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(News Focus) S. Korean stars looking to win big league jobs at spring training

All Headlines 10:53 February 22, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- Four South Koreans with All-Star resumes in Asia will look to win their first Major League Baseball (MLB) jobs as spring training gets underway this week.

The 30 big league clubs have different reporting dates, with pitchers and catchers reporting a few days before position players. They will all have their first full workouts later this week.

It was a hectic offseason for South Korean stars who made their jumps from the domestic Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) or the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan.

Former Nexen Heroes' first baseman Park Byung-ho signed with the Minnesota Twins in December via posting. After he got the ball rolling, ex-Doosan Bears' outfielder Kim Hyun-soo followed suit, joining the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent two days before Christmas.

Those two went from the top South Korean league to the majors. Reliever Oh Seung-hwan, a former KBO All-Star who'd pitched the previous two seasons in the NPB, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in January. Then Lee Dae-ho, a hulking first baseman/designated hitter who'd spent the past four years in the NPB after 11 years in the KBO, joined the Seattle Mariners earlier this month on a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.

In between, two South Koreans were involved in relatively smaller transactions. Former Mariners' prospect Choi Ji-man first signed with the Orioles and then was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the Rule 5 Draft in December. One-time Tampa Bay prospect Lee Hak-ju signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants in November and has been invited to spring training.

They're joined by more established big leaguers. Texas Rangers' outfielder Choo Shin-soo, the most experienced one of the bunch entering his ninth full season, enjoyed a torrid second half in 2015 and will look to build on that in 2016.

Pittsburgh Pirates' infielder Kang Jung-ho suffered a season-ending leg injury in September and is hoping to be ready early in the new season, if not by Opening Day.

Los Angeles Dodgers' left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder and didn't throw a pitch last season. He, too, is eyeing an early season return.

These three players, as long as they're healthy, have their big league jobs virtually nailed down. Among the four players who moved across the Pacific this winter, Park, Kim and Oh also appear to have a good chance of making the 25-man roster, by virtue of their solid track records and their clubs' positional needs.

Park, who led the KBO in home runs and RBIs in each of the past four seasons and won two MVP awards in that span, is expected to be the Twins' full-time DH. The Twins will move last year's DH, Miguel Sano, to outfield this year to make room for Park, who will also spell veteran Joe Mauer at first base. The Twins' first full workout in Fort Myers, Florida, is Saturday.

Park, 29, batted .343 with 53 home runs and 146 RBIs last year, all the best numbers in his KBO career, but also struck out a career-worst 161 times. The Twins won't mind Park's high strikeout total as long as he can leave the yard at a similar rate, and they did have other, all-or-nothing type sluggers last year: second baseman Brian Dozier led the club with 28 home runs and 148 strikeouts in 157 games. Sano demonstrated some pop with 18 home runs in just 80 games, but he also struck out a whopping 119 times. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit a career-high 22 home runs, but also went down a career-worst 124 times in 152 games.

Kim is expected to address the Orioles' needs on both offense and defense as a left-handed hitting outfielder.

Kim will likely slide in as the starting left fielder for the Orioles, who had a revolving door of 11 players in that position last year. Those 11 players, none of whom appeared in more than 50 games in the position, combined to hit only .210/.287/.353. Only the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels had a worse on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) from their left fielders.

Kim, 28, had been one of the KBO's most productive and durable players, a career .318 hitter with an improving defense.

Kim, who had career-highs of 28 homers and 121 RBIs last year, struck out only 63 times in 630 plate appearances while drawing 101 walks. For his career, Kim has 597 walks against 501 strikeouts in 1,131 games.

The O's hit 217 homers last year, good for third in the American League, but also ranked third in strikeouts with 1,331, while finishing in 13th with 418 walks. Their first full workout in Sarasota, Florida, is Wednesday.

Oh is a hard-throwing right-hander who built impressive resumes in South Korea and Japan. He's the KBO's all-time saves leader with 277, coming across nine seasons with the Samsung Lions. He has recorded 80 saves over the past two years with the Hanshin Tigers, leading the Central League with 39 and 41 in each of those seasons.

Oh, 33, won't be the closer with the Cardinals, who already boast one of the best in the business in All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal. Oh, however, is already ranked No. 2 on the Cardinals' bullpen depth chart behind Rosenthal, ahead of Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness, primary setup men last year. The Cards, who won 100 games to take the National League Central crown last year, had the second best bullpen ERA in the NL at 2.82. Their pitchers reported to camp last Thursday, and the first full workout in Jupiter, Florida, is Wednesday.

Lee, the last one among the four to sign, appears to have the toughest battle to win a big league job. He will make US$4 million if he makes the Mariners, but will be put on a minor-league pay scale otherwise.

The Mariners already have an established big league first baseman in Adam Lind, who came over from the Milwaukee Brewers via an offseason trade. The left-handed hitter has long had trouble against southpaws on the mound, and Lee will battle Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez and Stefen Romero to be Lind's right-handed complement. The Mariners' first full workout in Peoria, Arizona, is Thursday.

Lee, 33, has a late-March opt-out clause in his deal, according to a U.S. report citing a club official, and it means he can choose to become a free agent at the end of spring training instead of accepting an assignment to the minors. He had a lucrative offer to return to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for a third season, after helping them to the second straight Japan Series title and winning the MVP in the NPB's championship final in 2015.

The three-time KBO batting champion, who was voted the 2011 MVP, has an option of returning to South Korea if he can't make the big league club. He spent his entire KBO career with the Lotte Giants, the hometown club based in the southeastern port city of Busan.

Choi, 24, will look to make his major league debut this year after spending five seasons in the minors. By selecting the first baseman in the Rule 5 Draft, the Angels must keep Choi on their 25-man roster for the entire 2016 season, and he must remain active -- without a stint on the disabled list -- for at least 90 days.

If the Angels don't keep him on their big league roster, they must ship Choi back to the Orioles for $25,000. If the Orioles decline, Choi may be waived.

With the Angels' incumbent first baseman Albert Pujols expected to miss the early part of the season following toe surgery, C.J. Cron could get the bulk of time at first. Choi, a switch hitter who throws right, could receive some time as Cron's backup.

Lee Hak-ju, 25, also hasn't played in the majors yet, but he is a long shot to make the Giants this spring, with Gold Glove-winning Brandon Crawford firmly entrenched as starting shortstop.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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