April 16, 2024

During a workout at Dodgers spring training recently this spring, Rob Hill was stopped by a bystander confused by a case of mistaken identity.

The person had seen Hill, the Dodgers director of minor league pitching, talking with a tall, lanky, athletic Asian player on the backfields at Camelback Ranch.

Was that, the bystander asked, two-time MVP Shohei Ohtani?

No, Hill politely informed them. The player in question was actually Hyun-Seok Jang.

While Ohtani and fellow Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto have inevitably dominated headlines during Dodgers spring training this year, club officials have quietly raved about the other talented Asian product embarking on his first spring with the team.

Jang, a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher who signed for $900,000 out of South Korea last year, doesn’t have the name recognition of a big-league standout yet. But, in several years, the club is hopeful he’ll be staging his own MLB ascension — one the team never got to experience with Ohtani more than a decade ago.

When Ohtani was coming out of high school in Japan in 2012, the Dodgers attempted to persuade him to move to the United States immediately.

They were enamored with his capabilities as a pitcher. They visualized his road to major-league stardom. And, had Ohtani’s preference to remain a two-way player not ultimately persuaded him to stay in Japan and play in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, he might have been a Dodger long before signing his record $700-million contract this offseason.

Last summer, Jang faced a similar set of circumstances, albeit without the two-way caveat.

A native of Changwon, South Korea, a port city on the country’s southern coast, Jang emerged as not only the nation’s top high school player, but one of its more promising young pitching products in recent memory.

He has all the tools of a potential future MLB starter, from his 6-foot-4 frame to his upper-90s mph fastball to an array of breaking pitches that can induce swing and miss.

Yet, like Ohtani, he had the option to bide his time until then playing in his home country — where he was widely expected to be the No. 1 pick in the most recent KBO League draft, and would have been a prominent national figure in Korea’s baseball community.

“He would’ve started in the KBO, at the top level, right away,” said Daniel Kim, an independent South Korean journalist who has contributed to ESPN’s coverage of the nation’s domestic league. “If you’re a top one, two, three [high school] player, you get a lot of recognition.”

However, in what was a relatively polarizing move in South Korea, Jang decided to forge a different path.

As he neared the end of his high school career, he announced his intention to sign with an MLB team. Last August, the Dodgers were the ones to secure his signature. And now the team — which just so happens to open its season Wednesday in Seoul against the San Diego Padres — is hoping he can become their next Korean success story, following in the footsteps of past star pitchers like Chan Ho Park and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

“We see a future with top-of-the-rotation starter stuff,” Hill said. “It’s just a matter of getting there and doing it. He can do so much with the ball. He’s so adept at trying to improve. I think the sky’s the limit.”

Jang, who declined an interview request for this story, explained at the time of his signing that he wanted to move to the U.S. to expedite his path to the major leagues.

He noted MLB clubs’ advanced infrastructure for pitching development, from advanced analysis to high-tech training facilities.

He said he was eager to face American competition, despite the unglamorous minor-league lifestyle of small towns and long bus trips that come with it.

Most of all, he wanted to test himself competitively, unafraid of uprooting his life and moving 6,000 miles away to a country where he speaks little (though more every day, Hill said) of the English language.

“It was a tough decision for me because I dreamed of pitching both in the KBO and MLB,” Jang said in a statement last August, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. “But ultimately, I wanted to challenge myself in the best league in the world and decided to take a crack at MLB.”

To Dodgers executives, it was the last piece of confirmation they needed.

“I think it’s a really good indication of make-up and work ethic,” general manager Brandon Gomes said of Jang’s decision.

Added Hill: “He’s incredibly ambitious … He doesn’t care necessarily about everyone’s opinions. He just wants to be good.”

There were plenty of other teams, of course, interested in the pitcher. The Texas Rangers were seen as the strongest other contender to sign him, according to one person with knowledge of the situation who was unauthorized to speak publicly.

At the time Jang announced his MLB intentions, the Dodgers also lacked the kind of money remaining in their annual international bonus pool to seriously make a run at signing him, forcing the front office to quickly try and seek out a trade.

A deal quietly came together on Aug. 4 of last year, when the Dodgers flipped prospects Aldrin Batista and Maximo Martinez to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for international slot money.

A week later, Jang’s signing with the team was official — a turn of events even the pitcher acknowledged came as a bit of a surprise.

“I knew they were interested in me,” he said at a news conference announcing the decision. “But I didn’t think I’d end up signing with this team.”

Before coming to the U.S., Jang played with the South Korean national team in last year’s Asian Games. By helping the country win a gold medal in the event, he earned an exemption from its mandatory military service obligations, clearing the way for him to play full-time in America this year.

According to Dodgers vice president of player development Will Rhymes, Jang will likely start this season in the rookie-level Arizona Complex league. Currently ranked as the club’s 18th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, he is still at least two to three years away from the big leagues.

In the meantime, Jang has worked closely with Hill and the rest of the Dodgers player development staff this spring on refining his expansive repertoire of pitches — which includes a sinker, changeup, curveball and slider in addition to his tantalizing high-velocity four-seamer.

“I mean, what doesn’t he throw?” Hill joked about Jang’s arsenal. “The actual command and ability to manipulate the baseball, it’s pretty advanced for his age.”

When Gomes first met Jang in person at the club’s DodgerFest event last month, he was struck by how the then-teenage prospect (Jang only turned 20 last week) sized up to Bobby Miller, the 6-foot-5 right-hander coming off a promising rookie season in 2023.

“When Bobby doesn’t make you look small, you’re like, ‘OK, this dude is put together,’” Gomes said. “With that body and his fastball quality right now, he certainly [projects as a] major-league starting pitcher.”

Once upon a time, the Dodgers thought something similar about a high-school-aged Ohtani.

In Jang, they see the chance to develop another future star from the other side of the world.

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