Before I attempt to answer the question that is the title of this blog post, I have a confession to make:
I don’t really know the answer.
But it seems pretty clear that the Orioles are up to something when it comes to Hyun Soo Kim after yet another bizarre spring training with the Korean outfielder.
Admittedly…this spring is not nearly as bizarre as Kim’s introduction to Major League Baseball last March.
That spring – which featured an 0-for-23 start to the exhibition season and a failed attempt by the Orioles to send Kim to the minors – would be nearly impossible to top in terms of intrigue.
Kim, as you’ll recall, eventually found his stroke and made positive contributions to the 2016 Orioles – batting .302 with an OPS of .801 in 305 at-bats.
But even with Kim’s success in 2016 there were limitations.
First, Kim’s defense was well below league average. Even though Kim was not charged with a single error in 2016, his limited range contributed to a total of minus-13 defensive runs saved, making Kim the worst defender on the club.
That’s quite an achievement considering the O’s also employed the defensively-challenged Mark Trumbo (minus-11 defensive runs saved) as an outfielder 101 times in 2016.
The other significant limitation with Hyun Soo Kim last season was that he didn’t hit left-handed pitching.
Of course, in order to hit left-handed pitching you actually need plate appearances against left-handed pitching and Kim only received 22 of those. Kim was officially 0-for-17 against lefties last season, with four walks and a hit-by-pitch.
With Kim’s struggles just to get a hit – off any sort of pitcher – in spring training last season, it’s understandable that manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t want to give Kim a ton of at-bats against lefties in his rookie season. It was likely a wise decision to let Kim continue getting comfortable in the majors – and enjoying the success he was having against right-handed pitchers.
That’s all fine and good.
But what about 2017?
Wasn’t one of the goals for this spring to find out if Kim could nail down the job as the team’s everyday left fielder?
During the course of the offseason – and early in spring training – this is the message that was broadcast to fans.
Here’s what I mean:
- The talk about Kim eventually getting an opportunity against left-handers dates back to August 2016, when the Sun’s Jon Meoli wrote of Showalter looking to ease Kim in against lefties: “Showalter went back to his familiar story of first shielding outfielder Paul O’Neill from left-handers when he got to New York and how that paid off, and said that could be the trajectory Kim follows.”
- On December 12, 2016, MLB.com’s Britt Ghiroli wrote a piece that quoted Showalter extensively talking about Kim and his potential role for 2017: “I think about all the things that challenged him last year that are not going to challenge him this year, and we talk about guys that could go to another level, I think he’s got that potential…we saw flashes of it. You know, the left-handed-pitching thing just kind of snowballed,” Showalter said of Kim going hitless in 17 at-bats vs. southpaws. “He’s a lot better than that.”
- At the team’s FanFest in January, Showalter mentioned during a question-and-answer session with season ticket holders that Kim would receive an opportunity to prove he can hit left-handed pitching. MASNSports.com’s Roch Kubatko wrote: “Showalter said Hyun Soo Kim could shed his platoon status in 2017. Kim may get more starts versus left-handed pitching rather than be used strictly against right-handers.”
- The Sun’s Peter Schmuck wrote about Showalter’s plans on February 25, reporting that, “Showalter hopes to get Kim more acclimated to left-handed pitching, so the Orioles can squeeze even more on-base potential out of him. Kim welcomes the opportunity to play more than the 95 games he appeared in last year and doesn’t question his ability to earn that additional playing time.”
So the idea of Kim getting more at-bats against left-handers was mentioned last August…and then again in December, January and February.
Now here we sit on March 21, and Hyun Soo Kim has a total of 42 spring training at-bats.
39 of those at-bats have come against right-handers…and just three at-bats have come against lefties.
What, if anything, has changed the Orioles’ plans to move Kim toward becoming a daily presence in the lineup?
There has been little reported in this area from the club’s beat reporters. Although it does appear that Showalter was at least asked a question about the subject on March 14, when the Sun’s Eduardo Encina wrote:
“Showalter decided against giving outfielder Hyun Soo Kim some at-bats against a left-handed starter in the Tampa Bay Rays’ Blake Snell on Tuesday, saying he wanted to get a look at other outfielders while giving Kim a day off… “I think Kim is leading our team in plate appearances right now,” Showalter said. “He’s seen a bunch of them out of the bullpen. He’s seen plenty of at-bats. I actually wanted to give him a day. He’s been out there a lot. I’m more interested in getting a look at [Trey] Mancini and [Joey] Rickard and [Craig] Gentry.””
Showalter was correct about Kim leading the team in plate appearances at that point in the spring.
But as for “seeing a bunch of them (lefties) out of the bullpen”? That seems like a stretch.
Here’s a quick look at the opportunities that the O’s have been presented with to get Kim into the lineup against left-handed starters so far this spring:
- On Feburary 25, the Pirates stared left-hander Steven Brault against the O’s in Bradenton. Kim, who had played in Lakeland the previous day, did not make the trip.
- On March 1, the Red Sox started left-hander Henry Owens against the O’s in Sarasota. Kim, who had the previous day off, did not appear in the game.
- On March 14 – as noted earlier – Showalter chose not to start Kim against Rays’ lefty Blake Snell.
- On March 18, the Yankees started left-hander C.C. Sabathia against the O’s in Tampa. Kim did not make the trip.
- On March 19, the Tigers started left-hander Matt Boyd against the O’s in Sarasota. Kim did not appear in the game.
In summary…opponents have started left-handed pitchers against the O’s five times so far this spring.
And Kim hasn’t appeared in any of those games.
Sorry, but that just doesn’t jive with Showalter’s proclamations that he was planning to find more at-bats for Kim against lefties in 2017.
If you were going to do that, wouldn’t you want to use some of the spring training at-bats – and with the extended spring training this season there have been plenty of at-bats to go around – to help Kim become more comfortable against big-league lefties?
Or, at a minimum, wouldn’t you want to find out if Kim can hit left-handers at all?
In my mind, there can be only three possible explanations for refusing to start Kim against left-handers in spring training this year:
- With Kim’s contract up at the end of 2017, the O’s are looking to hold down his value in the hopes of re-signing him beyond 2017 at a discounted rate. By making the case that Kim is “just a platoon player” they may hope to keep his value down. This theory, to me, makes little sense as the team would be potentially sacrificing short-term value in favor of long-term dollars at a time when their window of opportunity to win with the current core group of players is rapidly closing.
- The O’s have already made up their minds that Kim can’t hit left-handers and he never will. This theory is also flawed for two reasons. First, Kim’s numbers against lefties in the KBO weren’t bad at all. In 2015, his slash lines were 327/449/564 against righties and 331/421/510 against lefties. In 2014, his KBO slash lines were 296/365/485 against right-handers and 374/456/497 against left-handers. The second reason this theory seems flawed, obviously, is that the team has spent plenty of time talking about easing Kim into a more everyday role in 2017. So it seems unlikely that those were just blatant lies, doesn’t it?
- The final possible explanation – and the one that, to me, makes the most sense – for not playing Kim against left-handers this spring is that they’ve decided to explore the idea of trading him either before or during the season. If you’re planning to trade a player, you want him to look as good as possible – thus keeping his value near optimum levels – as you discuss deals with other teams. Exposing Kim to left-handed pitching could potentially lower his value. At the moment, the sample size is likely too small – Kim’s 22 plate appearances vs. lefties in 2016 and his four at-bats so far this spring – for evaluators to make a determination on Kim’s ability to hit lefties. Maybe the Orioles would prefer for Kim’s abilities against lefties to remain an unknown in advance of a deal.
I should stress that I have no inside information or contacts of any kind to suggest that the team is looking to deal Kim.
I’m simply trying to understand the reason for refusing to provide him with any opportunities to earn a more prominent role this spring – when the results are meaningless and the at-bats plentiful.
As far as I can tell, the “keep his value high in case of a trade” theory is the one that holds the most water. The only question that remains, it seems, is when Kim will be traded rather than if.