Expensive foreign players find Korea is land of opportunity

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Expensive foreign players find Korea is land of opportunity

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While foreign players in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) have played pivotal roles for their teams, the rising cost of bringing quality players from overseas is becoming a growing problem.

So far, 10 clubs in the KBO have spent $25.24 million signing 29 foreign players. Although the Hanwha Eagles and the LG Twins still have one foreign player slot to fill, the average salary for a foreign player has now reached $870,000, 31 percent more than last year’s $660,000. While clubs such as Samsung Lions have been striving to reduce their spending, the cost of foreign players is weighing heavier on their annual budgets.

When the KBO started to bring in foreign players in 1998, their annual salary limit was set at $120,000, about 100 million won in equivalent exchange rate back then. But since the KBO scrapped the salary limit for foreign players in 2014, the sky’s the limit.

The KBO doesn’t allow multi-year contract for foreign players, so most clubs huddle around the negotiation table during the offseason, calculating how much they can afford.

The Eagles last week announced they have signed former Major League Baseball (MLB) catcher and first baseman Wilin Rosario. The 26-year-old Dominican played with Colorado Rockies from 2011 to 2015. He amassed .273 batting average, 71 home runs and 241 RBIs in 447 games in the big league.

While many fans expected that he could become the most expensive foreigner in KBO history, Rosario, who will be the second youngest foreigner in the KBO for next season after Samsung Lions’ Allen Webster, settled for a relatively cheap price of $1.3 million.

This means that Eagles’ pitcher Esmil Rogers, who last month re-signed with the Eagles with one-year contact worth $1.9 million, is still the most expensive foreign player.

When Rogers first joined the Eagles in the middle of last season with a $700,000 deal, there was doubt whether the team was paying too much for the former New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher. However, the 30-year-old Dominican right-hander went 6-2 with 2.97 ERA in 10 games and proved his worth to receive big money.

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The Eagles still have one foreign player slot to use, but they have already spent $3.2 million.

The Tigers, who haven’t played in postseason since 2011, are also betting big on foreign players this year. While they did not sign Korean free agents in this offseason, they spent $3.3 million for three foreigners, including former Chicago White Sox pitcher Hector Noesi who inked a $1.7 million deal.

The Tigers’ total spending on foreign players is $650,000 more than the KT Wiz, who can sign four foreigners because they entered the league last year.

“The professional baseball league market is getting bigger and this is a situation where the clubs had to make an investment,” said baseball analyst Daniel Kim, who previously worked for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. “It is likely that this trend will keep going. Fans don’t like supporting clubs with an image of being Scrooge rather than finishing bottom.”

While the cost is going up, what seems to be different from the past is that young foreigners are coming to Korea. Previously, KBO fans saw foreigners who were about to retire given their age. But so far, the average age of signed foreign players is 30 and 10 of the players are in their 20s.

Analysts said the foreign players are not afraid to play in the KBO League.

Following the performance of Korean big leaguers such as Ryu Hyun-jin and Kang Jung-ho - who went directly from the KBO to MLB, and Korea national team winning the Premier 12 baseball tournament last year - the evaluation of Korean baseball has been better than the past.

In addition, since the KBO clubs offer special management of foreign players to help them adjust to their new environment, playing baseball in Korea has fewer difficulties. Some foreign players bring their family with them and Dustin Nippert, who recently re-signed with the Doosan Bears for $1.2 million, married a Korean.

“In Korea or Japan, foreign players can make more than $5 million in three or four years,” said Kim. “These are good conditions, even compared to the United States. For players who are not satisfied with the minor leagues, Korea can be a land of opportunity.“

However, not all investments with KBO clubs area a success. Korean clubs say that as the contract money gets bigger, they have difficulty negotiating because agents are asking too much money, while highlighting players’ name value instead of their talents.

Baseball fans have been expressing doubts that KBO clubs have actually invested more on their foreign players than they reported. The KBO clubs have been reporting only signing bonuses and salary, but none have revealed the transfer fee or other incentives.

For example, Rosario received $2.8 million last year in the MLB, which far exceeded Rogers, who earned $1.48 million, and Noesi who made $1.95 million. But in Korea, he will be receiving only $1.3 million, which is cheaper than Rogers, Noesi and last year’s KBO MVP Eric Thames, who signed $1.5 million with NC Dinos.

“Korean clubs should first set clear guidelines when signing foreign players,” Kim said. “One club using sabermetrics has set its own standard for contracts that tall pitchers have an advantage when playing against local batters. Another club prefers to sign pitchers who can get a ground ball from batters since Korean baseball stadiums are not big.”

BY KIM WON, JOO KYUNG-DON [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]
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