Yoon Suk-min to begin season in minors

March 20, 2014
Yoon will begin the season in minors. (AP)

Yoon will begin the season in minors. (AP)

Yoon Suk-min’s highly-anticipated major league debut will have to wait. The Baltimore Orioles optioned the 27-year-old right-hander to Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Yoon pitched well against the Tampa Bay Rays, but it wasn’t enough to buy him some more time in the big league.  He allowed only one hit over two innings in an exhibition game, but that one hit went over the wall.

Yoon, one of the best Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) pitchers of the past decade, signed a three-year, $5.75 million contract with the Orioles in the off-season. The deal could grow to over $13 million if Yoon manages to start 26 or more games each season in the majors, but that was a long shot to begin with.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Yoon expressed disappointment about the team’s decision to send him to Norfolk, but he didn’t seem surprised by the move. ”My preparation was there. I feel like I was ready. I just couldn’t get enough innings because of the visa,’’ Yoon said, according to the newspaper.

The highly respected Orioles’ Manager Buck Showalter wants to see Yoon pitch more before trusting him. As it took longer than expected for Yoon to get a work visa, he was limited to three innings of game action in the preseason. Yoon had not allowed a run until the Rays’ Jason Nix connected a solo shot on Wednesday.

”We think he’s got a chance to be with us at some point. I think he said the other day when he was talking to us, he needs to go down there and pitch innings, and (the innings) starting to go away. He needs some time down there against competition,’’ Showalter said.

However, the manager said he was impressed with the way Yoon pitched against the Rays.

“(He did) better (than) last time,’’ Showalter said. ”I thought he showed the repertoire a little bit more today; had a good delivery. He’s going to be a strike thrower. He showed all three today. That’s intriguing.’’

There is a clause in Yoon’s contract that allows the club to send him to the minors to begin the season. At Norfolk, Yoon is likely to be tested as a starter, although some observers argue that the pitcher’s skills are more suited to be a reliever in the big leagues.

Yoon, who won the KBO MVP award in 2011 as a starter for the Kia Tigers, will be looking to duplicate the success of compatriot Ryu Hyun-jin, who went 14-8 in his first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.

In his nine years with the Tigers, Yoon won 73 games and lost 59 with an earned run average (ERA) of 3.19, establishing himself as one of the best Korean pitchers of his generation. His 2011 season is considered one of the best for a pitcher in KBO history, when he led the league with 17 wins, 178 strikeouts and a 2.45 ERA to accomplish a rare pitching “triple crown.’’

In his prime, Yoon displayed a dual ability to miss bats or induce groundballs, which had many scouts projecting a solid career for the pitcher in the U.S. But it is uncertain whether the Orioles are getting a player close to his prime.

Yoon endured a tough season in 2013 after sustaining an injury during the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March. He made his season debut in May, coming out of the bullpen, but managed only 87 innings and his ERA soared over 4.00.

Observers here noted that Yoon’s fastball, which used to reach the high-140 to low-150-kilometers-per-hour range, hovered in the mid-140s last year. He gave up a career-high .92 home runs per nine innings.

However, Yoon did pitch better as the season progressed and now claims that he is fully recovered from his shoulder problems. If Yoon can be anywhere close to the pitcher he was in 2011, the Orioles could be getting a steal.