Yankees to shift Gleyber Torres to his seemingly more natural position at second base. It’d be a risk from a performance perspective, since there’s no guarantee Kim will translate in the majors, but appears likely to bring basically zero financial risk for a team as rich as the Yankees. The safest move for 2021 is to bring back LeMahieu, a move I’d endorse. But Kim does represent something of an upside swing, given his youth, and for how he’d allow the team to align their infield defense in a more sustainable fashion.