Beginning a week earlier than normal, this year’s season sets the stage for the Premier 12 in November. That’s a long time away, but the league’s best and brightest will be aware that their performance on the field this year will determine their spot on the national team this fall.
But forget about the international contest. The next six months are all about the KBO, and the 10 teams we love so much will take to the field today to prove that they have what it takes to be this year’s champion.
Here’s how we think the teams are looking as the 2019 season begins.
The reigning 2018 Korean Series champion return to defend their title, but this year they lack the leadership of veteran coach Trey Hillman. In his stead, former front office manager Yeom Kyung-yup will swap his desk for the dugout this season.
Hillman’s absence could hurt - he led the Wyverns for two years and is the only foreign manager to win the Korean Series - but appointing Yeom from within the franchise should ensure a smooth transition. The Wyverns retained their big-name free agents, leaving the roster largely unchanged.
Pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun will continue to add strength on the mound, with the team’s foreign pitchers also looking threatening.
Last year’s champions are definitely in with a shot this year, but the pressure is on new manager Yeom to prove that last year’s success wasn’t thanks to Hillman’s magic touch.
As a team with a heavy focus on player development, the Doosan Bears inevitably end up losing big names when transfer season comes around. Last year, the club lost Min Byung-hun but still went on to win the pennant. This year, it’s catcher Yang Eui-ji.
The Bears may have proven they can bounce back from player losses in the past, but Yang leaving could be harder to overcome. The veteran catcher leaves a big hole behind home plate that Park Se-hyuk may struggle to fill.
Elsewhere, the Bears remain largely unchanged. Last year’s regular season MVP and home-run title holder Kim Jae-hwan returns as do both foreign pitchers. The addition of Jose Fernandez should give the Bears more strength at bat, and the addition of some veteran pitchers adds experience on the mound.
Yang’s absence may cause problems, but it’s hard to imagine the Bears struggling based on the last few seasons.
After unexpectedly claiming a spot in the postseason for the first time in 10 years last season, the Hanwha Eagles won’t settle for anything less this year.
The Eagles return this year with a younger squad and a fighting chance of continuing last year’s success.
The return of Han Yong-duk, who joined the Eagles as manager last year and led them on their best season in a decade, is sure to bolster the squad, but he will face a lot of pressure to repeat last year’s performance.
The Daejeon team’s preseason training took a turn for the worse when outfielder Lee Yong-kyu asked to be released. The club refused and Lee went public, putting the Eagles in the headlines for all the wrong reason.
It’s now highly unlikely that Lee will make an appearance this season, but whether his absence hurts the team’s defense remains to be seen.
The Kiwoom Heroes start the 2019 season with a new name and a reasonable shot at making the postseason.
Despite a slow start last year with key players missing due to injuries and a sexual assault scandal, the Heroes advanced to the postseason, beating the Tigers in the wildcard and Eagles in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Wyverns in the second round.
This year, the Heroes have the same potential without the injuries and suspensions.
The western Seoul club will once again look to MLB-returnee Park Byung-ho to help get the team to the playoffs, a task he excelled at last year. Star pitcher and 2017 Rookie of the Year Lee Jung-hoo is likely to return from shoulder surgery earlier than expected, potentially giving the Heroes more strength on the mound at the start of the season.
The Kia Tigers have made some changes during the offseason after a disappointing finish last year. The 2017 champions returned last season with almost the exact same squad and saw little of their former glory, ultimately finishing fifth in the regular season and crashing out in the wildcard game.
As keeping things the same didn’t work, the Tigers tried mixing it up this year. Due to injuries, a number of starters missed out on spring training and the Tigers were forced to look to younger players to fill the gaps. The generation shift seems to have worked - the Tigers picked up three wins, one losse and two draws in the exhibition games.
The new faces might be enough to give the Tigers the edge this season, but whatever happens, they can count on the support of their fans. According to a recent Gallup Korea poll, the Gwangju club is the most popular team in the KBO.
The once-great Samsung Lions have spent the last three years languishing at the bottom of the KBO, desperately looking for a way to claw their way back to the top of the pack.
This year will be no different. The Daegu club has made a few changes to the roster - the addition of Kim Dong-yub should add strength at bat and Lee Hak-ju will bolster the infield - but the team remains largely unchanged from the previous season. Batting has been a problem in recent seasons, but the addition of Kim from the Wyverns might give the Lions a much needed edge.
Kang Min-ho will take over as captain this season. In his second season with the Lions, the veteran catcher will be looking to use his experience to try and help the struggling team turn things around.
Judging by the exhibition games, the Lions could be heading back into familiar territory at the bottom of the table this year - they picked up just two wins and five losses.
The Lotte Giants should be a force to be reckoned with in the KBO this year. But that was true last year as well, and the Busan club still ended in seventh place.
On paper, the Giants have a phenomenal batting lineup, but issues elsewhere on the field have left the team struggling to fulfill its potential. With 27 years since they last lifted the Korean Series trophy, this year the Giants are desperate to make it to the top.
Leading the charge are new manager Yang Sang-moon and new captain Son Ah-seop. The change of leadership may give the Giants a new edge this season - Yang may have already fixed the team’s pitching problems with a creative approach to their starting rotation.
Behind home plate is still an issue. The Giants’ catcher problems will likely continue this season, and overcoming that weakness may make or break their season.
The LG Twins, the KBO’s perennial middle-of-the-table team, will be hoping to break a 25-year curse to win the pennant or the Korean Series for the first time since 1994. Consistency is what the Jamsil club will be striving for - last year, they started the season incredibly strongly but ended up crashing through the table to finish in eighth place.
Leading the charge is former major leaguer Kim Hyun-soo, who has been appointed as captain this year. The Twins will be hoping that Kim’s experience will help balance the team, especially against his old club, the Bears. Last season, the Twins lost nearly every single game against their stadium-mates, causing significant damage to the team’s stats.
Adding to the Twins’ woes, their spring training was struck with a scandal when four players were caught gambling in a club in Australia, breaking Korean law that bans citizens from gambling anywhere in the world.
After four seasons in the league, the KBO’s youngest club still has to prove that it belongs. The KT Wiz did show some improvement last year, ending in second-to-last place rather than last for the first time in its history, but there is still a long way to go.
The Wiz’s roster shows promise this year, although it did last season, too, and that didn’t really pay off. 2018 Rookie of the Year Kang Baek-ho looks like he’ll be as reliable this year as he was last year, and the addition of MLB returnee Rhee Dae-eun should give the Wiz some much-needed strength on the mound.
What could make or break it for the Suwon club this season is a change at the top. The Wiz was one of four teams to change managers this season, bringing in Lee Kang-chul, former bench coach for the Bears, to try and bring a touch of Jamsil magic to Suwon KT Wiz Park.
After the most disappointing season in the club’s history last year, the NC Dinos have something to prove in 2019.
The Changwon club may just be able to pull off an impressive comeback - playing this year in a brand new stadium, the Dinos appear to have fixed all the problems that plagued them last season.
On paper the 2019 Dinos are an impressive team. After investing millions in the offseason, the Dinos have filled their hole behind home plate with the league’s best catcher, Yang Eui-ji. With Yang calling the shots, pitching is also expected to improve significantly.
The only possible cloud over the Dinos’ return to the top is an injury to new captain Na Sung-bum, who could miss out on the start of the season after injuring his side. Na might make it back in time for the season opener, but if not the Dinos are probably now a strong enough team to soldier on in his absence, at least for a few weeks.
BY JIM BULLEY, KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]