After an underwhelming 2021 rookie season, Ha-Seong Kim has emerged as a standout big leaguer over the last two years, posting an 8.1 fWAR due to his combination of above-average (109 wRC+) hitting, excellent baserunning, and top-tier defense. The Padres have certainly gotten a great return on the four-year, $28MM contract they signed to attract Kim from the KBO League during the 2020-21 offseason, yet with Kim now entering the final year of that deal, his time in San Diego could be running short.
While a mutual option is in place for the 2025 season, such options are almost never exercised by both parties, and the 28-year-old Kim seems like a lock to again hit the open market next winter now that he has an established MLB track record. If the Padres don’t feel they can extend or re-sign the infielder, a trade remains a possibility, and The Athletic’s Dennis Lin writes that “internally, at least, San Diego has been discussing the idea for weeks.”
Whether or not a trade actually happens remains to be seen, as a Padres official told Lin that the return would need to be “way above the line” to get the club to actually move Kim. In addition, Kim will also naturally be one of the centerpieces of the season-opening two-game series between the Padres and Dodgers in Seoul on March 20-21, and Lin doubts that the Friars take the awkward position of moving a Korean star prior to the first MLB regular-season games to ever take place in South Korea.
That being said, adding multiple long-term assets for one year of Kim’s services is obviously a tempting concept for a Padres team that has a lot of needs to address. Trading Kim would create a big hole in San Diego’s infield, though the team is still in dire need of outfielders and as many as two starting pitchers to slot behind Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, and the newly-acquired Michael King. The high cost of pitching would make signing a starter more expensive for the Padres than perhaps signing an infielder as a stopgap Kim replacement, plus top prospect Jackson Merrill could be part of the big league infield picture at some point in 2024.
Cost-cutting has been one of the major storylines of the San Diego offseason, and since the Padres seem to be stepping back from their financial splurges of the last couple of seasons, retaining Kim looks like less of a possibility. The team is reportedly looking to reduce spending to around $200MM in payroll in 2024, and ideally get under the $237MM luxury tax threshold if possible. After signing Yuki Matsui and Woo Suk Go to upgrade the bullpen, the Padres are projected (via Roster Resource) to have a $156.3MM payroll and a tax number of just under $212MM, so there isn’t a ton of flexibility for the team to add meaningful outfield and rotation help.
Kim is a big part of this financial picture, in the sense that he’s quite a bargain at only an $8MM salary. Since Manny Machado might be limited to early-season DH duty while he recovers from elbow surgery, Kim carries even greater import within San Diego’s infield, as he might be needed to handle third base while Machado heals up. Jake Cronenworth would likely move first base to second base in the event of a Kim trade, but that would then leave the Padres in need of a first baseman and at least a temporary replacement at the hot corner.
It isn’t a reach to suggest that Kim might be just about the most prized trade asset on the market if the Padres made him available, as Lin notes that the Friars have already drawn “widespread interest” in Kim from rival teams. Though he primarily played second base last season, Kim won the NL utility Gold Glove for his all-around defensive work at second, third, and shortstop. Considering how many contenders and would-be contenders have a need at at least one of these infield positions, up to half the league could be seen as plausible suitors to bid on Kim, even if some teams are better equipped than others to meet San Diego’s high asking price.
Kim’s $8MM salary might fit the budget of smaller-market teams like the Rays, Guardians, Pirates, or Royals, though perhaps only Tampa (who has a long history of trades with the Padres) is the only true World Series contender of that group that might be inspired to make an all-in move to land Kim. The Brewers, Blue Jays, Mariners, Giants, Angels, Tigers, Cubs, and Marlins all have holes to fill in their infield, even if San Francisco might be less likely if San Diego doesn’t want to deal Kim within the NL West. Clubs like the Twins, Braves, Yankees, Red Sox, or Phillies are more speculative candidates since another infielder probably would have to be moved to create space for Kim, but an aggressive play can’t be ruled out.
Though Kim is only under contract for 2024, some teams might view him as a longer-term opportunity if they feel they have a chance to extend or re-sign him next offseason. Even if clubs could also see a Kim trade as strictly a move for the coming season, he is certainly a candidate to receive a qualifying offer, so a team could recoup a draft pick as compensation if he signed elsewhere.