Fort Myers, Fla. – The Twins are not surprised that more players from South Korea are trying to jump to major league baseball.
"There have been pretty good players coming out of South Korea for quite a long time,'' said Howard Norsetter, the Twins' international scouting coordinator. "They have done a good job of holding on to their players so the level of baseball in Korea the last 10-15 years has really improved.''
Three Korean players appeared in major league games last season, and a fourth, Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, missed the season with a shoulder injury. There could be as many as eight on Opening Day rosters in 2016, including Twins designated hitter-first baseman Byung Ho Park, which shows the growth of the game in the country.
The country has had an established professional league, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), since 1981. The average salary is around $170,000, and the top player, first baseman Tae-kyun Kim, is set to earn around $1.3 million this season.
As with Japan, there is a posting system in which MLB teams have to bid for the rights to negotiate with a player. But there has been less fanfare or frustration about Korean players leaving for MLB than there has been for Japanese players.
The Twins have had a scout in South Korea, David Kim, for over 10 years. When the Twins first entered South Korea, about 10 clubs had scouts there. Mike Radcliff, the Twins' vice president in charge of player personnel, estimates that 18-20 clubs have full-time scouts there now, and the Twins are seeing better players coming out of the KBO.
"I started noticing a change maybe 10 years ago,'' Norsetter said. "There's different approaches at the plate. Different body types. When I first started going over there, there weren't that many guys who could run, not many guys who can throw hard. Now you've got guys on every team that can run and guys on every team that can throw hard.''
Chan Ho Park was pitching in college when the Dodgers signed him in 1994, and that April he became the first player from South Korea to play in the majors. Park went 124-98 over 17 seasons. Other Korean players also have had productive careers in MLB.
Byung-Hyung Kim was a successful closer but will always be remembered for the 2001 World Series when he gave up game-tying home runs in Games 4 and 5 while with Arizona and, while with Boston, for giving Red Sox fans the middle finger as he was booed before Game 3 of the 2003 ALDS.
Twins fans probably remember first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, who hit six home runs against the Twins in one series in 2005. That included three off Brad Radke.
Shin-Soo Choo is still going strong, heading into his 12th major league season and third with Texas. From 2011-12, he was the only Korean-born player in the majors. But that has changed, especially this season, as Byung Ho Park, Baltimore outfielder Hyun Soo Kim, Cardinals reliever Seung Hwan Oh and first baseman Dae-Ho Lee (on a minor league deal) chase major league dreams.
"I think the league is relishing this exposure and this attention because they want their players to go,'' Radcliff said. "Unfortunately if they keep evolving into something like Japan, it could be more difficult.''