(LEAD) MLB tenders status check on free agent reliever Ham Deok-ju

SEOUL, - Major League Baseball (MLB) has checked on the availability of South Korean free agent pitcher Ham Deok-ju, league officials here said Thursday, indicating an interest in the reliever among big league clubs.

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) said Thursday that MLB tendered a status check on Ham, a left-handed reliever who pitched for the LG Twins in 2023, earlier in the day. The KBO added that it informed MLB that Ham, as a free agent, is able to sign with any club he wishes, whether in South Korea or elsewhere.

Under an agreement between MLB and the KBO, a major league team interested in a South Korean player, professional or amateur, must complete the status check through the KBO. Once MLB requests a status check, the KBO must respond within four business days. In these instances, MLB must not reveal the identities of the big league clubs inquiring about the Korean player in question.

Ham, 27, pitched to a career-best 1.62 ERA in 57 appearances for the Twins this year, and helped them win their first Korean Series title in 29 years earlier this month.

A status check by MLB doesn't always result in a deal with a major league club for Korean players. Ham has never publicly stated any intent to take his talent overseas.

Ham was a fifth-round draft choice by the Doosan Bears in 2012, and made his KBO debut with them the following year, logging three games as an 18-year-old.

By 2015, Ham became a key cog in the Bears' bullpen. He went 7-2 with two saves and 16 holds that season, pitching to a 3.65 ERA while striking out 76 in 61 2/3 innings. The Bears won the first of their two consecutive Korean Series titles in 2015.

Ham split his time between the starting rotation and the bullpen in 2017 and then became the Bears' closer in 2018, earning 27 saves and posting a 2.96 ERA.

Ham was traded to the Twins in March 2021, just before the start of that season. He had a brief audition in the starting rotation of his new team but struggled with blisters and elbow problems.

He only pitched in 16 games in 2021, and just 13 more in another injury-plagued season in 2022. Ham returned to form nicely in 2023, and his 55 2/3 innings were the most since 2018.

Ham pitched in four of the five Korean Series games for the Twins this month, and gave up a run across 3 1/3 innings while striking out five.

The left-hander has a four-pitch mix: a four-seam fastball, slider, curve and changeup, considered his best pitch.

Ham had drastic reverse splits this season, meaning he had better numbers against right-handed batters than against left-handed batters. Ham faced 110 right-handed batters in 2023, and they had a meager .411 on-base plus slugging (OPS), compared to a .579 OPS by 112 left-handed batters.

Ham is the third KBO player to draw a status check from MLB, joining Twins closer Go Woo-suk and Kiwoom Heroes outfielder Lee Jung-hoo.

Go and Lee are not yet free agents but they can still sign with a big league team through posting. The KBO has asked MLB to post the two players, and once MLB notifies its clubs of the players' posting, teams will have a 30-day window in which to negotiate with them.

Source: Yonhap News Agency