Players call for overhaul of free agency in Korean baseballChoi Young-pil, a pitcher without a team to play for, believes he’s not a washed up 36-year-old. Unfortunately for him, none of the eight Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) teams felt the same way during the offseason.
Choi, a right-handed pitcher, filed for free agency after last season. But he wasn’t signed by any team, including his original club, the Hanwha Eagles, because of what players say is a free agency system that deters teams from pursuing players.
A player not signed by Jan. 15 in any year is ineligible to play in the KBO that season. And given his age and a subpar 2010 season - 1-4 with a 7.45 ERA and just one save - Choi isn’t likely to return next season. But he hasn’t given up hope.
“I can still throw up to 145 kilometers [90 miles] per hour,” said Choi, a career reliever and a 14-year veteran.
Free agent wheeling and dealing is rare in professional Korean baseball. The long winter offseason is often called the “Hot Stove League” in U.S. Major League Baseball because trades, re-signings and free agent deals keep baseball “hot” during the coldest months of the year.
But recent KBO offseasons have been more like a freezer with free agency rules stifling any possible intrigue.
Lee Do-hyung, Choi’s former teammate on the Eagles, also went unsigned as a free agent this offseason. The 35-year-old former catcher appeared in only 27 games last season and had four home runs and 13 RBI. But just two years ago, Lee hit .318 with 12 home runs. He could potentially be a useful pinch hitter, good for the occasional long ball, but apparently not good enough for KBO teams.
Lee seemed resigned to his fate.
“I guess I’m pretty old now,” he said.
But he has filed for a court injunction against the free agency rules - the first time the KBO has been taken to court over the issue - hoping that younger players won’t suffer the same fate.
The free agency rules, which took effect in 1998, can be divided into two categories. The first is about eligibility. Position players who graduated from four-year universities become eligible after playing in at least two-thirds of the team’s regular-season games for eight seasons. The term is nine seasons for high-school graduates.
Pitchers who join the league out of four-year colleges must throw at least two-thirds of the minimum number of innings required over eight seasons. The minimum number of innings is the same as the number of games in a season. In the U.S., the eligibility period is six seasons.
And if that’s not complicated enough, the second category involves a clause on financial compensation regarding the team that signs a free agent. If a team signs a free agent, it must meet one of two requirements: give the old team two times the player’s previous salary and a player in compensation, or pay that team three times the previous salary.
Lee Do-hyung said the rules are unfair. He said the free agency system favors the top players.
“We need a system that is for the majority, not the minority,” he said.
An active player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, said free agents have paid their dues but hardly get the respect they deserve.
“Not everyone can become a free agent; you have to put up consistent numbers for nearly a decade,” the player said. “But for those other than all-stars, declaring free agency is considered almost a cardinal sin. If players like Choi Young-pil and Lee Do-hyung can be had at a combined 130 million won ($116,740) or so without compensation, then many teams would sign them. But the compensation clause deters teams.”
Players like Lee say the league should adopt different scales of compensation for free agents of different caliber. For instance, a team that signs an all-star to a free agent deal would have to pay more in compensation for him than for an average player.
“The purpose of free agency is to allow teams to acquire experienced players, so that teams can bolster their roster and players get financial rewards,” an official with the Korea Professional Baseball Players’ Association said. “And applying varying degrees of compensation will help teams actually meet that purpose and enliven the free agent market.”
But the economies of KBO clubs often make it difficult for them to open their wallets.
All eight KBO teams are owned and operated by South Korea’s largest conglomerates such as Samsung, Lotte and Doosan. When the league was launched in 1982, teams were founded mostly to help promote companies’ corporate images.
Investing company finances into acquiring star players has been relegated to the backseat.
Most clubs are increasingly reluctant to go for blockbuster free agent signings. They report heavy losses each year, even though the league broke attendance records in each of the past two seasons.
Baseball officials argue a free agency without compensation would disrupt parity around the league, since only the wealthy teams would be able to - or willing to - pursue free agents.
In 2010, Kim Dong-joo, a hard-hitting third baseman for the Doosan Bears, was the league’s highest-paid player with a 700 million won annual salary.
Under the current rule, if any team wanted to sign him as a free agent, the compensation for the Bears would amount to 1.4 billion won plus a player, or 2.1 billion won up front.
A team like the Eagles, whose payroll was 2.6 billion won in 2010 - the lowest among all eight teams - could ill afford to spend that much money on just one player.
Officials also say the compensation clause helps keep poorer teams from losing the talent they have. If such teams nurture young players for eight or nine years, only to see them plucked off the free agent market at a high price, then those teams merely end up as talent suppliers for richer clubs, officials say.
“The talent pool isn’t that deep across the league,” said Jeong Geum-jo, head of baseball operations at the KBO.
“The free agency and compensation clauses are there to protect teams’ interests,” Jeong added.
Lee Do-hyung doesn’t buy that, and he will keep waging his fight.
“Someone had to do it,” he said of his court filing. “I am just trying to fix what’s wrong. If it works out, then I am leaving something positive for younger players. If not, hopefully someone else will speak up again.”