KBO’s biggest stars do the preseason shuffle
Although the starting date of the 2020 KBO season has not been set, players are getting ready for the season. Five players are having an especially busy time, as they take on unfamiliar roles on the field.
The most notable change is the KT Wiz’s Kang Baek-ho. Since his KBO debut in 2018, he’s been an outfielder. In his first season, Kang played in left field, and last season, he played as a right fielder. When Kang was in high school, he was both a first baseman and a catcher.
Playing in the outfield has left Kang feeling like he wasn’t contributing as much as he could to the team. He has been a reliable hitter for the Wiz for these first two seasons, finishing 2019 with a 0.336 batting average, but he has bigger ambitions defensively.
“I also want to be recognized for my defense out on the field,” Kang said.
After former Wiz first baseman Yoon Suk-min was traded to the SK Wyverns at the end of the 2019 season, Wiz manager Lee Kang-chul needed to fill the position. During spring training, infielders Oh Tae-gon, Park Seung-wook and Moon Sang-cheol competed for the first base, but in the end, Lee decided to bring Kang in from the outfield so that he could focus on being the team’s clean-up hitter.
“I’m taking on [this position] to help the team out,” Kang said.
Normally, first basemen are reliable sluggers for teams, as the position has fewer areas to cover on field compared to other positions. Therefore, they can concentrate more on batting.
All of the KBO’s most successful sluggers, including Lee Seung-yuop, formerly of the Samsung Lions, Park Byung-ho of the Samsung Lions, Kim Tae-kyun of the Hanwha Eagles and Lee Dae-ho of the Lotte Giants, have been first basemen. The move to place Kang at first base seems to be signaling that he can be the KBO’s next big hitter.
Along with Kang, Lee Won-seok of the Samsung Lions and Kim Moon-ho of the Hanwha Eagles are also preparing for the season as first basemen, but for different reasons.
For Lee, who’s been the team’s third baseman for years, his moves come to accommodate the addition of foreign player Tyler Saladino, a third baseman.
With Lee earning his free agent status after the 2020 season, changing his position may be risky, but he is choosing to see the move as positive.
“If I can also cover first base well, my value will go up,” Lee said.
Kim also has no complaints about his new position. When the 2019 season ended, he was one of the many players let go by the Giants. Right when he was at a verge of ending his career as a pro, he joined the Hanwha Eagles.
Although he was an outfielder throughout his career with the Giants, he has moved to first base with the Eagles, who have one too many outfielders.
“This is the very first time for me to cover first base,” Kim said. “But right now, I’m not in a position to choose a position. It’s my last chance.”
The Giants’ Jeon Jun-woo is also making his way closer to the mound. Having signed his free agent contract with the club in the beginning of the year, he is expected to play in both the outfield and at first base. Over the past three seasons, Jeon managed to keep his batting average above 0.300, and by playing first base, he will be able to concentrate on his batting, like Kang.
Lee Dae-ho, who was the Giants’ first baseman, now has less pressure on him as he moves into the role of designated hitter.
Jeong Keun-woo, who joined the LG Twins this season, will be moving back to a familiar position, second base. At the peak of his career, Jeong was considered one of Korea’s best second basemen, but as he got older, he lost his position and moved to first base and the outfield.
However, with the Twins, he is expected to make a return to second base. The decision was made by Twins’ manager Ryu Joong-il. Jeong is expected to share playing time with Jung Ju-hyeon.
“To be more stable in my defense, I did a lot of weight training, focusing on my lower body,” Jeong said. “I won’t be as good as back when I was at my peak, but I will try my best.”
But, Wyverns’ pitcher Kang Ji-kwang is making the biggest change of them all. He used to be a pitcher who could throw a fastball at 154 kilometers (95.7 miles) per hour, but due to continuous shoulder pain, he has moved to the outfield. This will be Kang’s second attempt in switching to a batter.
So far, he seems to be in great shape as a batter. Kang hit his first home run during the Wyverns’ intrasquad game at Munhak Baseball Stadium in Incheon on Saturday.
“Becoming a batter again, I had a lot of fear because I started to think that this could end my career,” Kang said. “But thinking about my family, I’m training really hard with a positive mindset.”
BY PARK SO-YOUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]