Red Sox

In Korean baseball, opportunity beckons not only players, but a scout

In Korean baseball, opportunity beckons not only players, but a scout

Like most scouts who wandered a sprawling casino in Las Vegas at the winter meetings this month, Aaron Tassano’s goal is to find the best players to fit his organization. What makes Tassano stand out is the destination — both his own, and his targets’.

Tassano has been a scout for almost a decade and a half. With Houston from 2013-18, he performed the job as conventionally envisioned: he moved to Arizona in 2014, watching players moving through Major League Baseball’s pipeline. Backfields were often his charge.

Before joining the Astros, Tassano lived in South Korea, where he scouted for the Cubs and Rays. He searched for both professionals and amateurs who could make the jump to the U.S., venturing into Japan and Taiwan as well.

Living abroad as a scout for major league teams is a known job, if not a common one. Now, Tassano is doing something of the inverse. 

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Instead of trying to bolster major league pipelines, he’s trying to pluck players away from them.

Tassano in November became the scouting coordinator for the Samsung Lions of the Korea Baseball Organization. He's charged with finding candidates in the U.S. to play in South Korea's top league — typically Triple-A types, players who are not only ready for a change of scenery, but mentally equipped to handle a big one.

“You can’t just send anyone to live in Korea,” Tassano said. “And I think that’s kind of where I come in. ... Open-mindedness at least about living over there [is a must]. Or a curiosity, I’d think. 

"Just like any immigrant to any country, you have a variety of people, variety of reasons. From my own personal experience, it’s not easy. You have great days, you have bad days. When you have to perform on a baseball field on top of that, I think it complicates it."

A California native, Tassano will still live in the U.S. He’ll still talk to major league teams and player agents, perhaps with greater frequency than in the past. He’ll still spend his summer traveling to games, now responsible for canvassing all of the U.S. He may even aid in some front-office responsibilities, like contract negotiations, working with the staff supporting him.

It’s no secret that going abroad can boost a playing career. Eric Thames returned to the majors after a stint in the KBO and hit 31 homers for the Brewers in 2017, bringing increased recognition to Korean baseball.

But when it comes to behind-the-scenes people, an adventure abroad isn’t typically considered a stepping stone, or even an alternative. Tassano may prove an example, then, of success via a different frontier — although he represents a special case. 

Tassano first moved to Korea as part of a graduate program. He met his wife in the country, learned the language, relocated and took up scouting. That kind of experience is rare for a professional U.S.-born scout.

“I have a specific value to a Korean team because I lived there and I understand the culture,” Tassano said. “Just like a lot of guys here that played pro baseball, they kind of have that as an advantage that they have when it comes to their marketability. 

“My marketability, the fact that I lived in Korea, doesn’t mean a lot to MLB teams, unless they’re looking to get involved [in that market].”

Samsung recently drafted Hak-ju Lee No. 2 overall in the KBO draft, a matter of circularity. Tassano was involved in Lee's signing w/the Cubs in 2008 for $1.15 million. At one point, Lee was regarded as one of MLB's top overall prospects, although he didn't advance beyond Triple-A.

It's notable that Tassano was valued by a Korean team in a way that was at least competitive with MLB teams. Tassano, who like so many found himself moved by the book "Moneyball," may someday return to a U.S.-based team. But the fact that a Korean club both wanted to scoop him up, and could, stands out in today's game.

The Astros have pivoted to video and data feeds with a greater emphasis on in-office scouting. They’re not the only team going in that direction. The Lions, who are aware of the Astros’ overall success (and have access to at least some TrackMan information themselves) are trying to further their on-the-ground presence in the U.S.

By Tassano’s count, Samsung is the fifth team to have a scout based in the U.S. The top teams in Japan, those in Nippon Professional Baseball, all have at least two North American scouts, Tassano said. Not all are U.S.-based: one Tassano knows lives in the Dominican Republic, for example, working heavily there and in Cuba. 

Some Japanese teams have three scouts on this continent. Korean teams may be on the same path.

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Initially learning to scout in Asia gave Tassano a slightly different base teaching at the outset of his career compared to someone based in the U.S. He honed in on technical skills rather than physical tools, because the former more often separated the young players he watched.

For the players Tassano will now seek, career certainty in Korea will likely represent a better opportunity than uncertainty in the majors. KBO teams can carry up to three foreign players, capped at a first-year salary of $1 million.

Righty Justin Haley made all of four relief appearances for the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox. (Hey, he’ll get a ring.) In late November, the 27-year-old signed with the Lions, one of the 10 teams in the KBO. 

The announced contract: a $550,000 salary, a $100,000 signing bonus and another potential $250,000 in incentives. That’s considerably more money than Haley was likely to make this year in the States, where he could well have continued to bounce between Triple-A and the majors. Another Sox pitcher who just went to the KBO, William Cuevas of the KT Wiz, was in a similar boat.

But some players take the gamble now even before reaching the top in the U.S.

Merrill Kelly, now with the D-backs on a $5.5 million deal, made the jump to the KBO before he had reached the majors. Kelly's former KBO team, the SK Wyverns, just signed Brock Dykxhoorn, who is 24 years old and began 2018 in Double-A with the Astros.

Tassano had just started working for the Lions when the Haley deal was progressing.

Why Haley? For one, he’s 6-5. KBO hitters rarely encounter such high release points, Tassano said. (Dykxhoorn, on a different team, is 6-8.)

The trick for Tassano is to not only find a player who is both good enough to be an impact player in Korea and open to the idea of leaving the U.S., but someone who can ultimately handle the transition. Scouting has always involved background work, and may involve even more in coming years generally as cameras become prevalent, but this is a niche undertaking.

"I lived there, and my wife’s Korean and I know that culture," Tassano said. "I should have some idea of what kind of person fits for a long-term move to Korea. Those teams are investing a considerable amount of money, so they don’t want someone to go over there and decide they don’t like it after a week.

"Korean culture is not an easy [jump]. It’s not like moving to Italy, in my mind, or Western Europe. It’s not closely related to our culture. From a standpoint of a baseball player, they really need to be ready for something different.”

A worthwhile approach for scouts too.

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