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Samsung Lions pundits' consensus pick to repeat, with Nexen, SK providing challenge

All Headlines 09:00 March 24, 2015

SEOUL, March 24 (Yonhap) -- The Samsung Lions have built a dynasty in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), having won the past four championships. And pundits here say though the Lions will face some challenges, they will eventually hold on to their throne for at least another year.

Most of those challenges will come from three clubs: the Nexen Heroes, the SK Wyverns and the Doosan Bears. The Heroes and the Bears are the two past runners-up, while the Wyverns lost to the Lions in the Korean Series in 2011 and 2012.

Hyun Jae-yoon, a catcher-turned-analyst for SBS Sports, said the Lions will still outclass the rest of the league, though they may not be as dominant as in recent years. Ahn Chi-yong, a commentator for KBS N Sports, noted that the Lions, a team stacked with savvy veterans, have successfully plugged in holes with new faces.

"Based on my experience as a player last season, every team and every player just assume that Samsung will take the pennant," said Ahn, who retired in January.

The Lions notably lost their former starter Rick van den Hurk, who signed with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan after two seasons in the KBO. Still, Choi Won-ho, a commentator for SBS Sports, said no other team made a marked improvement over the winter, leaving Samsung as the team to beat.

Choi added that the Heroes will ride out the absence of shortstop Kang Jung-ho, who belted 40 homers last year and then signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and should be in the postseason mix for the third straight year.

The Wyverns didn't play in last year's postseason, but things may change this time, with the return of their former closer Jung Woo-ram from military service and the presence of good, all-around players across the diamond.

Ahn Chi-yong wasn't as convinced about the Heroes. He believed Kang, as the No. 5 hitter, provided much protection in the lineup for the cleanup Park Byung-ho, who launched 52 homers last year to become only the third KBO player to get past the half-century mark.

Pitchers will likely pitch around Park in crucial situations, which Ahn said will lead to "a drop in his home run total and a sharp increase in his on-base percentage."

Song Jin-woo, the KBO's career leader with 210 victories now providing analysis for KBS N Sports, agreed that Park will get fewer pitches to hit and will be intentionally walked with men on base.

Song also questioned the team's decision to place Han Hyun-hee, formerly a reliever with a sidearm delivery, into their rotation.

"He throws sidearm, and it remains to be seen how he can handle all those left-handed batters in the KBO," Song added.

Cho Sung-hwan, also a KBS N Sports analyst, wondered if the Heroes would have enough arms in the bullpen to fill in for Han in the setup role.

The pundits weren't entirely sold on some rosy prospects for the Hanwha Eagles. They've been the KBO doormat in five of the past six years and named Kim Sung-keun, veteran manager with a proven track record, as their new skipper.

Their roster decimated by injuries, the Eagles never quite managed to assemble their best lineup during preseason, which makes it difficult to predict how far the Eagles can fly.

"Since the end of last season, the Eagles have been focusing on developing young players," Cho noted. "But I don't think they've met their expectations."

Kim Sun-woo, a former major league pitcher who put in seven KBO seasons, picked the Lotte Giants as his dark horse for the season.

The Giants had a tumultuous offseason: Their front office was accused of illegally reviewing CCTV footage of the team hotels to monitor players on road trips, and the players revolted against the front office's original choice of their new manager.

Despite some unsavory developments, Kim said the Giants can still surprise people.

"They may not be the most talented team, but if they catch fire, they could get really hot," Kim added. "Their catcher Kang Min-ho is a capable player and the two foreign pitchers, Brooks Raley and Josh Lindblom, have both looked strong."

In Cho Sung-hwan's book, it's all about getting off to a quick start.

"It'll be important for everyone to play well early," he said. "Playing more games (than last year) will mean you will still have time to play catch-up. But it also means if you fall behind too far from the pack early, it will be difficult to stay in the race."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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