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Fans await answers in first MLB games

Many of Korea’s stars are new or recovering from earlier injuries

Mar 04,2016
Kang Jung-Ho, Oh Seung-hwan, Choi Ji-man, Ryu Hyun-jin
With the Major League Baseball (MLB) season fast approaching, all eyes are on South Korea’s stars.

Will Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins and Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles be able to hit the balls thrown by the MLB’s world-class pitchers? Is Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates ready to return from his knee injury? These are just some of the questions many analysts and fans have been asking recently. But more than a few answers might be on the way, as the spring exhibition games began Wednesday.

Players such as Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, Kang as well as Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers have already proven their worth in the league and are using the games as a warm-up for the new season. For newcomers such as Park, Kim and Oh Seung-hwan of the St. Louis Cardinals, the exhibition games serve as their Big League debut. They also feature players currently on minor league teams who are gunning for a spot on the roster, including Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners, Choi Ji-man of the Los Angeles Angels and Lee Hak-joo of the San Francisco Giants.

South Korea’s players reported to their respective spring camps in late February, where they’ve been preparing ever since. Fifteen teams are currently training in Arizona and Florida. The exhibition games taking place in Arizona fall into the “Cactus League,” while those played in Florida fall into the “Grapefruit League.” The day of the exhibition game, players go through a light practice session in the morning for about three hours and hit the field in the afternoon.

Park, Kim, Oh and Kang will face off in the Grapefruit League. In the Cactus League, Ryu, Lee of the Mariners and Choo, Choi and the Giants’ Lee will see each other on the field. Kim and Park will play against each other most frequently in March, as the Orioles and the Twins are scheduled for six matchups on March 6, 8, 13, 18 and 23. The Mariners’ Lee and Choo, old friends from Busan, will greet each other March 7 and 19. In the meantime, Oh and Park will be able to face off in the field as the Cardinals and the Twins play on March 9 and 15.

For Ryu and Kang, recovery is the key word in March. Both players underwent major surgeries last year and are in the process of recuperating. During his spring camp, Ryu threw two bullpen sessions, hitting speeds as fast as 135 kilometers per hour (84 miles per hour). He also practiced changeups. He is on the fast track to recovery, but Ryu doesn’t seem to be in a rush.

“We expect him to play again around May,” said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Ryu will throw a few balls during the exhibition games and we will check his condition accordingly.”

Kang began rehabilitation five months ago and went to Florida early to get a head start on training. He is likely to be fifth in the batting order and start as third baseman. His recuperation has been swifter than anticipated, and he is expected to play for the Pirates towards the end of the Grapefruit League.

For newcomers like Kim, Park and Oh, the Grapefruit League has been a tremendous opportunity to adjust to the Big League and get to know their teammates. Ryu and Kang recommended earlier in the year that to make the most out of their first season in the MLB, Korean players need to adjust to the vibes of both the league and their particular teams.

Kim is predicted to be second in the batting order and cover left field for the Orioles, while Park will likely play designated hitter for the Twins. Meanwhile, Oh will kick off his MLB career as the set up man before Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal. Most expect Kim, Park and Oh to have already secured starting positions, but their first appearance on the field is still hotly anticipated by fans.

For those who have yet to cement a spot in the Big League, the key word for March is survival. Those include Lee of the Mariners, as well as Choi and Lee of the Giants.

The Mariners’ Lee inked a split contract with the Mariners for one year. Under a split contract, a player’s terms differ depending on whether he plays in the major league or the minor league. Lee hasn’t been slacking off in training and is currently in good physical shape. But he has yet to obtain a P-1A visa, which is required for a foreign player to play in the American league, rendering his absence early in the Cactus League inevitable.

Choi and the Giants’ Lee went straight to the United States after graduating from high school and played in the minors until they moved to their current teams before this season. Choi, who holds .302 batting average in the minor league, has a chance to try his luck with the Angels due to the injury of the 10-time MLB All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols. He recently began training in the left field. The stakes are particularly high for the Giants’ shortstop Lee, for whom this season might be his last chance for majors success.

Choo can head into the Cactus League rather relaxed. However, even though Choo is a key player who has the third-highest salary among Rangers hitters at $20 million, he had a slow start last season and began training earlier this year to stay on his toes.

BY KIM WON [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]


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