The Baltimore Orioles have had an extremely complicated relationship with the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). In 2012, they attempted to sign high school pitcher Kim Seong-Min. The KBO was angered that the Orioles had not sought permission for the signing and placed bans on Seong-Min and on the entire Orioles scouting department to attend games. Eventually, Major League Baseball decided to void the contract and the KBO agreed to allow Seong-Min to return to Korea. In March 2014, the Orioles signed pitcher Suk-min Yoon to a three-year contract for almost six million dollars. He pitched poorly in his first season in the minor leagues and requested his release before he could see another year in the organization. He would return to the KBO.
This past December, the Orioles signed a third Korean player, outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim, to a two-year, seven million dollar contract. The deal stipulated that Kim and the Orioles would not be bound to typical service time rules, where a player would still be under contract until his sixth season in the major leagues. The deal also said that Kim could not be assigned to the minor leagues. For a team that assumed that Kim would be a starting outfielder, the second clause seemed like a reasonable request. With center field and right field manned by Adam Jones and Mark Trumbo, respectively, Kim would be competing with Joey Rickard and Nolan Reimold for the third outfield spot, but projected to receive the majority of the time in left field.
Once Kim arrived at spring training, he struggled offensively. With Kim posting a .178/.224/.178 line in forty-five at bats and Rickard leading the majors in hits, the Orioles attempted to demote Kim. He actually refused to be demoted, leading to some controversy. Kim was unable to earn even a spot on the bench, much less the role as the starting left fielder that was expected of him. The Orioles felt that he would do better with some minor league seasoning, but Kim felt differently. While he was handed a spot on the roster, he doesn’t start. He made his major league debut on Saturday, getting two hits in three at bats.
Kim’s refusal to be demoted despite his extremely poor performance raises ethical questions. His performance warranted the demotion, although his contract gave him the right to refuse demotion. The Orioles were then given the option to release Kim and pay him the entirety of his contract, or to roster him. Part of Kim’s reasoning for signing with Baltimore was likely somewhat based on the premise that he would be put into at least a semi-regular role in the major leagues. The Orioles had the opening for Kim to seize, and, to help ensure that he would be the priority to get that role, they told him that he wouldn’t be demoted. Kim showed up to spring training so out of shape and he played so poorly that he lost a job that was expected to be his almost right out of the gate.
Hyun-Soo Kim moved to a foreign country on the promise that he would get to play in the major leagues, and the Orioles attempted to go back on that promise. He showed up out of shape, but the Korean spring training is longer than the American version. The Orioles historically have a very poor relationship with Korean baseball, and Kim has just been one more debacle. Both sides acted somewhat irrationally, and a less public and more amicable solution should have been reached. Dan Duquette, the Orioles general manager, publicly announced that Kim was unlikely to make the major league roster, before Kim responded with an unwillingness to play in the minors. It’s possible that one of the parties was excessively stubborn in negotiations, but it seems that both sides have high stakes and leverage. Kim wants to play in the major leagues, and two of the Orioles’ last significant international signings never played a game in the majors with them after missing time with injuries and pitching in the minors (Tsuyoshi Wada and Suk-min Yoon). The Orioles have to put the best team that they can on the field, work with Kim and make sure that they don’t further hurt their chances of attracting future Korean players.
The Kim case mirrors tenure and other controversial aspects of society and labor. Is it ethical to have so much job security that if you choose to put almost no effort in or perform very poorly, that you will still have a job? This is just one more example of an ethical question that can be explored through the lens of sports.