[SPORTS & BUSINESS] KBO’s free agent market set to reach record size

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[SPORTS & BUSINESS] KBO’s free agent market set to reach record size


The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) announced the list of players eligible for free agency on Monday and with big names spotted on the table, this year’s free agent (FA) market may witness the dawn of new era in which FA deals exceed the 10 billion won ($8,805,400) mark for the first time in the history.

Many thought last year saw the pinnacle of free agency in terms of the volume of financial exchange. Park Sok-min, a slugger who played for the Samsung Lions until 2015, inked a deal with the NC Dinos worth 9.6 billion won, making himself the most expensive FA in the history of the KBO. Before Park, Choi Jeong signed a contract with the SK Wyverns worth 8.6 billion won while Yoon Suk-min signed a 9 billion won contract with KIA Tigers.

But the pool may well get larger this time around.

According to the announcement made by the KBO on Monday, the players in this year’s FA list are Lee Hyun-seung, Kim Jae-ho and Lee Won-suk of the Doosan Bears; Yong Deuk-han, Lee Ho-joon and Cho Young-hun of the Dinos; Bong Jung-keun, Woo Kyu-min and Jeong Seong-hoon of the LG Twins; Yang Hyeon-jong and Na Ji-wan of the Tigers; Kim Kwang-hyun and Kim Seung-hye of the Wyverns; Hwang Jae-gyun and Lee Woo-min of the Lotte Giants; Cha Woo-chan and Choi Hyoung-woo of the Lions; and Lee Jin-young of the KT Wiz.

The FA rule was first implemented in the domestic league in 1999 and has shifted the dynamics of the entire league in the 2000s.


The first ones to ink an FA deal were the Twins’ catcher, Kim Dong-soo, and Haitai Tigers’ (predecessor of KIA Tigers) ace pitcher, Lee Kang-cheol, who both donned the Lions uniform after signing 800 million won deals. Given the highest salary then was 154 million won, these deals were truly groundbreaking.

The size of the FA market then saw steady growth and by the mid-2000s, the volume of single FA deals had exceeded five billion won. By then, skeptics questioned the possible market bubble, which saw a brief downturn for a few years, only to be proven wrong by 2012 when Lee Taek-keun signed a five billion won deal with the Nexen Heroes. With the hike in the popularity of professional baseball as well as increase in the demand of FAs with new clubs such as the Dinos and Wiz joining the KBO, the FA market finally reached an unprecedented level in 2015 and 2016 when Choi, Yoon and Park signed their deals.

And experts say the market has not fully blossomed just yet, thanks to the four big fish - Yang Hyun-jong (28, Tigers), Kim Kwang-hyun (28, Wyverns), Choi Hyoung-woo (33, Lions) and Hwang Jae-gyun (29, Giants) - who just came out this year, some even predicting the market may go over 10 billion if the four remain in the domestic league.

Yang of the Tigers, who entered negotiation with a Major League Baseball (MLB) club in late 2014 but stayed put after the deal was aborted, was 10-12 (wins-losses) this year on the mound, recording a 3.68 earned run average (ERA) along the way. When Kim took a crack at the MLB two years ago, any club that wanted to take him had to pay a posting fee to the Tigers. But as an FA, the posting system is no longer in the way of Yang, although many anticipate that he may well stay in the KBO. Kim, the league MVP in 2008 and southpaw for the Wyverns, went through a similar process two years ago. Kim went 11-8 this year with a 3.88 ERA. Both garnered attention from MLB scouts throughout the season.

Choi of the Lions, who enjoyed maybe the most successful season of his career this year, may be the most likely to become the costliest FA yet. Topping the league in batting average at .376 as well as in hits and runs batted in with 195 and 144, Choi’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a sabermetric baseball statistic developed to sum up “a player’s total contributions to his team,” was 7.96, leading the league.

It is likely that the Lions will not be able to afford Choi. After undergoing sponsorship change, the Lions’ investment capacity has shrunk, one of the main reasons why they had to let Park go last year. But the teams who have no cleanup hitter to speak of may be willing to dump over 10 billion won to bring in Choi, an investment worth the number given Choi’s performance this season.

Teams may also bet big on the Giants’ Hwang, but at the moment, Hwang is training in the United States as he has set his eyes on the Big League.

The players on the list have until today to notify the KBO whether they will exercise their rights as free agents. Those who exercise their rights will then officially be announced tomorrow and can enter into negotiation in an open market with KBO teams as well as those from outside the country.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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