Only Dinos and Bears left in fight for KBO’s best catcherYang Eui-ji might be the hottest player in this year’s free agent (FA) market, but an unexpected bout of thriftiness at Korea’s top baseball clubs has left the KBO’s top catcher with surprisingly few options.
Yang is considered the biggest player in the FA market this year. During the 2018 season, Yang proved he can be a strong batter, completing the season with a .358 batting average with 23 home runs and 77 RBIs.
Due to this, many clubs are backing out from signing Yang as his contract is expected to reach up to 10 billion won ($8.8 million). Currently, Kang Min-ho of the Samsung Lions holds the record for the KBO’s highest paid catcher at 8 billion won, but that is likely to change this year with Yang.
Not only that, as the teams that made huge investments in the FA market last year failed to advance to the postseason, many have chosen to focus on developing young players this year. Last season, the teams that spent the least amount of money in the FA market made it to the postseason.
When the FA market opened up, many reports suggested that the Lotte Giants were interested in Yang. As the Giants have been the biggest spenders in the past, it seemed likely that Yang would join the Busan club. However, as the Giants’ new manager Yang Sang-moon announced during his inauguration ceremony on Monday that he’ll focus on developing their young catchers, it has now come down to two clubs - the Dinos and the Bears.
The Bears have made it clear since the FA market opened that their only focus is to keep Yang. With Yang behind home plate, the Bears won two back-to-back Korean Series titles in 2015 and 2016.
“We don’t have interest in other FA players,” said Kim Tae-ryong, general manager of the Bears. “We’re only thinking about keeping Yang Eui-ji.”
Yang has been the Bears’ dominant catcher since he got drafted by the club in 2006. Although the Bears have three backup catchers on their roster - Park Sei-hyok, Jang Seung-hyun and Lee Heung-ryun - its rare for a game to go by without Yang behind the batter.
If the All-Star catcher does choose to play for a different club, his best option is very likely to be the Dinos. In recent years, the Dinos have really struggling with catchers. Since 2015, the Dinos have added Jeong Beom-mo, Kim Jong-min, Shin Jin-ho and Kim Hyung-jun to the roster, but the weakness continues to plague the Changwon club.
“We’re going to try our best in strengthening the positions that need improvement,” said Kim Jong-moon, general manager of the Dinos.
Next year is a big one for Dinos. The club will be moving to a whole new stadium in Changwon under the direction of new manager Lee Dong-wook. As the Dinos finished in an uncharacteristic last place in the 2018 regular season, the addition of a strong catcher like Yang is expected to allow the team to return to familiar ground near the top of the leaderboard.
Although the Dinos haven’t spent much in the FA market over the past two seasons, they have been willing to splash out when necessary. In 2015 they spent 9.6 billion won to sign Park Sok-min.
If both clubs offer the same amount, chances are Yang will opt to stay with the Bears, as players often prefer playing in or close to the capital.
BY BAE JUNG-HYUNE, KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]