In Korea, opportunity exists for baseball scouts as well as players

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Like most scouts who wandered a sprawling casino in Las Vegas at the winter meetings this month, Aaron Tassano’s goal is to find the best players to fit his organization. What makes Tassano stand out is the destination — both his own, and his targets’.

Tassano has been a scout for almost a decade and a half, working most recently for the Astros in Arizona. With Houston from 2014-18, he performed the job as conventionally envisioned: he lived in Arizona, watching players moving through Major League Baseball’s pipeline. Backfields were often his charge.

Before joining the ‘Stros, Tassano lived in South Korea and scouted for the Cubs then the Rays, searching for standouts to jump from the Korean Baseball Organization to the U.S. 

Scouting abroad for major league teams is a known job, if not a common one. Now, Tassano is doing something of the inverse. 

Instead of trying to bolster a major league pipeline, he’s trying try to pluck players away from it.

Tassano in November became the scouting coordinator for the Samsung Lions of the KBO. He’s charged with finding candidates to play in South Korea — typically Triple-A types who are not only ready for a change of scenery, but mentally equipped to handle a big one.

A California native, Tassano will still live in the U.S. He’ll still talk to major league teams and major league player agents, perhaps with greater frequency than he did before. He’ll still spend his summer traveling around, but will be responsible for canvassing all of the U.S. He may even be involved in some front-office type of responsibilities, like contract negotiations. His own compensation isn’t terrible either.

It’s no secret that going abroad can help a player’s career become more fruitful. Eric Thames returned to the majors in 2017 after a stint in the KBO and hit 31 homers for the Brewers, bringing increased recognition to Korean baseball.

But when it comes to behind-the-scenes people, an adventure abroad isn’t typically considered a stepping stone, or even an alternative. 
Tassano is an example, then — although he represents a special case. 

Tassano first moved to Korea as part of a graduate program. He met his wife in the country, learned the language, relocated and took up scouting. That kind of experience is rare for a professional U.S.-born scout.

“I have a specific value to a Korean team because I lived there and I understand the culture,” Tassano said. “Just like a lot of guys here that played pro baseball, they kind of have that as an advantage that they have when it comes to their marketability. 

“My marketability, for the fact that I lived in Korea, doesn’t mean a lot to MLB teams unless they’re looking to get involved [in that market].”

But it’s nonetheless notable that in today’s scouting world, Tassano’s skillset may, in fact, be more valuable to a Korean team than a U.S. one. 

The Astros have pivoted to video and a greater emphasis on in-office scouting. They’re not the only team going in that direction.

The Lions, who are aware of the Astros’ overall success and have access to at least some Trackman information, created a new position to further their on-the-ground presence in the U.S.

“Things change so fast,” Tassano said. “A fad kind of industry. Like right now, some teams are scaling back on the pro scouting side. That could change. But right now, that’s what’s happening. And so for me, I’m glad I had this other option.”

By Tassano’s count, Samsung is the fifth team to have a scout based in the U.S. The top teams in Japan, those in Nippon Professional Baseball, all have at least two U.S. scouts, he said.

Justin Haley made all of four relief appearances for the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox. (Hey, he’ll get a ring.) In late November, the 27-year-old righty signed with the Lions, one of the 10 teams in KBO. 

The announced contract: a $550,000 salary, a $100,000 signing bonus and another potential $250,000 in incentives. That’s considerably more money than Haley was likely in line for had he stayed in the States, where he could well have continued to bounce between Triple-A and the majors.

(Another Sox pitcher who was briefly around in 2018, William Cuevas, this offseason signed with a different Korean team, the KT Wiz. The general inspiration was the same: despite some high strikeout stuff, 20 in 17 innings, and no minor league options remaining entering 2019, Cuevas seeks financial security as a 28-year-old.)

Tassano had just started working for the Lions when the Haley deal was getting done. Tassano gave his thoughts.

Why Haley? For one, he’s 6-5. KBO hitters rarely encounter such high release points, Tassano said.

The trick for Tassano is to not only find a player who is both good enough to be an impact player in Korea and open to the idea of leaving the U.S., but someone who can also handle the transition. Scouting has always involved background work, but this is a specific undertaking.

“You can’t just send anyone to live in Korea,” Tassano said. “And I think that’s kind of where I come in. I lived there, and my wife’s Korean and I know that culture. I should have some idea of what kind of person fits for a long term move to Korea.

“Open-mindedness just about at least about living over there [is a must]. Or a curiosity, I’d think. … Just like any immigrant to any country, you have a variety of people, variety of reasons. From my own personal experience, it’s not easy. You have great days, you have bad days. When you have to perform on a baseball field on top of that, I think it complicates it. 

“Those teams are investing a considerable amount of money so they don’t want someone to go over there and decide they don’t like it after a week. … Korean culture is not an easy, it’s not like moving to Italy in my mind, or Western Europe. It’s not closely related to our culture. From a standpoint of a baseball player, they really need to be ready for something different.”

A worthwhile philosophy for scouts, too.

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