By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 25 (Yonhap) -- The Samsung Lions should find themselves in the familiar role of being chased in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) this year, and the two-time defending champions will likely have to fend off two teams that are looking to improve upon their performances from 2012.
The Lions overcame a slow start to their 2012 campaign and swept up both the pennant and the Korean Series title for the second straight season. This year, they will count on their reliable bullpen and potent offense to carry the day.
Closer Oh Seung-hwan, who topped the KBO with 37 saves in 2012, should once again be the pillar of the bullpen. He is already the league's all-time leader with 249 saves.
The bullpen has gone through a major makeover. Jong Hyun-wook left the team via free agency, and Kwon Oh-jun and Ahn Ji-man underwent elbow operations. Kwon has been ruled out for the season while Ahn, after rushing back to the mound for preseason, hasn't been very effective.
Right-hander Shin Yong-woon and left-hander Baek Jeong-hyun will fill in the gap, joined by a veteran lefty Kwon Hyuk and a hard-throwing 20-year-old Shim Chang-min.
Left-hander Jang Won-sam, who topped the KBO with 17 wins in 2012, returns as the No. 1 starter. The Lions have replaced their two foreign pitchers, Brian Gordon and Mitch Talbot, with Rick van den Hurk and Aneury Rodrigeuz. Gordon and Talbot together won 25 games, leaving the two new signees with tough shoes to fill.
The Lions last year boasted the league's highest team batting average and scored the most runs. The core of their lineup will return this year, with veteran Lee Seung-yeop backed up by ever-improving Park Seok-min. Lee, Park and Choi Hyung-woo, the 2011 KBO leader in home runs and RBIs, are all capable of hitting at least 20 home runs and driving in around 90 runs from the heart of the order.
With the addition of the expansion NC Dinos as the ninth team, the KBO will have an odd number of teams, leaving at least one club idle on any given day. Teams will sometimes have as many as four days off in between games. This should benefit clubs with top-heavy rotations and deep bullpens.
The Kia Tigers may just have the best rotation in the league this year. Their starters last year threw a record-tying four straight complete-game victories at one point. After missing the playoffs in 2012, the Tigers will tweak the rotation in 2013.
Anthony Lerew, who won the team-high 11 games as a starter last year, auditioned as the closer in preseason and notched the KBO-best four saves in six games, throwing 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Yang Hyeon-jong, a former 16-game winner who was relegated to the pen in 2012, won two preseason games and struck out 16 in 15 innings. He is slated to return as a starter in 2013.
In 2012, right-hander Yoon Suk-min, only a year removed from his Triple Crown campaign, struggled to just a 9-8 record. His ability to bounce back this year will be the key for the Tigers. The pending free agent, who hopes to pitch in Major League Baseball (MLB), will need a strong season to attract offers from big league clubs.
The Tigers made a splash in the offseason by picking up free agent Kim Joo-chan from the Lotte Giants. Kim, who can play in center field or first base, adds extra speed and a consistent bat in the No. 2 hole behind the leadoff man Lee Yong-kyu.
The Tigers might have overpaid for Kim when they signed the career .279 hitter to a four-year deal worth up to 5 billion won (US$4.5 million) in November. The 32-year-old, though, paid some quick dividends in preseason by leading the league with eight runs scored and 12 hits.
In the free agent market, the Doosan Bears brought back Hong Sung-heon from the Giants. Hong began his KBO career as a catcher with the Bears in 1999 and will now serve as a designated hitter in his second tour of duty with the Seoul-based club, which was eliminated from the first round of the playoffs in 2012.
Hong brings some much-needed punch to the team that had the second-fewest runs scored and home runs last year. For Lotte last year, the 36-year-old had 15 homers and 74 RBIs, both of which would have led Doosan.
The SK Wyverns have played in six consecutive Korean Series, a KBO-record, and they will need some strong performances by the new-look bullpen to extend the streak.
Jung Woo-ram, last year's closer, is doing his mandatory military service. Park Hee-soo, the setup man to Jung last year, would have succeeded him as the closer, if not for his elbow pains that kept him out of the whole preseason. Versatile Song Eun-beom, who has bounced between the rotation and the pen, will serve as the closer for the time being. Two veteran right-handers, Lee Jae-young and Yoon Kil-hyoun, will split the setup duties.
Left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun, the 2008 KBO MVP, and right-hander Yoon Hee-sang, who won the team-best 10 games in 2012, will both miss the start of the season while rehabbing from injuries.
The Giants, which have been to every postseason since 2008, will likely see their streak snapped this year. They've not filled the holes left by two departed free agents, Kim Joo-chan and Hong Sung-heon.
The LG Twins have not played playoff baseball since 2002 and the drought may last for another year. Their Seoul neighbors, the Nexen Heroes, were the Cinderella team in the first half of last season before fading away and ending up in sixth place.
The Heroes bring back the reigning league MVP Park Byung-ho and All-Star shortstop Kang Jung-ho, though their lack of depth might once again hurt them this year.
The Hanwha Eagles, which lost No. 1 starter Ryu Hyun-jin to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, and the expansion Dinos will try to stay out of the league cellar.
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