A Korean high school sophomore has signed a minor league contract with the Baltimore Orioles in Major League Baseball (MLB), a transaction that had local baseball officials concerned about further departure of young talent.
The Orioles announced on their Web site that they have signed Kim Seong-min, a 17-year-old who pitched for Daegu Sangwon High School, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Dan Duquette, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, was quoted as saying Kim is "one of the top amateur left-handed pitchers in South Korea" who has "an excellent curveball and very good control."
While several high school graduates have been signed by major league teams before entering college in the past, Kim is only the second sophomore to ink a deal. In 1997, Bong Jung-keun, formerly with the Atlanta Braves and now with the LG Twins in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), was the first to sign with a U.S. club before entering his final year in high school.
In light of Kim's signing, the KBO plans to file an official complaint with the MLB over the exodus of young baseball talent, officials said.
"In the name of KBO Commissioner Koo Bon-neung, we will soon send a letter to the MLB, telling them to refrain from indiscriminately signing players," said Yang Hae-young, the KBO's secretary general. "If things do not change, we will either visit the MLB commissioner's office in person, or team up with leagues in Japan and Taiwan to confront major league teams' hegemonic rookie signings."
While major league clubs are free to acquire any Korean players they wish, including undrafted high school students or graduates, KBO officials for years have raised issues with teams' signings of top prospects.
Before Kim Seong-min, 55 South Koreans signed with major league clubs, though only a dozen have played on the big stage.
Experts say the change in the KBO's draft system in 2009 opened the door for major league clubs to step in with loads of cash and sign prospects.
Until 2008, the KBO had a territorial draft, with teams holding prior rights to high schoolers or college students from their home cities or satellite towns. Local KBO clubs then had more say in where young players could go, and in a sporting culture where loyalty is a virtue, top-rated prospects were mostly expected to join their local teams. KBO teams even acted as safety nets when players' negotiations with MLB teams did not work out.
With an open draft system in place now, Korean players are under less pressure to stay in their hometowns and challenge themselves to reach the world's premier baseball league. They can also take home a large sum of money.
While the Orioles did not announce details of Kim's contract, sources said he will receive about $550,000 after tax, the kind of money he likely wouldn't have commanded had he stayed put and signed with the KBO.
Since the territorial draft was scrapped in 2009, 11 Korean high schoolers or graduates have signed with major league clubs.
Earlier in January, KBO team presidents failed to narrow their differences on changing the draft system, with some calling for a lottery system and others backing the revival of the territorial draft.
Kim's signing will likely give proponents of the territorial system some momentum before the next team presidents' meeting in February.
MLB teams are free to sign players over the age of 16 from outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Players from those three countries are entered in annual drafts after finishing high school. (Yonhap)