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Masahiro Tanaka continues to be the most sought after international free agent pitcher, and justifiably so, but the Yankees aren't limiting their international pitching options to just him. While dishing a harsh slice of truth on the state of the Yankees' reputation in the free agent world last week, Scott Boras also did some promotional work for a new client of his, 27-year-old right-handed pitcher Suk-Min Yoon from South Korea.
If you've never heard of Yoon, don't fret. You're not alone. He's been well under the MLB radar for most baseball fans and writers despite being one of the best pitchers in the Korean Baseball Organization for years. His team, the Kia Tigers, did not allow him to go through the MLB posting process after the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and so this offseason he's working to finally become available as a traditional free agent. He's obviously an unknown commodity in the MLB landscape, and he does have some legitimate concerns attached to him. But for the right price, he could be a low-risk/high-reward asset for the Yankees to add to next season's pitching competition.
First the good stuff. Yoon measures out at 6'0" tall and about 190 pounds and works with a 3-pitch mix of fastball, slider, changeup. His fastball lives in the low 90s and doesn't top out much higher than that, his slider is an above-average pitch that he uses as his primary out pitch, and the changeup sounds like more of a work in progress that has been deemed at least above-average by a scout or 2. At 27, Yoon already has plenty of professional experience in his career. He's pitched in the KBO since 2005, working first as a middle reliever, then a closer, and then transitioning to a starting role in 2007. In 2011, he was the KBO MVP with a 17-5 record, 2.45 ERA, and 178 K in 172.1 IP over 23 starts.
Now the not-so-good stuff. Yoon has a history of shoulder problems in his KBO career, the most recent one occurring this season. It relegated him back to full bullpen duty and he pitched to a 4.00 ERA in 87.2 IP with K and BB rates that were slightly above-average at best. The shoulder problems have also limited his year-to-year workload. Despite working as a starter for the majority of the time since '07 Yoon has never made more than 26 starts in a season and has only made 20+ starts 3 times. His 172.1 IP in 2011 is his career high and he's pitched more than 160 innings in a season only 1 other time. In a baseball world where starters' workloads are incredibly important, Yoon appears to be far less prepared to adjust to a 162-game MLB schedule than Tanaka.
There's also the Boras factor to consider. As Yoon's agent, Boras is going to be looking for top dollar. Yoon is the unquestioned best pitching prospect in South Korea and with fellow South Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu having a ROY-worthy season for the Dodgers this season, Boras's case to get that top dollar is strong.
Still, top dollar based on Ryu's contract would come out to $6 mil per year AAV, a very affordable cost for a high-budget team like the Yankees who need a lot of pitching help. Their only other reported competition for Yoon this offseason is the Minnesota Twins, so the Yankees have to be considered the easy leader in the clubhouse. If Yoon is granted permission to sign with an MLB team as a free agent, the Yankees would be getting a pitcher still in his prime with a history of success as both a starter and a reliever and a lot of previous big game experience (Yoon pitched for South Korea in the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic). They aren't getting that kind of makeup for $6 mil a year anywhere on the MLB free agent market, and when he's been healthy Yoon's K and BB rates look like they can stack up at the Major League level. He's definitely worth pursuing if and when he gets the green light to become a free agent.