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(2nd D) Four KBO free agents sign huge deals in overheated market

All Headlines 16:26 November 17, 2013

(ATTN: UPDATES with new signing in paras 23-26)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 17 (Yonhap) -- Four All-Star caliber players fattened their bank accounts over the past week as the opening free agent negotiating period ended and the second negotiating window opened on the weekend in the top domestic baseball league.

Earlier this month, 16 players in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) declared free agency, and they had between Nov. 10 and 16 to negotiate with their current clubs.

During that period, nine players re-signed with their original teams, and none enjoyed a bigger payday than the Lotte Giants catcher Kang Min-ho.

Kang, 28, inked the most lucrative free agent contract in the league's 31-year history last Wednesday, returning to Lotte on a four-year deal worth 7.5 billion won (US$7.1 million). The figure includes a signing bonus of 3.5 billion won, with an annual salary of 1 billion won.

The signing sent shockwaves through the market, with general managers of rival clubs griping about the inflated price tag. Though Kang has been one of the league's few offensive-minded catchers for the past several years, he batted a career-low .235 in 2013. He averaged 20 home runs a year from 2010 to 2012 but had just 11 long balls this year.

With the bar set so high on free agents, teams worried that they would have to at least try to come close to matching the money Lotte offered Kang with their own players. Their concerns became real when the Samsung Lions shelled out 6 billion won over four years to retain left-handed pitcher Jang Won-sam, making him the highest-paid free agent pitcher ever in the KBO.

Jang, 30, has been a steady starter, with a career 88-65 record and a 3.66 ERA in 1,187 1/3 innings, but he likely wouldn't have commanded such a large contract if the market hadn't been so overheated. In 2013, he was 13-10 with a 4.38 ERA, his worst stats since 2009.

As soon as the opening negotiating period closed, the Hanwha Eagles, the KBO's bottom feeders the past two seasons, opened their wallets, and snatched two All-Stars and national team fixtures on Sunday.

They signed former SK Wyverns second baseman Jeong Keun-woo to a four-year deal worth 7 billion won and also acquired ex-Kia Tigers outfielder Lee Yong-kyu on a four-year contract worth 6.7 billion won.

Their contracts are the second- and third-largest free agent contracts ever, right behind Kang's deal with the Giants.

The two will be counted on to provide some spark at the top of the order for the Eagles, which had the second-lowest team batting average and scored the fewest runs in the KBO in 2013.

Jeong, 31, has a lifetime batting average of .301 in nine seasons, all of them with the Wyverns. The scrappy player is widely regarded as the league's best defensive second baseman and has stolen at least 20 bases in each of the past eight seasons.

Lee, 28, is a career .295 hitter with an average of 30 steals per season over the past three years. Lee has struck out only once in every 10 at-bats over his 10-year career.

Jeong and Lee stole 49 bases together in 2013. The Eagles as a team had 70 steals.

The Eagles also spent 4.1 billion won to retain three free agents, and they had the financial means to be the most generous organization during this offseason.

When the former Hanwha pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin was posted for interested Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs last December, the Los Angeles Dodgers submitted a bid of $25.7 million to earn the rights to negotiate with the pitcher.

When Ryu reached a deal with the Dodgers, the Eagles got to keep the Dodgers' bid money as a transfer fee, and they capitalized on their assets to try to improve for the future.

After Jeong and Lee, two more free agents switched teams on Sunday. Outfielder Lee Jong-wook and shortstop Son Si-heon, former Doosan Bears teammates, both joined the NC Dinos.

Lee signed for 5 billion won over four seasons, including a 2.8 billion won signing bonus, and Son agreed to a four-year deal worth 3 billion won, including a 1.2 billion won signing bonus.

Lee, 33, has batted .293 over his eight KBO seasons, with at least 20 steals in every one of them. After scuffling to a career worst .240 average in 2012, Lee bounced back this year to hit .307 and drove in a career-high 52 runs at the top of the Bears' order. The speedy Lee can also cover plenty of ground in center field.

Son, also 33, is a slick-fielding shortstop with a lifetime .264 batting average.

The Dinos finished seventh among nine clubs in their inaugural KBO season in 2013, thanks to a solid second-half run. They called Lee and Son "exemplary veterans" who can help the team both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Also on Sunday, the Tigers signed a former LG Twins outfielder Lee Dae-hyung. The 30-year-old outfielder will move to the Tigers on a four-year contract worth 2.4 billion won, including 1 billion won in signing bonus.

He is a speedy outfielder who will likely fill Lee Yong-kyu's void in center field and the leadoff spot in the lineup. Lee Dae-hyung swiped 246 bags from 2007 to 2010, with at least 50 steals in each of those four seasons, but he's been relegated to pinch-hitting and pinch-running duties over the past two seasons.

He batted only .178 with 25 steals last year and .237 and 13 steals this year.

Choi Jun-seok, an infielder who played for the Doosan Bears in 2013, failed to come to terms with the Bears during the first negotiating period and could sign a multiyear deal with a new club.

The Tigers' pitcher Yoon Suk-min also remains unsigned, but he has already announced that he will seek to sign with an MLB club this offseason.

If the remaining players are unable to sign with any team, they will have between Nov. 24 and Jan. 15 to enter negotiations with every club, including their original team. Those not signed by Jan. 15 will remain free agents.


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