How did your team do in the KBO offseason?
Winners: Hanwha Eagles, NC Dinos
The Eagles have been one of the worst teams in the league, finishing in last place for four of the past five seasons. For years they neither developed a decent farm system nor acquired any decent foreign pitchers, and their former ace, Ryu Hyun-jin, left for Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. But by using the $25 million transfer fee the Eagles received for Ryu, they recently acquired some top-level players.
In November, the Eagles signed a four-year, 7 billion won deal with free-agent second baseman Jung Keun-woo, 32, and a four-year, 6.7 billion won deal with free-agent center fielder Lee Yong-kyu. The two are among the league’s best leadoff hitters and fielders. The team then added Felix Pie, a former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who hit .246 in 425 MLB games.
In December, the Eagles signed right-hander Caleb Clay, 26, to a one-year contract and are close to sealing a deal with lefty starter Andrew Albers. The Eagles also succeeded in retaining their own three free agents: shortstop Lee Dae-soo (four years, 2 billion won), second baseman Han Sang-hoon (four years, 1.3 billion won) and reliever Park Jung-jin (two years, 800 million won).
But the biggest question is whether the Eagles’ investments will make them a contender. Frankly, it looks like the Eagles need more players to reach the postseason. Their starting rotation is unsettled, and although it seems obvious that the two foreign pitchers should be the top starters, such an expectation is almost like a gamble for the team.
In a recent interview with Korean media, Eagles manager Kim Euong-yong said, “We are satisfied that we found a young player whom we can teach to lead Clay to the next level.”
The Eagles still need to rely on young and untested arms such as Yoo Chang-sik, 22, and Song Chang-hyun, 25, and they are still not sure who will be the closer. The team didn’t have a pitcher with more than 10 wins in the past two seasons, and they also need to find a new catcher, because veteran Shin Kyung-hyun retired after the season.
The Dinos, the 2013 season’s rookie team, had an impressive season. Many analysts and fans predicted they would come in last place, but they finished seventh among nine teams. In the hot stove season, the team acquired free-agent center fielder Lee Jong-wook, 32, (four years, 5 billion won) and free-agent shortstop Son Si-heon (four years, 3 billion won), both former members of the Korean national baseball team.
The Dinos also added four decent foreign players - three starting pitchers and an outfielder. In December, they signed right-hander Thad Weber, who had a record of 48-52 with a 3.86 ERA in 825 and two-thirds innings in 142 minor-league games. The team also re-signed Charlie Shirek, who went 11-7 with an ERA of 2.48 - the best among the league’s starters - and right-hander Eric Hacker, who went 4-11 with an ERA of 3.63. If Eric Thames, who hit .250 with 20 home runs in two seasons with the Houston Astros, can lead the team’s hitters along with veteran slugger Lee Ho-jun, who hit 20 home runs with 87 RBI, the Dinos might be able to advance to the postseason.
Losers: Lotte Giants, Doosan Bears and Kia Tigers
The Bears had a noisy postseason. They fired manager Kim Jin-wook, who led the team to the Korean Series, and didn’t re-sign star players such as Lee Jong-wook and Son Si-heon, their most important fielders (shortstop and center fielder). They also traded third baseman Yoon Suk-min, whom they often said would be the team’s future cleanup hitter, to the Nexen Heroes for Jang Min-seok.
Fans were outraged that the team wasn’t investing in decent players. The Bears then re-signed their ace right-hander, Dustin Nippert, and starter Chris Volstad of the United States, who has a record of 35-51 with a 4.94 ERA in 130 major-league games. Before signing Volstad, the Bears also added Jorge Cantu of Mexico, who hit 29 home runs with 95 RBI with the Florida Marlins in 2008, to add more power to their lineup. Kim Jae-ho, 29, who hit .315 in 91 games, needs to repeat that performance to replace Son, and Cantu must hit at least 30 home runs because Hong Sung-heon, the team’s veteran slugger, has lost some power in the past two seasons. If Cantu doesn’t have a huge breakout first season in the KBO, the Bears will have to rely on their star left fielder, Kim Hyun-soo.
In mid-December, the Giants signed a four-year, 7.5 billion won deal with free-agent catcher Kang Min-ho, 28. The deal was the biggest contract in the KBO since 2004, when Shim Jung-soo, 38, who is now retired, signed a four-year, 6 billion won deal with the Samsung Lions. Kang was certainly overpaid, because he hit only .235 with 11 home runs and 57 RBI last season, but it looks like the Giants, who were strongly criticized for losing star players, decided to do whatever was necessary to keep their franchise star catcher in Busan. The Giants lost players such as slugger Lee Dae-ho, who will move to Japan’s SoftBank Hawks next season, slugger Hong Sung-heon, who joined the Bears after the 2012 season, and former all-star center fielder Kim Joo-chan, who now plays for the Kia Tigers.
The team then re-signed right-hander Chris Oxspring, 37, who went 13-7 with a 3.29 ERA and left-hander Shane Youman, 35, who went 13-4 with a 3.54 ERA. The biggest concern about these veteran pitchers is whether they can stay healthy. The Giants also signed free-agent slugger Choi Jun-suk and Venezuelan Luis Jimenez to beef up their lineup, but Choi only hit seven home runs last season and it’s always risky to expect a big impact from a foreign player.
The Tigers had only a couple of tasks in the hot stove season: keeping their franchise star center fielder, Lee Yong-kyu, and finding a decent closer. But they failed to do either, then signed free agent Lee Dae-hyung to a 2.4 billion won deal, which could be the worst deal ever for the Tigers because Lee hit only .237 with 42 hits in 102 games last season. He hit .178 in 2012 and .249 in 2011.
It is hard to understand why the Tigers made the deal because they already have another option on their roster: Shin Jong-gil, 31, who hit .310 with 50 RBI in 104 games last season. They only needed a backup outfielder because they have all-star outfielder Kim Joo-chan and slugger Na Ji-wan. The Tigers also added Jairo Asencio of the Dominican Republic and plan to use him as their closer, the position that was their biggest headache last year. If Asencio doesn’t work out in that role, they will have to use another starter because there’s no one else in the bullpen, which means that their starting rotation could be destroyed. They won’t have their ace right-hander, Yoon Suk-min, next season because he is trying to join an MLB team.
BY KWON SANG-SOO [email@example.com]