Defending champs likely to face many changes

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Defending champs likely to face many changes

When the Samsung Lions won the 2012 Korean Series, the team’s skipper, Ryu Joong-il, said he wanted to develop a team that can dominate the Korean Baseball Organization for the rest of the 2010s. He kept his word, at least for one more year, as the Lions again won the Korean Series on Friday.

They became the first KBO team to win both the regular season and the Korean Series for three consecutive years, but it seems like they might have a tough time remaining a contender as they are predicted to undergo many changes, especially in the next two years.

If we take a look at the champions’ last few seasons, it is easy to see that they have been a pitchers’ team that relies heavily on arms, especially in the bullpen. Led by veteran starting pitchers Jang Won-sam and Bae Young-soo, and the league’s best closer, Oh Seung-hwan, reliever An Ji-man, lefty Kwon Hyeok, sidearmer Kwon Oh-joon, Chong Hyun-wook and Lee Woo-seon, they don’t often lose when they have a lead in the late innings of a game. In the 2010 season, they won 53 straight games in which they were leading after five innings and had a team ERA of 3.94, which was the second best in the league after the SK Wyverns.

Although they lost in the 2010 Korean Series, strong pitching helped the Lions remain contenders. Their 2011 season team ERA was 3.35, which rose slightly in 2012 to 3.39 - the best in the league for both years. In the 2012 Korean Series against the Wyverns, for instance, the Lions only allowed five runs in the four games they won while scoring 20 runs.

This season, however, the team ERA rose to 3.99, which was fourth in the league. Veteran right-hander Chong, 34, who used be the Lions’ setup man, signed with the LG Twins after the 2012 season as a free agent, and sidearm reliever Kwon was out for the season due to elbow injuries. Between 2008-12, Chong pitched an average of 82 innings as a reliever, with an average ERA of 3.10. Lefty fireballer Kwon Hyeok’s ERA skyrocketed from 2.09 to 3.96 from 2010-13. These three were veterans who also played for the Korean national baseball team’s many big games in the Olympics, Asian Games and World Baseball Classic.

In this Korean Series, the Lions saw how the absence of these veterans impacted the team. Skipper Ryu didn’t utilize lefty Kwon in crisis situations, but relied heavily on An and Oh in late innings. An pitched eight innings in five games and Oh pitched four innings in Game 2. He allowed a go-ahead home run to the Bears first baseman Oh Jae-il in the top of the 13th inning, which was the closer’s fifth inning of the game.

The biggest worry for the Lions is that they will likely lose their closer Oh, who has 227 saves with a 1.69 ERA since 2005.

Oh said, “I think the team will understand me, no matter what I decided to do for the next season,” indicating that he will try to join a Nippon Professional Baseball or Major League Baseball team. Japan’s Hanshin Tigers and the MLB’s New York Yankees are potential bidders for the 31-year-old right-hander.

The Lions need to find someone who can replace Oh. If the new closer struggles, the team’s entire bullpen would be shaky. One good thing is that the Lions got some new pitchers, such as sidearmer Shim Chang-min, 20, and lefty Cho Hyun-geun, 27, but they need to get more experience in order to be used in big games such as the Korean Series. Shim only pitched two innings and Cho failed to retire a batter in his first appearance in the series, but he walked one batter in Game 7.

The Lions also need to keep their lefty ace, Jang, and the Korean Series MVP, Park Han-yi, who will become free agents in the upcoming hot stove season. After the 2014 season, starting pitchers Bae and Yoon Sung-hwan, relievers An and Kwon and infielder Cho Dong-chan will become free agents. The Lions should be careful about re-signing Bae and Yoon, who struggled in this Korean Series. Their starting catcher, Jin Gap-yong, turns 39 next year and slugger Lee Seung-yeop, who only hit one RBI in this series, turns 37.

In the upcoming offseason, many attractive players such as Lotte Giants catcher Kang Min-ho and Wyverns reliever Jung woo-ram will become free agents. The hot stove seasons for the next two years will determine the future of the defending champions.

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