KBO clubs set their sights on fresher faces for 2020 season

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KBO clubs set their sights on fresher faces for 2020 season

The KBO clubs have their sights set on a new and younger generation of foreign players ahead of the 2020 season.

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Ricardo Pinto of the SK Wyverns and Chris Flexen of the Doosan Bears will be the youngest foreign pitchers in the KBO in the 2020 season. [AP/YONHAP, REUTERS/YONHAP]

With the season long behind them, the 10 KBO clubs are sorting out their foreign player signings. And a new trend is appearing that is seeing fresher faces being chosen, rather than veterans.

In the KBO, each club is allowed to sign three foreign players - up to two pitchers and one fielder - and there is a salary cap set at $1 million for newcomers.

As of Tuesday, five KBO clubs - SK Wyverns, Kiwoom Heroes, Kia Tigers, Hanwha Eagles and the Lotte Giants - had fulfilled their foreign player quota. The LG Twins, NC Dinos and the KT Wiz have each signed two players while the Doosan Bears only signed one.

The Samsung Lions are the only club to not have finalized contracts with any foreign players.

Of the 12 foreign players that have signed contracts, nine were born in the 1990s, with the majority of them being in their mid- to late-20s. This is a huge shift in the age from the 2019 season when the majority of the foreign players were in their 30s.

This trend first got underway when former Bears pitcher Josh Lindblom and former Giants pitcher Brooks Raley, both in their 30s, announced their departures from the KBO. Of all the 2019 season foreign players, the two pitchers had spent the longest time in the KBO, after first joining in 2015.

Of the new foreign signees, the Wyverns’ pitcher Ricardo Pinto and the Bears’ Chris Flexen are the youngest, both aged 25. Both pitchers have the ability to throw fastballs at a speed of 150 kilometers (93 miles) and had the potential to earn spots in the big league, but instead, they chose Korea.

Up until a few seasons ago, KBO clubs appeared to have a preference for veteran foreign pitchers with years of big league experience, as their main responsibilities were to lead the starting rotation and to toss long innings. While going after such players allowed clubs to find foreign pitchers who were able to throw longer innings and lead the rotation, it also meant their contracts were not cheap.

When the KBO got rid of the foreign players’ salary cap in 2014, the highest contract exceeded $2 million, when Dustin Nippert, formerly of the Bears, signed his 2017 contract for $2.1 million.

Unfortunately, the high-priced contracts did not guarantee success.

Some clubs struggled to see benefits from their foreign players as they failed to adjust to the KBO and led them to end their seasons earlier than expected. Many clubs turned their heads to focus on younger and more affordable players in a bid to avoid wasting big bucks.

One of the most successful cases of a young foreign pitcher is the former Wyverns’ Merrill Kelly. Kelly joined the Wyverns for the 2015 season when he was just 26 years old. Although he didn’t have any big league experience, the Wyverns still decided on signing him at $350,000, based on his potential. After playing four seasons in the KBO, Kelly successfully made his way back to the United States when the 2018 season ended and signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Throughout the 2019 season, Kelly successfully earned a spot in the Diamondbacks’ starting rotation.

Before Kelly, Eric Thames, formerly of the Dinos, also made his return to the majors by signing with the Milwaukee Brewers, and this year Lindblom also signed a three-year contract with the Brewers.

Before heading back to the majors, Lindblom noted that the KBO is becoming more popular in the United States, pointing out his career in Korea helped him improve his performance significantly.

“I’ve been in professional baseball for 12 years and five of them have been in this country,” Lindblom said before the Golden Glove Award on Dec. 9. “I’ve found myself as a player, and I’ve gotten better here. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve grown as a player and a person. When I step away from here, that’s what I’m going to remember the most.”

“Although the KBO brought back its salary cap [of $1 million], it’s still an attractive annual salary to young foreign players,” said commentator Min Hoon-ki. “In the minor league, they can only earn about $200,000. Since there are a lot of foreign players in their 20s hoping to gain experience in the KBO to head back to the big league, the foreign players born in the 1990s will be seen a lot in the KBO for a while.”

BY PARK SO-YOUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]

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