Not much has gone right for the Padres in 2023. They entered this year as the pre-season favorites for the NL West title, looking as though they were ready to finally assert themselves as the big dog in the National League and dethrone the Dodgers, who have resided comfortable at the front of the pack for most of the past decade. They signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year contract before extending Yu Darvish, Jake Cronenworth, and Manny Machado on big money deals of their own, signalling they were all-in with the team that had traded for Juan Soto and Josh Hader at 2022’s trade deadline. With Fernando Tatis Jr.’s return to the baseball diamond on the horizon, the future looked bright in San Diego.
Needless to say, things have not gone as planned this season. With a 63-73 record, the Padres are ten games under .500 and in fourth place in the NL West, behind not only the division-leading Dodgers but also both the Giants and Diamondbacks. LA has a stranglehold on the division title at this point, but both San Francisco and Arizona have solid odds at a Wild Card, per Fangraphs: 58.5% and 43.6%, respectively. The Padres, meanwhile, are all but eliminated from postseason contention this year with just a 0.6% chance at a Wild Card berth.
With the notable exceptions of Soto and Hader, the club’s expected stars have faltered this year: Darvish, Bogaerts, Cronenworth and Machado have all had down years to varying degrees after signing those big money deals in the offseason, while Tatis hasn’t looked like the superstar he once seemed to be and right-hander Joe Musgrove has spent much of the season on the injured list. With the exception of lefty Blake Snell, the club’s success stories have largely come by way of their more unheralded players: Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha have both looked like absolute heists after being plucked from free agency to fill out the rotation, while a catching tandem of post-hype youngster Luis Campusano and minor league addition Gary Sanchez has been quite impressive.
Given that, perhaps it’s no surprise that the team’s MVP isn’t one of their many nine-figure contracts, their shutdown closer, or even Soto and his perennial .400 OBP. Instead, it’s infielder Ha-Seong Kim, who has followed up a major step forward in 2022 with yet another step forward this year to become one of the best infielders in the sport.
Kim first broke into the majors with the Padres back in 2021, after signing a four-year, $28MM deal with the Padres to come over to MLB from the KBO. Kim had been an elite player during his time in Korea, slashing .294/.373/.493 across 7 seasons with the Kiwoom Heroes. He posted a particularly strong platform season before heading overseas, with a .306/.397/.524 slash line in his final season with the Heroes. Unfortunately, he didn’t come particularly close to living up to that promise during his age-25 campaign, his first as a big leaguer. While he played strong defense at second and third base in addition to his home position of shortstop, he posted a meager 72 wRC+, hitting just .202/.270/.352 with a 23.8% strikeout rate, a massive jump from the 10.9% figure he posted in his final year in Korea.
While Kim played in 117 games with San Diego in 2021, he was largely a part-time player, accumulating just 298 plate appearances. Things changed for the youngster in 2022, however. Between the injuries and PED suspension that plagued Tatis, the club’s regular shortstop at the time, Kim was given a full season’s runway at shortstop, and he made the most of it. His offense improved from nearly 30% below league average to slightly above in 2022 as he slashed .251/.325/.383 with a wRC+ of 106. That offensive performance combined with his stellar defense at shortstop and a reduced 17.2% strikeout rate allowed Kim to finish the season with 3.8 fWAR, 11th in the majors among shortstops and not far off from the likes of Nico Hoerner and Carlos Correa.
Kim’s major step forward in 2022 was not enough to guarantee him the everyday shortstop role headed into 2023, however. While Tatis was moved to the outfield during his absence, the club signed Bogaerts to play shortstop, leaving Kim to slide over to second base as Cronenworth moved to cover first following the departure of Josh Bell. While he has spent time elsewhere in the infield while covering for Machado and Bogaerts, over two thirds of Kim’s innings have come at the keystone, where he’s flourished defensively. Kim sports +7 Outs Above Average this season, on par with the likes of Ryan McMahon and Andres Gimenez. Meanwhile, he ranks tied for seventh in the majors with Gimenez on the DRS leaderboard with a sensational +16 figure.
Perhaps even more impressive than Kim’s glovework is the leap forward he’s made on offense. While he made himself a slightly above-average offensive contributor in 2022, he’s made himself an All-Star caliber bat in 2023 with a .277/.367/.434 slash line in 527 trips to the plate this season. While his 18.6% strikeout rate in 2023 is slightly higher than last year’s figure, he’s more than compensated by taking more walks, allowing his 8.8% figure from last season to shoot up to 12.1%, top 20 in the majors. Of the nineteen players with higher walk rates, only Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, and Adley Rutschman strike out less than Kim, putting him in elite territory when it comes to plate discipline. On top of this improved discipline, Kim has turned himself into a major asset on the basepaths this year, swiping 29 bases in 37 attempts.
Between his defensive prowess and greatly improved offense, Kim has made himself not only the Padres’ team MVP, but one of the most valuable players in the National League. His 4.6 fWAR this season is sixth in the NL, sandwiched between Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll and two-time All Star Matt Olson. When looking at Baseball Reference WAR, Kim is only eclipsed by Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna Jr. among NL players.
While Kim’s standout season hasn’t saved the Padres this year, the 27-year-old could still provide impact for a future playoff chase given that he’s under contract for just $8MM next season. With his contract ending in a mutual option worth $8MM for 2025, Kim seems likely to join Soto in departing for free agency following the 2024 campaign barring an extension. Whether the Padres decide to retool for the future and field offers on their pair of star free-agents-to-be or go all-in for the 2024 season while the duo are still under contract, Kim is a clear player to watch even as the majority of eyes will be focused on Soto’s potential final season in San Diego and impending free agency following the 2024 season.