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Top KBO Players primed to make it to MLB in the near future

KBO star Roberto Ramos
Roberto Ramos of the Albuquerque Isotopes participates in the 2019 Triple-A All-Star Game Home Run Derby at Southwest University Park in El Paso on Monday, July 8, 2019. Home Run Derby 29

Considering a lack of MLB-level baseball on T.V., the KBO League (KBO) has done its best to fill the baseball-shaped hole in fans’ hearts.

The Big Picture: As the MLB and MLBPA continue to try to make a 2020 season work, the KBO has proved to be an effective stopgap for fans. With Chan-ho Park, Shin-soo Choo and Hyun-jin Ryu coming over from the KBO throughout the years, the KBO is a breeding ground for potential MLB talent.

Here are a few young players that could make the leap to MLB in the future.

(Note: Korean names are typically ordered “Last name, First Name”. But for the purposes of this list, names are listed traditionally.)

Roberto Ramos

At only 25 years old, Ramos has incredible power: at Albuquerque in 2019, he hit 30 home runs and had 105 RBI. In all, he’s hit almost 100 home runs and driven in almost 400 RBI in his young minor league career. Not only did he hit for power in the minor leagues, he also hit for average as he slashed .292/.370/.527.

That’s why in January 2020, the KBO’s LG Twins purchased Ramos’ contract from the Colorado Rockies. So far, Ramos has lived up to the billing as he is:

  • First in home runs (13),
  • Second in OPS (1.226),
  • Tied for fourth with 31 RBI,
  • Fourth with a .375 batting average

If Ramos can keep up his production and work on not striking out as frequently for the rest of the 144-game season, expect him to land back in MLB soon.

Chang-mo Koo

At only 23 years old, Koo has already been in the KBO for five years. Although his numbers prior to 2020 are pretty standard – 4.51 ERA in 129 appearances (76 starts) – Koo’s effectiveness went up a notch.

After having difficulty putting away hitters in recent years, Koo began 2020 with his fastball/slider/splitter working in tandem. Thus in 2020, Koo has:

  • A 0.75 ERA, first in the KBO,
  • A pristine 5-0 record with six quality starts in six games,
  • Struck 52 batters, leading the KBO

Although it’s a very small sample size, the league-leading NC Dinos can rest assured knowing that their ace Koo can lead them to victory. Only time will tell if he can continue dominating for the rest of the season and potentially carry that over to MLB.

Je-seong Bae

Another 23 year old, Bae has been inconsistent in his first three years in the KBO. Drafted in the ninth round (88th overall), Bae’s first year in the KBO was underwhelming: he posted an 8.72 ERA in 21 games in only 32 innings pitched.

2019 was Bae’s year as he had a 3.76 ERA in 28 games. He went 10-10 in 21 games started and even had a complete game shutout for the KT Wiz. Like Koo, Bae has elevated his play in 2020 as he currently:

  • Has a 2.66 ERA (fifth in the league) in seven starts with a 3-1 record,
  • Is ninth in average Game Score at 69,
  • Sits tied for second in home runs allowed (2)

Although Bae has the ability to go deep into games (he averages 102 pitches a game), a more refined pitch arsenal would greatly benefit his chances of making it to MLB. Since he’s only 23, he has a lot of time to fine-tune his pitching.

Tae-in Won

The youngest player on the list, the 20-year-old Won has shown promise in his first year in the KBO, being drafted by the Samsung Lions in 2019. In 26 games (20 starts), Won had a 4.82 ERA, going 4-8 with two holds and a blown save.

So far in 2020, Won has been off to a great start:

  • His 2.68 ERA is sixth in the league,
  • His three home runs allowed is tied for third,
  • He’s tied for 12th in WHIP (1.27)

Something that Won needs to work on is striking batters out. At 20, Won has time to work on his arsenal, be it starting or as an arm out of the bullpen. If he’s able to keep a sub-3.00 ERA for a few years, it’s highly likely that he’ll be in the MLB soon if everything goes well.

Jin-sung Kang

Playing in limited time in his first four seasons, the 26-year-old Kang didn’t have much to show for it with the NC Dinos. The first baseman averaged just over 29 games a season, hitting .259/.327/.389 with a .717 OPS.

But as the everyday first baseman, Kang has improved his play immensely. Since the start of the 2020 season, he:

  • Has the best batting average in the KBO at .448,
  • Is first in OPS with 1.322,
  • Is tied for fourth in RBI (31) and fifth in home runs (8)

Kang is also hitting .615 with runners in scoring position. Although that number will go down, it will be interesting to see how much longer Kang can produce at such a high level. His production is a big reason why the Dinos are the best team in the KBO by far. It’s not outside the realm of possibility to see Kang making the trip stateside.

Jung-hoo Lee

As the son of arguably one of the best players in KBO history, Lee has big shoes to fill. However, the 21-year-old Lee hasn’t disappointed.

Since being drafted by the then-Nexen (now Kiwoom) Heroes in 2017, Lee – a contact hitter – slashed .338/.400/.450 with a .851 OPS prior to 2020. Not known as a power hitter, Lee improved in almost every offensive category as he:

  • Currently has six home runs, tying a career high, and 23 RBI
  • Is hitting .373/.440/.627 with an OPS of 1.067,
  • Sits fifth in batting average and third in hits (50) and in total strikeouts (11) in the KBO

Considering that Lee already won the Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove and a postseason MVP award so early in his career, it’s only a matter of time to see how high Lee’s ceiling is. So far, everything indicates that he could make it to MLB soon.

Bonus: Sung-bum Na

The 30-year-old Na is arguably one of the most MLB-ready players currently in the KBO. Prior to suffering a devastating leg injury that cut his 2019 season short, Na was an all-around hitter. In the six years Na has played over 100 games preceding 2019, he averaged:

  • Around 24 home runs a year
  • Around 101 RBI
  • A slash line of .365/.379/.527 with a .909 OPS

Before the 2019 season, Na hired baseball super agent Scott boras to help him potentially make the leap to MLB. With Na producing at a similar clip thus far in the 2020 season – 10 home runs with 28 RBI, hitting .321/.408/.613 with an OPS of 1.021 – it won’t be long before he debuts in MLB.

The Bottom Line: The KBO is going to make it to the MLB

With MLB and the MLBPA having extreme difficulty coming to an agreement to start the 2020 season, the KBO has more than adequately filled in the baseball-shaped hole in fans’ hearts. One positive from this situation that MLB fans find themselves in is that they can see the talent stashed abroad.

If all goes well with this season and beyond, expect to see some –if not all– the names on this list in MLB at some point in their careers.