BRADENTON, Fla. – Earlier this month, John Dreker broke the news that the Pirates had signed South Korean shortstop prospect Ji-Hwan Bae, who had previously agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Braves before seeing the deal voided. I’ve recently learned that the Pirates ended up signing Bae for a total in the ballpark of $1.25 M, with that spending coming from their 2017-18 bonus pool.
The Braves were limited to spending $300,000 on any one player, but tried to circumvent those rules with illegal deals that paid a player more than the listed signing. Bae was signed for $300,000, and the Braves tried to give him an extra $600,000 on top of that. The agreement was voided before it became official, and Bae became a free agent again.
The Pirates were trying to sign Bae initially, and renewed their interest when his deal was voided.
“Our guys have liked Bae for a while,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “We thought we made an extremely competitive offer at the time he signed with the Braves, and obviously he ended up agreeing to terms with them. When he became available again, we jumped right back in.”
When the Braves were caught illegally paying their international signings, there were 11 players who were released. Those players got to keep their signing bonuses from Atlanta, and the new teams had the option to sign those players with the first $200,000 not counting toward their bonus pools. They also had the option to decide whether the signing price would come from the 2017-18 pools, or the upcoming 2018-19 pools.
Bae wasn’t part of that group of 11 players. His deal was voided before it became official. As a result, he remained a free agent, and wasn’t subjected to those rules. His entire bonus comes out of the Pirates’ 2017-18 pool, which is a big reason they acquired $500,000 in extra international bonus pool money in the Andrew McCutchen trade. Bae was a target at the time, and the Pirates knew they needed more bonus pool money to get him.
There have been some good reviews of Bae’s potential. The Braves were very high on him after the deal, with their signing scout Chad MacDonald comparing him to Trae Turner, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“It’s an elite runner, top-of-the-scale runner,” MacDonald said to the AJC. “He’s very athletic. He stays at shortstop, he’s going to be a solid to plus defender there. His bat-to-ball skills are really good. There’s more power in the bat. If everything clicks, we have a left-handed version of Trae Turner, who I signed in San Diego. Again, maybe not that much power, but certainly the impact speed and defense, with bat-to-ball skills and a left-handed hitter.”
Baseball America had praise for him, although not nearly as lofty. They had him as a well-rounded middle infielder who should have no problem sticking at shortstop. Offensively, they graded him with plus-speed, and excellent contact skills, but limited power potential, giving him a four tool upside.
The Pirates like a lot of the same things, even thinking he could have a bit more power than expected.
“Our guys loved the speed,” Huntington said. “They think he’s going to be a good offensive player. They think he’s got the ability to play shortstop. The athlete, the defensive actions, the offensive player. He has a chance to be a really good, well-rounded Major League player. … They also think there’s going to be some threat, and some impact with the bat, and that there’s going to be more than just a slap, contact, bunt guy that plays the pure speed game. They think he’s going to be able to drive the ball to the gap, and hit a few balls into the seats, and be a well-rounded offensive player. I know he’s young, and obviously he has a lot of work to do, but we do like the traits and the tools.”
I got a chance to talk with Bae, through his interpreter Bumyun Hahn. He said the Pirates were looking at him prior to signing with the Braves, and they were aggressive after he became available again. He’s also very familiar with the Pirates, as Jung Ho Kang is “an idol” to him (obviously for on-field purposes). He’s never met Kang, but followed his career with the Pirates.
“I’m a big fan of Kang, and I watched every single game that Kang played in,” Bae said through Hahn.
The Pirates should see what they have in Bae later this summer, when he is expected to play in the GCL. He started playing in minor league Spring Training games over the weekend, and the early reports I’ve received, plus what I’ve seen, have backed up the scouting reports about his speed, ability to play shortstop, and his contact skills. At around $1.25 M, he becomes the second biggest international amateur signing in team history, and will definitely be a guy to watch over the next few years as he makes his way through the lower levels.