The 2021-22 free agent market was highlighted by a historically talented group of shortstops, an unusually deep collection of starting pitchers and a good deal of power bats at the outfield and infield corners. This winter’s collection of free agents is the strongest in recent memory and quite likely the strongest we’ll see for a good while. Look ahead to the 2022-23 class, and while there are certainly a few star names, it pales in comparison to this year’s group.
With any deep free agent class, there are bound to be some names who slip through the cracks or simply don’t draw much in the way of appreciation or attention. We try to minimize this each offseason when ranking our Top 50 free agents and putting forth contract predictions, highlighting a handful of “honorable mentions” who seem likely to secure decent free-agent deals even though we’ve left them sitting outside the top 50. Even still, there’s usually a name or two we wind up wishing we’d considered more closely.
Of the non-top-50, non-honorable-mention free agents in this year’s class, former Cardinals lefty Kwang Hyun Kim fits that bill for me. A combination of age, lack of velocity and lack of bulk innings made us feel comfortable leaving him off the Top 50, but taking a retrospective look at his numbers, I’m not so sure that should’ve been the case. I’ve been asked a few times in recent chats here on MLBTR whether Kim was contemplating a return to the Korea Baseball Organization in light of the MLB lockout. My understanding is that he fully intends to continue on in the Majors and sign with a big league club whenever the transaction freeze lifts.
A very surface-level glance at Kim reveals a solid set of numbers. He’s pitched in 145 2/3 Major League innings, notched a 2.97 earned run average and kept the ball on the ground at a 48.1% clip. Kim doesn’t boast elite command, but his 8.4% walk rate is a bit better than the league-average 8.7%. He’s well below average in terms of strikeout rate (17.2% versus the league-average 23.2%), but the bottom-line results are there.
Had he remained healthier and worked a full season of innings, Kim would likely have a bit more buzz. That didn’t happen, however. He missed a portion of Spring Training and the first three weeks of the season due to a back injury — an issue that sent him to the injured list for another 10-day spell in mid-June. Kim later spent another two and a half weeks on the injured list owing to some elbow inflammation. It proved minor, but the Cardinals picked up a pair of veterans at the deadline (J.A. Happ and Jon Lester) and welcomed back several other injured starters while Kim was on the mend. He did not make a minor league rehab start despite pitching just once over a month-long period, and the Cards moved him to the bullpen when activating him in late August.
The other red flags on Kim were an 89.4 mph fastball and a sub-par strikeout rate led to questionable fielding-independent pitching marks; metrics like FIP (4.34), xERA (4.48), xFIP (4.70) and SIERA (4.85) all pegged Kim as more of a mid-4.00s type of pitcher. The sub-3.00 ERA he’s posted was clearly aided by an elite Cardinals defense, but he also created some of his own luck by limiting hard contact, keeping the ball on the ground and inducing pop-ups at an above-average rate.
Kim rates comfortably above average in terms of average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and barrel percentage. He also has a penchant for surprising hitters, as his 18% called-strike rate tied him with names like Walker Buehler, Charlie Morton and Steven Matz for the 30th-best mark among the 145 starting pitchers who’ve pitched at least 100 innings since 2020. It’s not an elite figure, but possessing the command and deception needed to freeze opponents does help Kim to offset a below-average swinging-strike rate, to an extent.
In terms of platoon splits, Kim — like most lefties — is more susceptible to right-handed opponents than lefties. That said, it hasn’t been a glaring deficiency. Lefties have posted a putrid .164/.263/.224 slash against him in 133 plate appearances, while righties are at a relatively tepid .248/.310/.397 output. Kim has only fanned a tiny 14.6% of right-handed opponents against a hefty 26.3% of the lefties he’s faced, but his walk rate, ground-ball rate and pop-up rate are all actually much better against right-handed opponents.
Some clubs may be intrigued by Kim as a reliever, given that he’s dominated opponents the first trip through a batting order, yielding a lowly .192/.260/.314 batting line the first time facing a hitter on a given day. That spikes to .290/.354/.425 the second time through a lineup, which is an obvious concern. Then again, Kim’s opponents have hit just .184/.253/.316 in 83 plate appearances when facing him for a third time, so it’s not as though he’s incapable of turning a lineup over with any success. Realistically, that third-time-through-the-order split would likely regress in a larger sample, but it’s also fair to wonder whether that second-time split might improve with more opportunities.
So, to this point, Kim has been primarily a five-inning starter — he’s completed six frames in just eight of his 28 starts — with below-average strikeout capabilities but solid command and a knack for inducing weak contact. He’s struggled a bit the second time through the order, due in no small part to a notable drop in strikeout rate in such settings, but there’s at least some reason to believe he could improve upon that when looking at his third-time splits.
It’s not necessarily an exciting package that teams should be falling over to sign, but the other reason I’ve come to expect we’ll have been light on Kim’s market is simply by looking at how the market has valued other arms this winter. Jordan Lyles can be relied upon for some bulk innings, but his results (5.60 ERA), batted-ball profile and other peripherals are all more questionable than those of Kim. He still signed for a $7MM guarantee. Michael Wacha matched that guarantee despite a third straight sub-par season. Steven Matz and Nick Martinez both beat expectations with four-year contracts — the latter being a particular surprise. The Cubs had the No. 7 waiver priority this offseason and pounced to claim Wade Miley at a year and $10MM. Miley provides more innings, but he’s two years older and, over the past few seasons, looks an awful lot like Kim on a per-inning basis.
Put more simply, it’s been a bull market for starting pitching help, and while Kim’s soft-tossing, weak-contact specialist profile isn’t necessarily a sexy one in the eyes of modern front offices, he’s managed to succeed with it to this point in his career. A team looking for a fairly steady fourth or fifth starter could do much worse than plugging in Kim for five to six innings every fifth day, and if I were reconsidering the remaining free agents on the market, I’d probably peg him for a two-year deal when the lockout lifts. Perhaps that simply won’t be in the cards — the middle class of free agents could be squeezed into some lackluster contract terms — but if he’s available on a one-year deal, it’d be a steal for the signing team.
The number of clubs still needing arms will work in the favor of Kim and other remaining free agents. The Mets still need a fifth starter, and the Mariners and Tigers are also on the hunt in that market. The Twins, Nationals and Rangers all have multiple rotation spots they’ll yet need to fill. The A’s might have a pair of starting jobs to fill, depending on their trade activity. The price tag on Kim shouldn’t be prohibitive one way or another, and the demand should get him a decent deal when all is said and done.
Admittedly, this a lengthier look than I’d normally take at a fourth starter type whose best-case scenario feels like a two-year deal. FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens predicted two years and $20MM back in November, and even after digging into Kim, I think I’m slightly lower than that figure. Still, for a pitcher who’s generated very little fanfare, Kim has a strong track record of results and, based on those first-trip-through-the-order splits, could at worst be deployed as a quality multi-inning reliever. He’ll likely prioritize a team with a clear rotation opening, which dampens the possibility of a Cardinals reunion, but there’s solid value to be had here.