If you click through right-hander Josh Lindblom’s archives here at MLBTR, the headlines aren’t exactly eye-catching. A series of DFAs, outrights, releases and minor league re-signings with the Pirates make up most of the recent chatter on the 32-year-old, whom many readers may never even have heard of. Lindblom pitched 147 innings in parts of five seasons with the Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Pirates from 2011-17. Interspersed throughout were multiple stints with the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization (2015-16 and a midseason return in 2017). Lindblom opened 2017 on a minor league deal with Pittsburgh but eventually returned to the KBO in relative anonymity among MLB fans.
There’s nothing “anonymous” about Lindblom’s past two seasons as far as KBO fans are concerned, though. While his 2017 campaign there was solid but unspectacular, Lindblom has erupted as one of the best pitchers in South Korea since the beginning of 2018. In two seasons with the Doosan Bears, Lindblom has worked to a combined 2.68 ERA with 8.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9 and 0.72 HR/9 in 363 1/3 innings. His 2019 strikeout, walk and home-run rates all improved over their already-strong 2018 marks as Lindblom racked up 194 2/3 innings with a 2.50 ERA. The righty flirted with a sub-2.00 ERA for much of the season and this week was announced as the winner of his second straight Choi Dong-Won Award — the top pitching award in the KBO.
With that run of excellence and a Korean Series championship in his back pocket, Lindblom now has his sights set on a return to Major League Baseball. Unlike last time when he quietly signed a minor league pact with the Pirates, however, he could very well find genuine interest on Major League offers. Lindblom’s current two-year platform tops that of fellow right-hander Merrill Kelly in just about every capacity, and Kelly landed a two-year, $5.5MM contract with the Diamondbacks last winter. It’s important to note that Kelly, who pitched this past season at age 30, was younger — but the gap between their numbers isn’t particularly close:
|Merrill Kelly (2017-18)||348.333||3.82||1.29||9.04||2.38||0.88|
|Josh Lindblom (2018-19)||363.666||2.67||1.03||8.56||1.66||0.72|
That’s obviously a pretty basic look at the pair’s stats overseas, but there’s nonetheless a notable discrepancy, even if Kelly did manage to strike batters out at a slightly higher rate.
There’s reason to consider Lindblom beyond his surface-level numbers, though. He isn’t going to blow big league hitters away with velocity — his heater averaged 91 mph this year in the KBO — but Lindblom has standout spin rates on his side. Data obtained by MLBTR puts his four-seamer at a hefty 2610 RPM this past season, while his splitter (where less spin is better) would also rank quite well among big league hurlers at 1200 RPM. The KBO ball isn’t the exact same as the MLB ball, so the carryover might not be exact, but Lindblom’s ability to spin the ball is something that could be of genuine intrigue to a Major League club.
Lindblom’s pitch selection has also changed over the past two seasons, with the 2019 version of the right-hander’s repertoire leaning much more heavily on a four-seamer/splitter/cutter combination than in the past. His slider, changeup and curveball were all used minimally (eight percent or lower), and he’s ditched his former two-seamer entirely. It seems likely that he’d continue to be reliant on the same three-pitch mix that fueled his breakout. The splitter, in particular, has developed into a weapon for Lindblom in the KBO despite the fact that he never threw the pitch during his time in MLB. Notably, he’s also generated extremely low levels of opponent exit velocity, though the weaker competition and different ball composition make it tough to discern exactly how to value that data.
Broadly speaking, that’ll be the question for Major League teams this winter: How should they react to a pitcher who was a fringe 40-man candidate in his last two MLB stints but has made demonstrable alterations that resulted in positive indicators?
It’s easy to dream on Lindblom’s KBO numbers, but remember that even star-caliber KBO players haven’t been compensated particularly well by Major League teams. Jung Ho Kang and ByungHo Park were MVP-caliber talents in South Korea but secured respective guarantees of $11MM and $12MM over four-year terms from the Pirates and Twins. The aforementioned Kelly was clearly an above-average starter in KBO’s hitter-friendly environment but didn’t secure $3MM per season in MLB guarantees — and his contract with the D-backs surrendered two additional years of control via affordable club options.
Penciling in Lindblom at even a $5-6MM salary would be aggressive based on prior trends, and age certainly won’t help his case. Team executives with whom MLBTR inquired suggested Lindblom could be viewed anywhere from a swingman to an intriguing back-of-the-rotation starter. Despite the gap in stats between Lindblom and Kelly in the KBO, not everyone who weighed in was sold on Lindblom as the better long-term play.
In this year’s edition of our annual Top 50 Free Agents (published Monday), we ranked Lindblom near the back end of the list and pegged him for a two-year deal worth a total of $8MM. That doesn’t sound like much to most onlookers — and realistically won’t cut deeply into any team’s payroll — but it’d nevertheless be a fairly risky gamble on a 32-year-old who has never found much MLB success.
Perhaps a club will fall in love with the spin and his highly GIF-able splitter — tip of the cap to Sung Min Kim (Twitter links) — but we’ve yet to see a pitcher who fits this career arc top the two years and $15.5MM that Miles Mikolas secured in 2017. Mikolas came back in advance of his age-29 season and had a more dominant three-year run in Japan than Lindblom has had in Korea. As such, that contract felt too aggressive to project, but something between Kelly’s deal and that contract seems plausible. Last offseason, swingman Jesse Chavez signed for that same two-year, $8MM we projected, so it doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest a comparable amount for Lindblom.
Lindblom has also drawn interest from teams in Japan and could quite likely receive a nice offer to return to the Bears in 2020, so he’ll have choices at his disposal this winter. Regardless of where he lands this time around, he’s a source of greater intrigue than he was the last time he was quietly available for any team to sign.