By Kang Hyun-kyung
For baseball fans, the bitter memories of Korea’s failure to enter the second round of the World Baseball Classic are gone quickly as the beginning of 2017 Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) League is just around the corner.
The forthcoming season will be more fun and dynamic than last year as the lower ranked teams are poised to rise with the new players on their rosters and the reshuffling in their coaching staff.
The baseball club that drew the keenest attention is the Hanwha Eagles. The team placed 7th among the 10 KBO teams during the 2016 season. The front office realized their advance to the playoffs in the 2017 season would remain a distant dream if they had no solid pitching. Pitchers had dominated during the 2016 season and the trend is expected to continue this year.
The Doosan Bears, last year’s champion of the best-of-seven Korean Series, had four outstanding pitchers — Dustin Nippert, Michael Bowden, Jang Won-joon and Yu Hui-kwan– and their roles were critical behind the Bears’ dominance in the regular season and in the championship series. Nippert, the highest-paid foreign-born pitcher in the KBO League, had 22 wins and 3 losses with 2.95 ERA and 142 strikeouts. The high velocity pitcher silenced the batters of opposing teams. Bowden had 18 wins and Jang and Yu both had over 15 wins.
Sports journalists called the four Bears’ starters the “Fantastic Four” to recognize their contributions to their team’s rise to the championship of the league last year.
Inspired by foreign-born pitchers who had played for the Major League Baseball (MLB), the Eagles signed two Dominican Republic-born starters _ Alexi Ogando and Carlos Villanueva.
Ogando was an MLB All-Star in 2011 and played for the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, and Atlanta Braves before he joined the Eagles last year after the 2016 season. Villanueva played in Majors for 10 years between 2006 and 2016 and had 51 wins and 55 defeats with 862 strikeouts and 4.31 ERA.
It remains to be seen whether the two foreign-born pitchers will be able to help the Eagles advance to the post-season.
Sluggers are another matter in determining who the winners and losers of the 2017 season will be. Former Seattle Mariners’ first baseman Lee Dae-ho returned to the Lotte Giants in January after signing a record-high 15 billion won contract. Lee left the Giants after the 2011 season for the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League. His success continued there but his home team, the Giants, suffered the consequences of losing the cleanup hitter. The Giants placed 8th last year and failed to advance to the post-season. Baseball-loving Busan citizens gradually turned their back against their home team as the Giants had struggled to restore its past glory. Some fans defected to the newly-created NC Dinos, the home city of which is in nearby Masan. The Dinos, advanced to the Korean Series last year but was defeated by the Bears in the best-of-seven championship series.
Lee’s return excited Giants’ fans. The front office set expectation high about the “Lee factor” and hoped that the slugger could bring Giants’ fans back to the ballpark.
The Kia Tigers are another struggling team trying to advance to the post-season. The club spent 10 billion won to bring free agent Choi Hyoung-woo, the former cleanup hitter of the Samsung Lions, to revive the club. Choi became the second highest paid player in the KBO League.
He led the KBO in home runs and RBIs in 2011 and batting average and RBIs in 2016. He batted .376 with 144 RBIs last year.
Choi was the third Lions hitter who simultaneously achieved a .300 batting average, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs during a single season. The two other Lions sluggers who achieved such numbers are Lee Seung-yuop and Ma Hae-young.
Choi’s success with the Lions is kind of a come-from-behind victory. He initially joined the club in 2002 but was sent off after three years. He rejoined the Lions in 2008 and batted .276 with 19 home runs and 71 RBIs. He belatedly became the Rookie of the Year in 2008.
The SK Wyverns which ranked 6th last year reshuffled its coaching staff by signing Trey Hillman as new manager. Hillman was the manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the NPO and with the Kansas City Royals in the United States. He also coached for the LA Dodgers.
The KBO exhibition games kicked off Tuesday, heralding the upcoming 2017 regular season. Once the 12-day spring training games are over, the regular season will begin with the opening games slated for March 31 in five ballparks, including Jamsil Stadium and Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. The final games of the regular season will take place on Sept. 17 which will be followed by the playoffs.