“We’re going to have to come up with a new draft strategy
Jose Bautista, 42, who performed a taboo 바카라“bat flip” in Major League Baseball (MLB) that led to a fistfight, has officially retired.
,” said a key member of the parent club with an earth-shattering sigh on August 1, the day Jang Hyun-seok (Masan Yongmago) announced his move to the United States. It’s not like Hanwha missed out on the No. 1 big fish, so what was so frustrating?
“We’ve already lost two potential first-round picks, Lee Chan-sol (Seoul High) and Jang Hyun-seok, who signed with the Boston Red Sox earlier,” the official said. “This means that the players we had on our radar will be out of the picture at the draft, and we’ll have to pick players in the first round that we thought were second-round picks.”
It’s not just about this year’s draft. “There are signs that the ‘exodus’ of amateur prospects to the United States is starting, starting with last year and this year. The outflow of promising players is likely to increase in the future.”
What sub-$1 million contracts mean
In fact, just last year, Shim Jun-seok (Pittsburgh Pirates), who was considered a potential “No. 1” pick, and Uhm Hyung-chan (Kansas City Royals), who was known as the biggest first-round pick, also boarded a plane to the United States early. This year, No. 1 Jang Hyun-seok and ‘potential first-rounder’ Lee Chan-sol also left for the United States. “Since Ryu Hyun-jin (Toronto Blue Jays) entered the United States through the posting system and achieved success, amateur prospects have preferred to enter the KBO league rather than go directly to the U.S. In particular, it was rare for big fish players to go to the U.S. Recently, the atmosphere has changed.” “I’m worried that it will be like the late 1990s, when top players such as Park Chan-ho, Kim Byung-hyun, Seo Jae-ng, and Choi Hee-seop left for the U.S.,” the official said.
Jang Hyun-seok’s contract, announced by the Los Angeles Dodgers on 9 August, totalled $900,000 (approximately 1.18 billion won). Lee Chansol, who announced his signing on 25 July, signed with Boston for a total of $300,000 (about $390 million). This is less than the $1 million threshold for signing a prospect overseas.
One scout from a local club said it was “a kind of insurance policy to minimise the risk of failure that comes with the challenge of playing American baseball”. “In the past, the American farm system was a way of ‘grazing’ a lot of prospects from all over the world and picking out the ones that survived,” the scout said, adding that “the higher the contract, the more attention, support, and opportunities from the club and coaching staff.” “That’s why it was considered orthodox in Korean baseball to say, ‘If you want to make it in the US, you have to get $1 million,'” he said.
Practicalities also play a role. “In the past, even if you got $1 million, you didn’t really have much money in your pocket after deducting the agent’s fee and living expenses,” said a baseball player. “If you didn’t make it to the big leagues and got kicked out of the team, you had to return home empty-handed. Due to the ‘two-year moratorium on overseas players returning to Korea’, they cannot join a KBO team for at least two years. Even if you are selected in the rookie draft, you will not receive a contract. Considering all of these risks, a market price of ‘$1 million’ would have been formed.”
In fact, most overseas players who have achieved success in the major leagues, such as Kim Byung-hyun (Arizona Diamondbacks, $2.25 million), Ryu Je-guk (Chicago Cubs, $1.6 million), Baek Cha-seung (Seattle Mariners, $1.4 million), Choo Shin-soo (Seattle Mariners, $1.37 million), Seo Jae-ng (New York Mets, $1.35 million), Kim Sun-woo (Boston Red Sox, $1.3 million), Park Chan-ho (Los Angeles Dodgers, $1.2 million), and Choi Hee-seop (Chicago Cubs, $1.2 million), arrived in the U.S. for more than $1 million.
Jang Hyun-seok’s $900,000 announcement, on the other hand, is much larger than the contract of the first overall pick in the KBO rookie draft in the past two years (500 million won), but it is still a “bargain” by historical standards. The same goes for Lee Chan-sol. According to multiple scouts, Lee was expected to be selected between the 6th and 7th overall picks in the first round of this year’s draft. Over the past two years, the average contract for first-round picks has been between $220 million and $250 million. Lee’s $300,000 from Boston is about $390 million at the current exchange rate.
Shin-Soo Choo, a prime example of a player who made it to the major leagues out of high school, received a $1.37 million contract. Photo News
Minor leaguers’ ‘tear-soaked bread’ is a thing of the past
So why did ‘top prospects’ Jang Hyun-seok and Lee Chan-sol choose to play in the US for less than $1 million, a misconception that needs to be cleared up. “Jang Hyun-seok’s $900,000 contract is not a bargain,” said a baseball insider familiar with US baseball, adding that the $1 million threshold for entering the US is a thing of the past. “The value of the signing bonus is different than in the past,” he said, “and now the Major League Baseball office has set a cap on the signing bonus for international prospects per club and strictly controls it, so it’s difficult to get big contracts over $1 million like in the past.
A scout from a National League club also said, “Nowadays, $500,000 is a top-tier international contract. Even $300,000 is not a small amount of money.” In fact, outfielder Won-Bin Cho’s $500,000 signing bonus with the St. Louis Cardinals two years ago ranked third among the team’s international prospects signed that year. “The recent significant increase in the value of the dollar is also a factor that cannot be ignored by players,” said an agency representative.
“It’s also important to note that the living and training conditions in the U.S. minor leagues have improved significantly since this year.” MLB and the players’ union reached a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in March ahead of the start of the regular season that included improvements to the treatment of minor leaguers. Described as a “historic agreement,” the CBA gives minor league players two to three times the salary they previously earned, as well as health and pension benefits.
“Gone are the days of ‘soggy bread’ in the minor leagues,” says the agent. Gone are the days of peanut butter and jelly and bouncing from motel to motel. Minor leaguers are getting a good diet, training environment, and housing.” Another agency representative said, “The treatment of minor leaguers is noticeably different. From the rookie league stage, they are provided with hotel food and interpreters are provided by the club.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed Jang, boast one of the best player development systems in American baseball, along with the New York Yankees. Choi, who is currently playing for the Dodgers’ minor league team, says, “The team has a chef who travels with the team and cooks for them. A container vehicle with a kitchen follows them to every away game. We have hotels and homestays wherever we go, so we don’t have to pay for accommodation.” The team’s diet and nutrition is so thoroughly controlled that officials from other clubs are often surprised to see the bodies of the Dodgers’ minor leaguers. Boston is also one of the most prestigious clubs in the United States and boasts the best training environment and facilities.
One more thing. The time it takes to get from the minors to the big leagues has been greatly reduced. A scout for a major league team once said, “It takes less time for prospects to make their big league debut than in the past,” and attributed this to the “minor league restructuring” that took place after COVID-19.
Major league teams used to have at least seven minor league clubs, from Rookie League to Triple-A. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a major restructuring of the minor leagues, and most teams now have only five minor league teams. The rookie draft, which used to be an “unlimited draft,” is now capped at 20 rounds. “In the past, minor league teams had a lot of players who were hardly prospects,” said the scout. “Now that the minor league structure has been slimmed down, only the most valuable prospects who actually have a chance of making it to the big leagues can be carefully selected and systematically nurtured from development to playing time,” said the scout.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for players to skip Triple-A and go straight to the majors. Jang Hyun-seok is considered by major league scouts to be “capable of making his big league debut as early as 2025”. The prospect of playing among the best players in the world, receiving the best facilities and accommodation, undergoing scientific and systematic training, and making a big league debut in a short period of time is enough to make a player want to go straight to the US. This is why we can expect to see more and more players opting for the US challenge over the ‘bargain basement’ contracts of the past.
Distrust of domestic coaches runs deep
The spate of prospects heading to the US is bad news for domestic clubs, who are bemoaning the shortage of players. “The other day, at a presidents’ meeting, the parent club proposed ‘reducing the eligibility for posting from seven years to six years,’ which was rejected by the other clubs,” said a club official. “However, if the outflow of prospects continues like this, other clubs may need to look at it prospectively.”
Of course, reforming the system to allow players to go overseas a year earlier is not the solution. The main problem is that the KBO is not as attractive to prospects as the US Major Leagues. KBO first-round draft signing bonuses have been “frozen” at around $200-500 million for more than a decade. Even though the league has improved, the training environment, systems, and coaches are not as good as those in the US. As one parent of a student-athlete told me, “There is a deep distrust of domestic clubs’ ability to develop players and the coaching staff’s guidance.”
The “SSG 2nd Team Violence Scandal” in July highlighted the current state of Korean baseball, which is professional in name only, but still steeped in outdated practices. “If professional baseball, which is monitored by many media and fans, is so bad, why not amateur baseball, which is under the radar,” said the parent. “Generation MZ” players prefer the American baseball culture, which respects individuality and autonomy, to the KBO, which has a rigid seniority culture and “bossy” leaders. There is a clear limit to how far we can go by imposing shackles such as a two-year moratorium to prevent players from entering the U.S. Instead, we need to make the league more attractive to prospective players.