Cardinals in Asia: Oh just first step

Signing of reliever signals long-term commitment to market

February 6th, 2016

On the heels of South Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh signing with the Cardinals, began an examination of the organization's decade-long journey back into the Asian market. Earlier installments of this three-part series included a look at the foundation the organization built in Asia, and an inspection of the nuances of scouting there. In this final installment, will trace the road to signing Oh and examine what that signing could mean for the organization's future in this market.

ST. LOUIS -- Almost seven years before they would make him the organization's first Asian-born signee since So Taguchi in 2002, the Cardinals laid eyes on a then-26-year-old South Korean reliever pitching inside San Diego's Petco Park in March 2009.

The international showcase didn't go all that well for Seung Hwan Oh, who took a loss to Japan, allowing allowed three hits and two runs in one inning at the World Baseball Classic. But Matt Slater, now the Cardinals' director of player personnel, took note.

Part 1:Laying the foundation | Part 2: Evaluating talent

He'd go on to see Oh an estimated half-dozen more times in person. Slater would see him pitch in Korea, in Japan and in another World Baseball Classic tournament three years later. Over the last two years, he noticed more Major League scouts showing up to watch, as well.

It wasn't until late October or early November of last year, however, that the Cardinals found out there could be a payoff for all those years observing one of the most dynamic closers to pitch in the Korean Baseball Organization. It's often that way, too, as the allure of playing in the Major Leagues isn't always strong enough to attract the best Asian-born talent. Scouts can spend years trailing a player only to watch that player never choose to test free agency.

"We can pay those guys more money," said Jeff Ishii, a California-based pro scout who is also involved in the Cardinals' Asian scouting efforts. "But there has to be another thing that lures them over here."

The Cardinals found that out this winter as they followed Nobuhiro Matsuda, a four-time Gold Glove third baseman for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball Organization. Matsuda explored Major League free agency and had interest from the Cardinals when they were still looking for a utility infielder.

They eventually went another direction and traded for Jedd Gyorko, while Matsuda ultimately decided not to come at all and signed a five-year extension with Fukuoka. Other Major League clubs that had invested in following him ultimately did so for naught.

"What it boils down to is, you're dealing with human nature," Ishii said. "People value money differently. In the end, we, as a team, have to do our due diligence on all possible players and later find out what the player wants to do. Then, we have to react to that."

Much like their interest in Matsuda, the Cardinals pursued Oh this winter because he fit a need. He wasn't as highly sought-after as Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda (now with the Dodgers) or South Korean first baseman Byung Ho Park (now with the Twins), both of whom are still in their 20s.

What the Cardinals did was take their reports on Oh, 33, and compare his fit against that of other stateside free-agent relievers. His desire to play for the Cardinals and salary expectations helped make him a match.

"Oh happened to fit a need that we had," Slater said. "It just so happens that he comes from a unique market in Asia. If another Asian player had fit another greater need that we had, maybe it would have been another player. I do believe that to be players in this big-boy market -- that's what I mean by the Cuba uncapped players and the Asian players -- you have to be a little bit of a gunslinger. You have to be able to take a little more risk than you normally would."

But the fact that it was any Asian-born player at all is a reminder of how far the Cardinals have come. Three years ago, they likely wouldn't have even explored options in this market. Now, Oh will help the organization further its presence there.

"I do believe it is going to help us out greatly, especially because he has been a star in both the country of Korea and then in Japan the last two years," Slater said. "I've had people call me from Osaka, Japan, his home city for the last two years, and tell me they're excited. There certainly is excitement in Korea. It's going to get the Cardinal brand out in Asia."

Having Oh in uniform will also help the Cardinals further their Asian evaluation system. He'll be an extra data point to study as the organization continues to tweak its analytics model to project future performance when making the transition to the Majors. The Cardinals, who are hiring a full-time interpreter to work alongside Oh, will also glean first-person experience on the cultural transition.

Regardless how Oh fares, the Cardinals intend to remain tapped into the Asian talent pool. They've spent more than a decade in preparation for what they anticipate will be long-term future payoff and have built an evaluation and scouting system they believe in. Now, they're about to see if it works.

"I think we're getting to a point where we feel like we have a sense of the market and how to value the market," general manager John Mozeliak said. "And if we need to use that as a resource moving forward to procure talent, we can."