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(LEAD) KBO clubs snatch up new foreign players following rule change

2013/12/16 16:12

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- A recent rule change in the top domestic baseball league set off a flurry of transactions over the past week, as teams sought to bolster their rosters for the new season.

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) last week decided to add an extra roster spot for foreign players starting in 2014. Previously, teams could sign only two foreign players, with an exception made for the league's expansion team NC Dinos, who joined the KBO in 2013 and were granted three foreign players for their first two seasons.

Under the new rule, teams can now carry three foreign players on their active rosters, with two of them able to take the field at the same time. The Dinos and another expansion club, the KT Wiz, will be granted four spots for foreigners.

The Dinos will enjoy that benefit in 2014, their second KBO season. The Wiz will have that advantage in 2015 and 2016, their first two seasons in the league.

There is one twist to the rule: the eight clubs other than the Dinos and the Wiz will not be permitted to sign three pitchers or three position players to fill their quotas. It must be either two pitchers and a position player or two position players and a pitcher.

The Dinos and the Wiz have three options: three pitchers and one position player; two pitchers and two position players; and three position players and one pitcher.

Before the ink dried on the revised edition of the KBO rule book, clubs began to announce their signings of new foreign players, ranging from one-time Major League Baseball (MLB) players to career U.S. minor leaguers.

In some cases, the players' transactions were first reported by foreign media, and beat writers of the players' former minor league teams took to Twitter to share news of their new ventures.

Through Sunday, three clubs had filled their quotas. The Nexen Heroes long re-signed their two pitchers from the past two seasons, Brandon Knight and Andy Van Hekken, and added infielder Vinny Rottino to the mix.

The Lotte Giants also brought back their two starters, Chris Oxspring and Shane Youman, and then acquired infielder Luis Jimenez.

The Dinos filled up their quota with three pitchers and one position player. Charlie Shirek and Eric Hacker are returning after successful first years with the club. They will be joined by a pair of former Toronto Blue Jays: outfielder Eric Thames and pitcher Thad Weber.

Rottino, 33, has three career MLB homers in 97 at-bats for four different clubs. He spent 10 seasons in the minors and played the 2013 season with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), with four homers and a .206 average in 37 games.

Jimenez, 31, made just 18 plate appearances in the big leagues with the Seattle Mariners in 2012, while playing 11 years in the U.S. minors, and another in Japan. The Giants list the hulking Venezuelan as 192 centimeters and 127 kilograms.

In 2013, Jimenez hit 18 homers and drove in 73 runs for the Buffalo Bisons, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Thames, 27, hit 12 home runs in 95 games for Toronto in 2011, but hasn't been able to duplicate that production since. He split 2013 with three minor league teams, batting .283 with 10 homers and 49 RBIs in 98 games combined.

Weber, 29, made 10 appearances for three MLB clubs the past two years, most recently with the Blue Jays this summer. With the Bisons, Weber was 8-5 with a 2.61 ERA in 18 appearances, 15 of them starts.

Other new faces that joined the KBO after the rule change are: right-hander J.D. Martin for the Samsung Lions; right-hander Ross Wolf for the SK Wyverns; right-hander Jairo Asencio for the Kia Tigers; and outfielder Felix Pie for the Hanwha Eagles.

Martin, 30, has 24 big league appearances under his belt with the Washington Nationals with a 6-9 record and a 4.32 ERA. In 2013, Martin was 16-4 with a 2.75 ERA in 27 starts for the Durham Bulls, the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Wolf, 31, pitched in 22 games for the Texas Rangers in 2013 with a 1-3 record and a 4.15 ERA. He also made seven appearances for the Rangers' Triple-A club, the Round Rock Express, going 1-1 with a 1.77 ERA.

Asencio, 30, appeared in four games for the Baltimore Orioles in 2013. He posted a 7.71 ERA with no win-loss record. With the O's Triple-A team, the Norfolk Tides, the Dominican went 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 47 games.

The Eagles, the KBO's doormat the past several years, have made a splash this offseason by acquiring two coveted, All-Star caliber free agents: second baseman Jeong Keun-woo and outfielder Lee Yong-kyu. They now hope that Pie can add more spark to their lethargic offense that scored the fewest runs and had the second-lowest batting average in 2013.

Pie, 28, split his 2013 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and their Triple-A team in Indianapolis. In the minors, Pie batted .251 with eight homers, 40 RBIs, 38 steals and 17 doubles in 105 games.

From 2013, the Eagles have parted ways with both of their foreign pitchers -- Dana Eveland and Denny Bautista -- and are seeking their replacements.

The KBO, which had its first season in 1982, began allowing foreign players in 1998. In 2001 and 2002, teams were allowed to sign three foreign players but play only two of them at the same time. With the exception of those two seasons, KBO teams had only been able to sign two players from overseas.

The KBO imposes a hard salary cap on first-year foreign players at US$300,000. The teams here are only allowed to sign foreigners on one-year deals. If they want to re-sign their imported stars for another season, the annual salary must not be raised by more than 25 percent.

The cap started at $120,000 in 1998 and was raised to $200,000 in 1999, and then to $300,000 in 2004. The KBO argues the cap is necessary to prevent wealthier clubs from dominating the league and excessive salary inflation.

For years, teams have had to deny allegations that they were exceeding their salary cap by paying foreign players under the table. In December last year, after Eveland left the Orioles to sign with the Eagles here, the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported that the pitcher had signed for $675,000, with another $225,000 available through performance-based incentives. The Eagles said the article, which cited an unidentified industry source, was inaccurate.

In January 2012, former MLB pitcher Justin Germano opted not to re-sign with the Lions here, and instead joined the Boston Red Sox to resume his major league career. U.S. reports then said Germano turned down a $1 million offer from the Lions to stay in Korea, a claim denied by the team.