There was not the briefest moment where we thought the Rays would make a play for one of the top international players coming out of Japan or Cuba like Yu Darvish, Aroldis Chapman, or Yasiel Puig. The Rays are active in terms of the amateurs, signing current top prospects Jose Mujica and Jose Castillo in their 2012 international free agent class, but when we get to the professinals, where their games are significantly more polished and the price tags jump exponentially, you can count the Rays out without a second thought. However, that may not be true in every case. Right-hander Suk-min Yoon is coming over from Korea this offseason, and for once, the Rays may be among the favorites to land him.
Yoon is young by free agent standards at 27 years of age, but he differs from pitchers like Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and his countryman Hyun-jin Ryu because his stuff lags a tick behind. Yoon attacks hitters with a low-90’s fastball, and the Rays’ favorite a pitch, a strong changeup, and his results for the Kia Tigers in the Korean Baseball Organization the past few years have been excellent. In 2011, Yoon went 17-5 with a 2.45 ERA and a 178-44 strikeout to walk ratio in 172.1 innings pitched for the Tigers, and he managed a 3.28 ERA and a 137 strikeouts against 33 walks in 153 innings pitched for them in 2012. Despite the strong results, even Yoon’s agent, Scott Boras, described him as “not overpowering.” But even if Yoon isn’t another potential topflight starter, that by no means is a slight against him as a pitcher. Boras also compared his client to Kyle Lohse, and while that was likely an exaggeration, but if Yoon is even a fraction of that, he will net himself a relatively lucrative multi-year deal. That is especially the case because instead of being posted by his team in Korea, which would have required major league teams to submit bids to negotiate with him, Yoon is a free agent who can sign with whichever team he chooses. Between his stuff and results, Yoon has established himself as a solid if not spectacular pitcher capable of making an impact in the major leagues, and the lack of a posting fee will spur interest as well. But there is one big issue: his health.
Yoon wound up making in 19 of his 30 appearances out of the bullpen in 2013 as he dealt with a shoulder injury, adding another question mark to a pitcher who teams can’t be positive will live up to big league standards to begin with. Yoon is not heading to the US with his value anywhere near its peak, and the injury could reduce the contact he gets further if teams are not sure he will completely recover. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicted a two-year, $10 million contract for Yoon, and he could end up with a three-year, $10 million deal if his value continues to slip. If the contract talks get to that point, that sounds like exactly the type of move the Rays could make.
Following the 2006 season, the Rays won the rights to negotiate with Akinori Iwamura with a $4.5 million bid before signing him to a three-year, $7.7 million contact with an option for a fourth year. For his three years with the team, Iwamura didn’t knock anyone’s socks off, but he was a solid player who contributed to the Rays’ 2008 World Series run. Yoon could be an interesting candidate for a similar type of deal and provide the same type of impact if not more. Yoon may not start in the major leagues, but he could be an interesting option for the Rays as a reliever. Yoon closed games in Korea in the past, and you know the Rays are always looking for relief arms. And although he may not fit the usual profile of one of the Rays’ relief reclamation projects, Yoon certainly qualifies as a player coming off an injury who could be signed to a low-risk contract with a possibility of significant reward. That he is young and could potentially be locked up for several years is just an added bonus. The Rays have the funds to make a competitive offer for Yoon, and just important could be their track record turning relievers’ careers around.
At this point, we do not know much about Yoon, and what we discover in the coming weeks and months could drastically shift the contract he receives. As the process begins, though, there is reason to believe that for once the Rays could be major players in the talks. Signing a foreign star like Yoon may seem like an anti-Rays move on the surface, but delve a little deeper and it is clear that it aligns perfectly with what the Rays are trying to do. If it happens, don’t be surprised.