FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox yesterday gave the Colorado Rockies the chance to solve the riddle that is Byung Hyun Kim, and took a major financial hit to do so.
The Sox, agreeing to pay all but roughly $315,000 (the major league minimum) of the $6 million owed in salary to Kim, traded the 26-year-old Korean reliever to the Rockies for a midlevel minor league prospect, lefthanded pitcher Chris Narveson, who was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket.
And in a bit of creative bookkeeping that resulted in a considerable tax savings for the Sox, Boston also received catcher Charles Johnson and his $9 million contract from the Rockies, then designated him for assignment and released him. The Rockies sent the Sox cash considerations to cover the difference in the salaries of Johnson and Kim, and because the cash in the deal flowed the Sox' way, they got the taxbreak. Johnson is poised to sign with the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays. None of this maneuvering would have been necessary if Kim had been the pitcher Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein envisioned when he signed him to a two-year, $10 million deal following the 2003 season, when Kim, newly arrived from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade for infielder Shea Hillenbrand, helped pitch the Sox into the American League Championship Series.
"This is a disappointing end to the saga," Epstein said last night. "It remains to this day a mystery for us."
But as well as he pitched in 2003 for the Sox, serving as closer for much of the stretch drive, there were warning signs. Kim pitched poorly in the AL Division Series against Oakland, then made a vulgar gesture toward the fans during introductions before one playoff game. He was left off the team's roster for the ALCS in the aftermath of that incident and after complaining of shoulder discomfort.
Kim began last season on the disabled list with what was described as a right shoulder strain, and never came close to throwing with the same velocity he had in earlier seasons, particularly in 2001 and '02, when he was one of the premier closers in the National League for the Diamondbacks. He made three starts for the Sox in April 2004, pitched poorly, then was optioned to Pawtucket for the rest of the season until a September call-up.
"What we've seen the last 12 or 13 months is clearly not the same pitcher who was a dominant guy for many years," Epstein said. "We tried everything in our power to unravel this mystery and solve it."
The Sox could find nothing wrong medically with Kim. They even took the unusual step of sending him back to Korea to be examined there, where he was found to have a "lack of chi" (an imbalance), according to Epstein. "We tried everything," Epstein said.
Kim was a remote figure in the clubhouse, which was a byproduct of cultural differences and some annoyance on the part of management and teammates over what they perceived as Kim's unwillingness to refrain from overthrowing. Kim, speaking to reporters last weekend in Bradenton, admitted his workout program was counterproductive. He also said that it's hard to win your teammates' acceptance when you're not pitching well.
The two-year contract he gave Kim represents one of the few miscalculations made by Epstein since he became GM.
"He pitched well for us in 2003 and helped us get to the playoffs, for which we're grateful," Epstein said. "But giving him a two-year contract instead of taking it year to year in arbitration was a mistake. It was my mistake, and a lesson has certainly been learned from it."
The Rockies had maintained an interest in Kim all winter, but had been reluctant to give up the kind of prospect the Sox had hoped for in return, and probably would have gotten had Kim pitched well at all this spring, instead of barely throwing 85 miles per hour, at least 7-8 m.p.h. slower than he'd thrown at his best.
Narveson, 23, was a player to be named later in the Rockies' deal last August in which they gave up outfielder Larry Walker to the Cardinals. A former second-round draft choice by the Cardinals in 2000, Narveson had elbow surgery in 2001 and missed most of 2002, but pitched in Double A last season and was on the Rockies' 40-man roster this spring.
Narveson was 5-10 with a 4.16 ERA in 23 starts for the Cardinals' Double A affiliate, the Tennessee Smokies, with 121 strikeouts in 127 2/3 innings. With the Rockies' Double A affiliate, the Tulsa Drillers, Narveson was 0-3 with a 3.15 ERA in four starts, with 14 K's (and 13 walks) in 20 innings.
Kim might find a change of scenery beneficial, especially since he is going to a club with low expectations for 2005.