Under the direction of new general manager Dan Duquette, the Orioles have spent the better part of this offseason making inroads in Asia. They signed Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada to a two-year, $8.15 million deal in December, and then inked Taiwanese southpaw Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year, $11.3 million hitch in early January.
For a rebuilding team looking to bridge the gap between itself and the AL East powerhouses, wading in the talent pool across the Pacific is a sound strategy. Wada and Chen do not have star-level potential, but both could be solid contributors at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, the Orioles went a step too far when they brought in 17-year-old amateur lefty Seong-Min Kim from South Korea on January 30.
The Korean Baseball Organization immediately raised hell about the signing, and on Thursday, the Korean Baseball Association informed the Orioles that their scouts are no longer welcome at KBO games. KBA rules prohibit international teams from yanking South Korean amateurs out of school to pitch professionally, a regulation that serves a twofold purpose. In addition to ensuring that teenagers complete their high school and college education, it also keeps elite prospects from darting after the six- or seven-figure signing bonuses available abroad. South Koreans have tremendous national pride—illustrated, among other ways, by their two-year military service requirement that nearly interrupted Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo’s big-league career—and the Orioles’ decision to hastily sign Kim was viewed as an unforgivable infringement.
An argument could be made that South Korea benefits from having its top baseball players showcased in the world’s most prominent league, but the KBA’s desire to keep talent within its borders is certainly understandable. Moreover, there is no question that the Orioles overstepped their bounds and were inexplicably negligent in their investigation (or lack thereof) into Kim’s rights as a free agent. Not only have the Orioles been blacklisted by the KBA, but Kim has too—and despite the $550,000 check, that has to be a bitter pill for the teenager to swallow.
Unless amends are made, this will be an ugly situation from all angles. The KBA has filed a grievance with Major League Baseball. The Orioles have at least temporarily been denied access to a country that may become a key source of talent. And a 17-year-old is stuck in the middle of the spat.
Kim had not even been born when Duquette became general manager of the Expos in 1991. Since then, Duquette has made considerable efforts to broaden baseball’s horizons, from reaching out to minority players and coaches while with the Red Sox, to founding the short-lived Israel Baseball League in 2007.
Duquette understands the seriousness of the situation and said on Thursday that the team is “cooperating with MLB to resolve this concern.” But with nearly a quarter-century of experience as an executive and ambassador for the game, Duquette simply should have known better. There is no excuse.