Ready to know more about San Diego?


The Shortstop With the Tall Order

The fate of the Padres' 2024 season may rest on the shoulders of Ha-Seong Kim
Hae Song Kim first MLB game in South Korea as part of the MLB World Tour Seoul Series between San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers Baseball teams
Courtesy of the MLB

The Padres opened the 2024 season against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, and emerging from the dugout of Seoul’s Gocheok Sky Dome was shortstop and native son Ha-Seong Kim. On his shoulders rested the fate of a franchise.

It didn’t seem it would be that way after his first year in San Diego, not after batting a paltry .202 in 117 games. Kim was an All-Star in South Korea, hitting .306 with 30 home runs for the Kiwoom Heroes in 2020, but in the American game in 2021 he was simply lost at the plate. Kim batted worse than several pitchers, who as a group were so bad at hitting they are no longer allowed to bat. What value Kim had was in his glove, and he filled in admirably for injured regulars around the infield. He was a useful, if underwhelming, utility man. 

The San Diego Padres on the field posing for a picture during the first MLB game in South Korea as part of the MLB World Tour Soul Series
Courtesy of the MLB

For the 2022 season, Kim was thrust into starting duties after then-shortstop Fernando Tatís broke his hand and was later suspended for steroid use. It was a nightmare for fans amid a season of hope, and The Athletic’s Dennis Lin wondered at the time, “How far can the Padres advance without Tatís when… they have been repeatedly outclassed by the Dodgers?”

The consistent playing time allowed Kim to establish himself, and he raised his batting average almost 50 points and provided excellent, versatile defense. Along with the rally goose, Kim was crucial to the Padres’ miraculous run past those Dodgers to the National League Championship Series.

In 2023, the Padres were a disappointment. Ha-Seong Kim was anything but. 

He was one of the best all-around players in baseball, earning MVP votes and a Gold Glove Award, the first-ever for a Korean player. And at shortstop, Kim not only displace Tatís, who had to learn right field upon his return to the lineup. He also did the same to Xander Bogaerts, who, after just one season into an 11-year, $280 million contract, was moved to second base.

This indicates how crucial Kim is to the 2024 Padres. Their roster this year is constructed like a mid-game Jenga tower—all the pieces are at the top. Tatís, Bogaerts, and third baseman Manny Machado, as well as pitchers Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove are veritable stars and have nine-figure contracts to match. On top of that, the team traded for highly regarded starting pitchers Michael King and Dylan Cease. But then there’s a steep drop. Ha-Seong Kim is the single brick bearing the weight.

On a team full of shortstops—Machado once played there, as did first baseman Jake Cronenworth and outfielder Jurickson Profar—Kim is the best, which allows the Pads to spread out their defensive quality, lengthen the batting order, and hide their lack of depth.

Tatís, for example, was the best right fielder in baseball last year and won the Platinum Glove as the National League’s single-best defender. His patrolling right field allays concerns about the untested Jackson Merrill, another converted shortstop, playing center field. Moving Tatís back to the infield would create an impossible hole to fill in the outfield and would push a productive bat to the bench. The team’s top-heavy lineup and defensive prowess should also support (and bail out) a bullpen full of newcomers and youngsters.

Courtesy of the MLB

This makes Ha-Seong Kim the linchpin to the Padres on the field, but his employment status might represent even more.

In what became a bargain, Kim is playing out his four-year, $28 million deal in 2024, and if he continues his ascent he’s all but certain to receive his own nine-figure contract after the season. If the Padres are out of the playoff picture come summer, then that contract likely won’t come from them. Trading Kim ahead of the July 30 deadline would ensure they get a return on one of the top impending free agents, which would present an ugly question to the Friar Faithful: are the Padres rebuilding again?

But the team will likely hold onto Kim if they’re in postseason contention, as he’d be central to that success. Given the bump in revenues that come with a playoff run, the Padres could very well be interested in re-signing him. This presents a different question altogether: will the team’s ownership carry on Peter Seidler’s legacy and invest in the Padres and the city that loves them?

Seidler bought into the Padres in 2012 and eight years later became the team’s largest shareholder and chairman. He then ran the franchise as if it was a sports car he snuck out of the garage. The team’s core received long-term mega-deals. Superstar Juan Soto came and went. So did three different managers, top pitchers Josh Hader and Blake Snell, and a bevy of role players and prospects. And of course, they brought in Ha-Seong Kim.

In one of MLB’s smallest media markets, Seidler shelled out for the third-highest payroll in baseball in 2023, behind only the two teams in New York. He had also become a leader in the fight against homelessness, committing his time and wealth to addressing one of our most pressing civic issues. It was a madcap run at making San Diego a big city and a better place, one that finally had a World Series championship. Sadly, that run ended last fall. 

The Pads failed to make the playoffs; their season ending on October 1, and six weeks later Seidler passed away. Under new chairman Eric Kutsenda, the team shed tens of millions in payroll, retooled with younger and cheaper players, and handed the reins to new manager Mike Shildt. This may be the most pivotal year in franchise history and at the center of it is Kim.

He’s now an international star, but he was at first a struggling fan favorite, a rookie willed on by fans clapping along to the three syllables of Ha-Seong Kim. His game-winning, two-run homer against the Cincinnati Reds in June 2021 is basically a superhero origin story. “My first season in the major leagues was very disappointing,” Kim said in the Padres’ “San Diego to Seoul” documentary, “but every time I stepped up to the plate, fans continued to chant my name.”

Regardless of how this season turns out and wherever Kim ends up, the 2022 team that upset the Dodgers in the playoffs will be feted for generations. At celebratory reunions at Petco Park it will be Kim who receives one of the loudest receptions, and kids will ask their parents who that is. It’s unclear yet whether they’ll say he’s an icon of the greatest era in Padres history or an emblem of what could have been.

By Brendan Dentino

Brendan Dentino is a U.S. Navy veteran, writer, and public servant based in San Diego. He writes weekly about baseball and politics at Out in Left.

Share this post

Contact Us

1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA