Korea's four big leaguers are finally set to play some ball
After months of uncertainty, the 2020 MLB season will finally begin on Thursday.
Four months after the start of the season was officially postponed, the majors will return Thursday with a shortened 60-game format. The teams will look different as well — some players have opted out due to coronavirus fears, while others have contracted the virus and will be sitting out this year.
All four Korean major leaguers plan to play this season.
This year's Korean presence in the big league sees one new face — Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals — and the return of three well-known fan favorites, although not necessarily in the same colored jersey — Ryu Hyun-jin, now of the Toronto Blue Jays, Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Choi Ji-man of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Ryu is the biggest name in Korean baseball, and this season he'll do his very best to become the biggest name in Canadian baseball as well, as the All-Star starter takes his pitching skills to the Blue Jays for the first time. Ryu is coming off the best season of his career in 2019 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending the season as runner-up for the Cy Young Award and signing a huge four-year deal at $80 million with the Blue Jays. Since the Blue Jays' biggest struggle in recent years has been their starting rotation, Ryu is expected to give the team a much-needed boost.
Unsurprisingly, the Blue Jays announced on Sunday that Ryu would be the starting pitcher in their opening game against the Rays. Ryu also started on opening day for the Dodgers last season.
Now on his seventh season in the majors, Ryu is no stranger to a big-league ball club. But this year might come with some unexpected challenges as he adjusts to the American League.
Ryu's entire major league career has been spent with the Dodgers in the National League. After a dominant career with the Hanwha Eagles in the KBO, Ryu headed to the majors and made his debut with the Dodgers in 2013. He got off to a solid start by picking up 14 wins and eight losses throughout 30 games to finish the season right at 3.00 ERA. After another solid season in 2014, things took a turn for the worse in 2015, when injuries forced him to miss the entire season, appearing in only one game. Ryu returned to the mound in 2017.
Looking at his performance last season, Ryu managed to pick up 14 wins and five losses with a 2.32 ERA. Now in the American League, Ryu can focus more on his pitching as the league follows the designated hitter system. For the 2020 season, the National League will also allow designated hitters, but the change is only temporary.
Things seem to be looking good for Ryu in the preseason. It’s been reported that he pitched five innings and threw 80 pitches in the Blue Jays’ intrasquad game on Saturday.
Ryu has faced an uphill struggle to even reach his new club after Canada closed its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic. For months, Ryu was stuck in Florida until the government permitted players to return to Toronto for training without a mandatory quarantine period.
For the season, the Blue Jays are unlikely to play in Toronto as the government does not want the risk of teams traveling back and forth between the United States and Canada. The team has two options — play at their training ground in Florida or at the home of a Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, New York.
“Covid-19 still exists and there are hardworking people on the front line trying to battle the virus,” Ryu was quoted as saying on ESPN. “You have to respect the Canadian government’s decision to keep the nation safe. We don’t even know where we are going to end up playing the regular season games, but as players we are all trying to rally together.”
One thing the Blue Jays know for sure is that they will start their season with a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, on July 24.
Over in Texas, Choo will be playing the last season on his seven-year contract with the Rangers.
Choo is one of few Korean baseball players to see success in the MLB without ever appearing in the KBO. Choo went straight to the majors from high school and spent years working his way up to become an established veteran and the holder of the all-time record for an on-base streak for the Rangers.
This season, Choo and the Rangers will be playing at a newly constructed Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas.
Friday’s opening game will be the first regular season fixture held at the stadium, nearly four months after the original March 31 opening date.
Choo will be hoping to continue his success this year. Last year he appeared mostly as a leadoff designated hitter, scoring 24 home runs with 149 hits and a 0.265 batting average throughout 151 games.
The number of home runs Choo hit was a personal best. Last year also saw him get more than 20 home runs for seventh year in the majors. Choo once again had an impressive on-base percentage at 0.371. It’s uncertain if the 38-year-old will be in the starting entry, but if so he's expected to be the designated hitter.
Kim, formerly of the SK Wyverns, makes his major league debut with the Cardinals this year.
Despite rumors that Kim might be offered the fifth spot in the Cardinals' rotation this year after a strong showing in the preseason, the team announced on Tuesday that he would start in the bullpen, possibly as closer.
Kim, who played as a starter for the Wyverns for years, lacks experience as a closer, so it's uncertain how well he'll handle the pressure of the high-leverage role. If he does one day find his way into the starting rotation, it could be an opportunity for the Cardinals, who lack left-handed starters.
With Kim set to play in relief at the start of the season, there is a chance that he might appear in the opening game.
Choi returns to the Rays this year on the back of the best season of his career in 2019.
Choi, like Choo, went straight to the United States out of high school, but spent years batting around the minor leagues and bouncing from club to club. He finally made his big league debut in 2016 for the Los Angeles Angels, but it wasn't until he joined the Rays in June 2018 that Choi started to look comfortable in the majors.
After appearing in 49 games for the Rays in 2018, Choi hit a career high of 127 games with 19 home runs and a 0.261 batting average last year.
In 2018, Choi appeared in 49 games, then last season, he appeared in his career high of 127 games and hit 19 home runs with a 0.261 batting average.
Like Choo, it's not clear if Choi will be in the starting lineup for the opening game, but if so he'll face off against Ryu. It's rare that two Korean players meet each other in the majors, and Ryu and Choi's match-up is especially exciting, as the two went to the same Incheon high school.
The Blue Jays will take on the Rays at Tropicana Field at 6:40 p.m. on Friday, or 7:40 a.m. on Saturday in Korea. The Rangers will play the Rockies at Globe Life Field at 7:05 p.m. on Friday, or 9:05 a.m. in Korea, and the Cardinals will face the Pittsburgh Pirates at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, 9:15 a.m. in Korea.
All games will be played in empty stadiums.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]