(News Focus) Wide-open KBO season leaves no clear-cut title favorite
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- As the baseball cliche goes, hope springs eternal before the start of a new season. Everyone is on the starting blocks with the same blank slate, and there are all kinds of interesting possibilities over six-plus months of the regular season.
More often than not, though, reality kicks in soon enough, as contenders begin to put some distance between themselves and pretenders.
The 2014 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season, which gets underway on Saturday, may well be a rare exception. The competition is expected to be so wide open that a title favorite probably won't emerge until much later in the season.
Pundits pointed out that the Samsung Lions, who have won the pennant and the championship Korean Series the past three years, may find it difficult to extend their streak, even though their acquisition of a former major league reliever Lim Chang-yong this week won back some skeptics.
Earlier offseason moves left some major holes on the Lions' roster, putting their streak in jeopardy this year. Their closer Oh Seung-hwan left as a free agent to join the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, after winning five championships in nine seasons and earning a league-record 277 career saves.
The Lions had planned to turn Ahn Ji-man, a long-time setup man, into their new closer. Though he has the stuff to be a quality closer, he has limited experience in closing.
The potential hole in the back end of the bullpen left analysts doubtful about the Lions' title chances, but in came Lim, who has pitched in the KBO, Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB), and can still reach 151 kilometers per hour (93 miles per hour) on the radar gun.
The 37-year-old right-hander signed a one-year deal for 500 million won (US$466,500) with Samsung just days after getting released by the Chicago Cubs. The man with 168 career saves said he's ready to pitch right away, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
The Lions lost another key player, leadoff man Bae Young-seob, who began his mandatory military service after the end of last season. The club will miss Bae's speed -- he had 83 steals from 2011 to 2013 -- from the top of the lineup.
The Lions are hoping Yamaico Navarro, their new offseason acquisition, can fill the void in the lineup. The former major leaguer from the Dominican Republic can play all infield positions and has also played some outfield in the majors.
Members of the Samsung Lions celebrate their third straight KBO championship on Nov. 1, 2013, in Daegu. They will be chasing their fourth straight title in 2014. (Yonhap file photo)
Lee Soon-cheol, a former KBO All-Star outfielder and manager, and currently a commentator for SBS Sports, said the Lions may no longer be the dominant force but their depth will keep them afloat at least for another season.
"They still have a ton of talent," Lee said. "With Lim's return, they're probably as strong as last year. Their position players are experienced, even though they will be lacking in speed."
Navarro is one of 18 new foreign players to join the KBO for 2014. As a result of an offseason rule change, teams can now have three foreign players on their active rosters, up from two a year ago, and one of the three must be a position player. The NC Dinos, an expansion team that joined the KBO last year, are allowed to carry one more foreign player than other teams in their first two seasons. For this year, they will have three pitchers and one position player.
Kim Jae-hyun, a former KBO All-Star and now a commentator for SBS Sports, said new position players from overseas should provide a breath of fresh air.
"I felt the players last season lacked fundamentals and veterans didn't play to their capabilities," he said. "I feel that new foreign batters will further motivate Korean players and push them to reach greater heights. The early going of the new season will be interesting."
Aside from the Lions, other playoff clubs from last year also underwent changes that might keep them from returning to postseason.
The Doosan Bears, who lost to Samsung in last year's Korean Series, might be in for a tough battle for a playoff spot this year after having their roster gutted over the winter. Center fielder Lee Jong-wook and shortstop Son Si-heon both moved to the NC Dinos as free agents, while slugger Choi Jun-seok, another free agent, returned to his old club, the Lotte Giants. The Bears also have a new manager, with Song Il-soo, formerly the manager of the Bears' minor league club, replacing Kim Jin-wook.
In 2013, the LG Twins made their first playoffs in 11 years and were statistically the most balanced club. This year, they are the only team not to have filled up their foreign player quota, with only infielder Josh Bell and pitcher Cory Riordan in place. Their top starter last season, Radhames Liz, left the team's offseason training in January with a knee injury and then signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this month.
The Twins haven't yet acquired anyone in Liz's stead. Manager Kim Ki-tae revealed on Thursday that the team was close to signing a new foreign pitcher and that he expected the player to join the Twins "within 15 days."
The Twins may be slow out of the gate, but the Nexen Heroes, who made their first postseason last year, will try to bank on their potent offense to put together a fast start.
They blew a 2-0 series lead against the Bears in the best-of-five opening playoff round. The Heroes have mostly kept their roster intact, and after leading the KBO in home runs and finishing third in runs scored last year, the Heroes should have little trouble matching such production.
The Heroes' first baseman Park Byung-ho has won the past two MVPs and established career-highs with 37 home runs, 117 RBI and a .318 batting average in 2013. He raised his batting average by nearly 30 points from 2012 and drew more walks while cutting down on strikes. Entering his prime at 27, Park will seek to become only the second KBO player to win three consecutive MVPs.
Lee Byung-hoon, a former player and now an analyst for KBS N Sports, said the Heroes' offense will carry the day.
"They will have little trouble against middle-of-the-rotation starters on opposing clubs," Lee said. "Their pitching may not be quite as good, but their offense should keep them in contention."
Among teams left on the outside looking in last season, the Lotte Giants, who finished five games out of the final playoff spot, could get back in the playoff picture. They had made the postseason every year from 2008 to 2012 before lackluster offense held them back in 2013.
Their starting pitching may well be the best in the KBO. Three workhorses from last season are all back. Shane Youman, Chris Oxspring and Song Seung-jun combined for 38 victories last year and should remain as effective this year. The Giants are welcoming back left-hander Jang Won-jun from his two-year mandatory military service. The 28-year-old had won 52 games from 2008 to 2011 before being conscripted.
Fans take in a preseason KBO game between the LG Twins and the Kia Tigers at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on March 23, 2014. (Yonhap file photo)
The SK Wyverns had played in a record six consecutive Korean Series starting in 2007, and the streak ended unceremoniously last year, when they finished sixth and 9.5 games out of fourth place.
For 2014, they added an experienced big league bat in Luke Scott, who has 135 big league homers. They're also counting on the former MVP-winning ace, left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun, to return to his old, dominant self.
Kim gave up one earned run in 6 2/3 preseason innings while striking out seven. He has declared that he is in the best shape of his seven-year career, and Lee Soon-cheol of SBS Sports was effusive about the Wyverns for 2014.
"Though they missed the playoffs last year, they have a lot of experienced players who can get the job done," the analyst said. "Their rotation is as good as any team's, with Kim, Ross Wolf (new offseason acquisition) and Jo-Jo Reyes (second-year foreign pitcher). I know people are concerned about their relievers, but I think they should have little trouble handing things over to closer Park Hee-soo. And their defense is excellent."
The NC Dinos were the darling of the KBO in the second half of last season, playing an almost .500 ball after a slow start to end the season in seventh, ahead of two incumbents, the Kia Tigers and the Hanwha Eagles.
Their talented young core, led by right-hander Lee Jae-hak, the 2013 Rookie of the Year, remains in place. In 2013, right-hander Charlie Shirek and Lee finished first and second in the league in ERA and the Dinos as a team gave up the second fewest runs. They have added a pair of former Toronto Blue Jays, outfielder Eric Thames and pitcher Thad Weber, and the Dinos could sniff at a postseason berth come September.
At the annual KBO media day event on Monday, most of the managers picked the Dinos as the dark horse of 2014. Two commentators, Lee Soon-cheol of SBS Sports and Yang Sang-moon of MBC Sports Plus, said having an extra foreign player may be the difference maker for the Dinos. Lee said he's been impressed with Thames, calling him "a complete package."
Another analyst, Lee Byung-hoon of KBS N Sports, had some reservations about the club, saying they "may need two or three more years of experience." Lee added, however, that the Dinos are such a streaky team and may well prove him wrong.
The Tigers were easily the most disappointing club in 2013. After charging out to first place by early May, living up to lofty expectations fans and pundits placed on them, the Tigers stumbled all the way down to eighth place by the season's end, 1.5 games worse than the Dinos.
They lost their MVP-winning right-hander Yoon Suk-min to the Baltimore Orioles, and they will need southpaw Yang Hyun-jong to be the same pitcher in the regular season that he was in the preseason.
Yang tossed 14 1/3 scoreless innings in three preseason appearances, an encouraging performance after an injury-plagued 2013 season.
The Hanwha Eagles finished last for the fourth time in five seasons in 2013. In hopes of turning things around, the Eagles were an eager spender in the offseason, shelling out 7 billion won to pluck All-Star second baseman Jeong Keun-woo from the Wyverns, and another 6.7 billion won to sign All-Star outfielder Lee Yong-kyu from the Tigers.
Former big league outfielder Felix Pie could also breathe in some new life into the anemic offense that scored the fewest runs and had the second-worst batting average in 2013. In preseason, Pie tied for first with four home runs and 13 hits, while driving in eight runs. He batted .419 in 10 games.
Whether the Eagles' shopping spree will translate into more victories remains to be seen, for their pitching remains a big question mark.