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(News Focus) Mixed prospects for S. Koreans heading into new major league season

2017/03/31 11:40

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 31 (Yonhap) -- From a top-notch closer to a slugger trying to make it back to the big show, prospects for South Korean players are decidedly mixed heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball (MLB) season.

The season will get under way Sunday in the United States, or Monday morning in South Korean time, with three games on the slate. The defending World Series champions Chicago Cubs will visit the St. Louis Cardinals on the first day, and the Cards' South Korean closer, Oh Seung-hwan, will try to make an impact from the get-go.

The right-hander took over as closer in the middle of 2016, and after picking up 19 saves with a 1.92 ERA, he is firmly entrenched as the Cards' ninth-inning man at the start of 2017. He remains the career saves leader in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) with 277, and recorded 80 saves in two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan before signing with the Cards.

His unimpressive spring training numbers -- two homers allowed in six innings and a 4.50 ERA -- notwithstanding, Oh, 34, has by far the best job security among South Korean players in the bigs.

In this Associated Press photo taken on March 28, 2017, St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Oh Seung-hwan works against the New York Mets in the eighth inning of a spring training baseball game in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Yonhap) In this Associated Press photo taken on March 28, 2017, St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Oh Seung-hwan works against the New York Mets in the eighth inning of a spring training baseball game in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Yonhap)

Also on the mound, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers has worked his way back to the starting rotation after making just one start over the past two years combined. He sat out the entire 2015 season following shoulder surgery, and made just one start in 2016 before shutting things down with elbow issues.

With a solid spring training -- a 2.57 ERA in four starts -- Ryu is slated to start the Dodgers' fifth game of the season against the Colorado Rockies in Denver.

Barring postponement of games, Ryu, 30, will take his second turn against the Cubs in Chicago. He'll have to survive some early challenges and prove he's back to full health to further solidify his spot in the rotation, since the Dodgers won't be short on starting options.

Ryu won 14 games in each of his first two seasons before coming down with shoulder and elbow injuries.

Over in the American League, Texas Rangers' outfielder Choo Shin-soo will try to stay on the field more often than last year. He made four trips to the disabled list with assorted injuries and missed 114 games. Choo, who will turn 35 in July, may start getting some DH at-bats.

Choo is entering the fourth year of his seven-year, US$130 million contract. Save for the 2015 season, in which he belted out 22 homers with 82 RBIs in 149 games. Choo has been a disappointment and will have a hard time living up to that massive deal in his mid-30s.

Kim Hyun-soo, left-handed hitting outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, only got 18 at-bats against southpaws as a rookie last year, and he'll try to win a full-time job in 2017.

In this Associated Press photo taken on March 11, 2017, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin throws against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning of a spring training baseball game in Phoenix. (Yonhap) In this Associated Press photo taken on March 11, 2017, Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin throws against the Los Angeles Angels during the first inning of a spring training baseball game in Phoenix. (Yonhap)

Kim was hitless in those 18 at-bats, but did go 3-for-8 against left-handers in spring training.

These four players will at least begin the season in the majors. Park Byung-ho has put together an outstanding spring training for the Minnesota, leading the team with six homers and 13 RBIs, but will still start the season with Triple-A Rochester.

The Twins have decided to put 13 pitchers on their Opening Day roster and squeezed out Park, who slashed .353/.414/.745 in 19 games.

The move to carry an extra pitcher may be temporary, and Park could be called up before his bat cools off.

Hwang Jae-gyun, who signed with the San Francisco Giants in January, has also enjoyed a strong camp as a non-roster invitee, with five home runs, 15 RBIs and a .356 batting average.

Normally a third baseman, Hwang has also seen time at first base and outfield in spring training. Despite his fine offensive numbers -- he was recently voted by teammates as the Giants' top rookie at the camp -- Hwang is expected to start the season in the minors to further hone his defensive versatility.

The future for Pittsburgh Pirates' infielder Kang Jung-ho is even murkier. After receiving a suspended jail term for DUI charges earlier this month, Kang has been denied a U.S. work permit.

In this Associated Press photo taken on March 10, 2017, Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins is greeted at the dugout after hitting a home run in the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, Florida. (Yonhap) In this Associated Press photo taken on March 10, 2017, Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins is greeted at the dugout after hitting a home run in the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, Florida. (Yonhap)

The Pirates have already placed Kang on the restricted list, which is for players who are unable to play for non-injury reasons, such as arrests or family matters. Kang will not be paid or earn major league service time while on this list.

The Pirates' officials have said they're doing the best they can to help the troubled player, but it may be a while before Kang, who is also appealing his sentence, rejoins the club.

In this file photo taken on March 3, 2017, Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho arrives at the Seoul Central District Court to attend a verdict hearing on his DUI charges. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on March 3, 2017, Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho arrives at the Seoul Central District Court to attend a verdict hearing on his DUI charges. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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