Four Koreans ready for action as 2022 MLB season begins
The long break is over for Korean major leaguers Ryu Hyun-jin, Choi Ji-man, Kim Ha-seong and Park Hoy-jun, as the delayed 2022 MLB season kicks off in the United States on Thursday.
Of the four Koreans still active in the big leagues after a difficult offseason, Kim of the San Diego Padres and Park of the Pittsburgh Pirates could play on opening day on Thursday, as the Padres take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona and the Pirates face the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Both games will be in the early hours of Friday morning in Korea.
Ryu and Choi, the two big league veterans, will get their first taste of the 2022 season on Friday. Ryu's Toronto Blue Jays will face the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre in Toronto, while Choi and the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Both games will be broadcast in the early hours of Saturday morning in Korea.
Ryu, the only Korean pitcher active in the big leagues this year, won't actually see any action on Friday. After a difficult 2021 season, the 35-year-old has slipped down to the No. 3 spot in the Blue Jays' rotation, so is set to make his first appearance on Sunday in the final leg of the three-game series.
Ryu finished the 2021 season with 14 wins and 10 losses for a 4.37 ERA, marking the worst full season of his MLB career. Ryu's difficult season on the mound might not have seen him fall all the way down to third in the rotation, but the Blue Jays also acquired both Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman over the last year to take the one and two spots.
Ryu struggled in his one spring training start, giving up three runs off of four hits including one homer in a game against the Detroit Tigers on March 25.
Down in Florida, slugger Choi returns to the majors for his seventh season, five of which have been with the Tampa Bay club.
Choi had an up-and-down 2021 season as he struggled with a string of injuries, appearing in 83 games with 59 hits, 36 runs, 45 RBIs and 11 home runs for a .229 batting average.
Choi, who will likely continue mainly playing first base for the Rays, had a difficult spring training, finishing with a .111 batting average after 18 plate appearances, the worst of his career. Choi's plate vision was still impressive, however, and he ended the pre-season games with a .414 on-base percentage.
The Blue Jays and the Rays both play in the American League East, which the Rays have topped for the last two seasons. The tough division — which also includes the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles — is always closely contested, but the Blue Jays revamped rotation could give them the winning edge this year.
Padres utility man Kim had a difficult big league debut last year, batting .202 for the season with 54 hits, 27 runs, 34 RBIs and eight homers. Kim proved his value defensively, but he'll be looking to post better numbers in his sophomore year as he nears the halfway point on his four-year contract.
Out of all the Korean big leaguers, Kim looked best in spring training. Over 30 at-bats, Kim picked up 11 hits, seven runs, five RBIs and a home run for a .367 batting average, a significant improvement on his spring training numbers last year.
With a robust infield already in place in San Diego, Kim spent the 2021 season either on the bench or alternating different positions. This year he is likely to see some stability, at least initially, as shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is out for three months with an injury.
Park, who plays as Hoy Park, is by far the least experienced Korean in the majors. Having debuted with the Yankees in the middle of the 2021 season, Park was transferred to the Pirates after a single game.
The young infielder made a total of 45 appearances last season, finishing with 25 hits, 16 runs, 14 RBIs and three home runs for a .197 batting average.
Park had a much better time in spring training this year, despite his training being delayed due to a Covid-19 infection and visa issues. Over 26 at-bats, Park batted .308 with eight hits, four runs, two RBIs and two home runs.
Whether that will be enough to secure him a spot in the squad is unclear, although Park certainly has options — last season he played every position except first base and catcher. He is at least starting the season off right, having made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career.
Noticeably absent from the Korean MLB lineup are any more pitchers. While historically the majority of Korean players in the majors have been pitchers, this year Ryu is left along to fly that flag.
Former Texas Rangers pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong returned to the Kia Tigers this season after his attempt to break into the majors last year proved largely unsuccessful.
Kim Kwang-hyun, who's two-year deal with the St. Louis Cardinals ended last year, likely could have found a new home in the big leagues, but the uncertainly caused by the long MLB lockout eventually pushed the left-hander back to the SSG Landers in the KBO.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]