In recent off-seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals have expressed interest in developing, expanding, and eventually establishing a presence with scouting resources across the Cuban and Asian markets. They now appear to be close to their first signing.
Per an early Sunday morning report from Daniel Kim, a former scout who covers the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), the Cardinals have a deal with Korean relief ace Seung-hwan Oh, pending a physical. Though nothing has been confirmed by Cardinals officials, Oh is reported to have boarded a stateside flight and the contract could be finalized by Monday.
Oh’s recent two-year contract with Nippon Professional Baseball's Hanshin Tigers in Japan has expired, and thus he is an unrestricted free agent not subject to any posting fees. However, he would be suspended for half a season if he returned to the KBO due to findings that he gambled in an overseas casino, an action illegal by Korean law.
Nicknamed "The Final Boss" in Korea for excellent reason, Oh has been one of the top closers in both the Korean Baseball Organization (nine seasons with the Samsung Tigers) and Nippon Professional League (two seasons with Hanshin) during his 11-year tenure as a professional. The 33-year-old owns an impressive 1.81 ERA, 10.7 K/9 and 5.18 K/BB rate over 646 1/3 career innings between Korea and Japan.
Oh, also nicknamed "Stone Buddha," has recorded 357 saves in his career. He also pitched for South Korea in 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics, achieving bronze and silver medals, respectively. The right-hander is coming off a season with the Hanshin Tigers in which he had a 2.76 ERA and 41 saves. He struck out 66 batters in 69 1/3 innings.
According to a two-year-old scouting report on the Global Sports Integration, Oh's best pitch is his fastball that averages 92-94 and can crank it up to 97 mph. The offering has earned the nickname "stone fastball" due to its hard rising action. He complements the fastball with a slider thrown at a varying 80-89 mph while mixing in a sporadic slow curveball around 70-79 mph. That, coupled with an easy three-quarter delivery and a fastball that he tradeoffs in velocity for sinking and cutting movement led to him being one of the most effective strikeout pitchers in Korean history.
ESPN’s international prospect writer Eric Longenhagen mentioned this tidbit about Oh on Twitter.
“New Cardinals Korean signee Seung-Hwan Oh: Fastball 90-94, mid-80s slider/cutter, splitter. Command fringe average, uses split in all counts.”
Oh has been linked to the MLB with rumors the past two off-seasons, though Hanshin never followed through on posting him. The Cardinals were not among the several reported ML teams to have scouted him over those two years.
If the signing is completed, the Cardinals will further stabilize and add depth to a relief corps with question marks regarding past injury history and ineffectiveness.
With his lack of familiarity against major-league competition, it is hard to imagine a high-leverage role of any sort during his immediate short-term acclimation period because the quality of competition in Asia is significantly less. However, by all accounts, Oh is a proven, accomplished and consistent performer with pitching smarts, so his transition may just be a minor speed bump in the road.
Next summer, Oh turns 34 and from a historic perspective is in the downturn years in performance from peak age. Granted, fellow Asian pitcher Koji Uehara was utilized as a starter with Baltimore in his first season at age 34, but in 2010 the O’s switched him to relief and Uehara proved himself as one of the better set-up and eventually closers in baseball.
Oh is the Cardinals’ second attempt to sign a Korean star this off-season. In November, they fell short in the blind bidding for the posting fee for the country's power hitting first baseman Byung-ho Kim. He went on to ink a deal with the Minnesota Twins.
Update: Sunday, 1/10, 2:45 p.m. CT: Robert Murray of Baseball Essential tweeted that he believes Oh completed his physical before heading to the US, leaving only the Monday announcement.
Update: Sunday, 1/10, 11:00 p.m. CT: Kim reports Oh's travel to St. Louis has been disrupted by snow. "Expect some delays with Oh signing. He was stuck in Detroit airport with all the snow in the area. Not sure where he is now."
Updates: Monday, 1/11, 7:30 a.m. CT: More from Kim: ""Reported by Ilgan - Oh gets 2 year/11M deal with team option for 3rd. Not sure how much is guaranteed yet."
Also, Kim provided an Oh scouting report via email:
"FB/Slider guy. FB in the mid 90's/ slider 86-88 area. Some call it cutter. Goes in and out and will go up the ladder as well. Over powering FB with extra life. Thick frame. Strong legs. Really gets through the ball. Not tall but really good extension(stride) when releasing. Doesn't show much emotion on the mound. Calm and cool type personality. Very quiet type. Will fit in well."
Update: Monday, 1/11, noon CT: At the introductory press conference, the contract was stated by GM John Mozeliak as one year plus a team option for year two. The Post-Dispatch estimates the two years to be worth "around $5 million," but did not provide a breakdown. As one would expect, Trevor Rosenthal will remain the closer.
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