South Korea – INF/OF Ji-Hwan Bae
The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t initially sign Ji-Hwan Bae out of South Korea. He was actually an Atlanta Braves prospect before going to the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, the Braves were forced to release Bae during John Copperla’s international signing scandal, and that’s when the Pirates scooped up the Korean infielder.
Korea has produced many professional players who have eventually made their way over to the MLB. Given that they have their own league, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization), it’s not surprising that baseball is very popular in Korea.
Bae currently ranks as one of the organization’s top 15 prospects. Last season he spent most of the season at Double-A Altoona, where he had a .278/.359/.413 line, .343 wOBA, and 114 wRC+. He was a comfortably above-average hitter who got on base and hit for average. Plus, he did show some improving power. His .134 ISO was a noticeable increase from 2019, when he had a .107 mark.
Bae’s ability to hit for average and reach base at a healthy rate helps his speed play way up. He’s already very fast, a 65-grade runner per FanGraphs, but he can make that speed a deadly tool if he gets on-base at a .350+ rate. He had a 10.4% walk rate and swiped 20 bases in 28 attempts.
Bae has mainly played second base and shortstop throughout his minor league career. However, the Pirates are starting to give him more time in center field. Last year, he recorded 79.2 innings in center, plus 86 more innings at the Arizona Fall League. Bae’s athleticism and speed play well in center, and given the amount of middle infield talent the Pirates have, it’s an understandable move.
This season for Bae will be in his age-22 season. However, with him starting the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, we should see him at the major league level by summer. What position he will play will likely depend on the major league situation. If any of Diego Castillo, Hoy Park (another South Korean infielder/outfielder), Michael Chavis, Cole Tucker, Rodolfo Castro, or Kevin Newman start the year out hot, he may make his debut in the grass.