By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- When all is said and done, St. Louis Cardinals' closer Oh Seung-hwan may end up being the only major league player on the South Korean roster for this year's World Baseball Classic (WBC), a huge letdown for a country that had eight of its own play in the bigs last year.
Manager Kim In-sik on Wednesday added Oh to his roster, ending weeks of speculation that the right-hander with some off-field issues would eventually make his way to the team.
Oh, who had 19 saves with a 1.92 ERA as a big league rookie in 2016, was kept off the team amid public discontent over his illegal gambling history. A South Korean court fined him for those betting charges in January last year and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) also banned him for 72 games, to take effect if he returns to the league.
With injuries to the national team pitching staff piling up, however, Oh increasingly came to be seen as a logical choice for the decimated squad. Further emboldened by elder statesmen of the game who called for Oh's inclusion, the manager decided to bring the KBO's all-time saves leader into the fold.
On the other hand, Kim may not have the services of any other major leaguers when South Korea opens the first round action at home on March 6.
The 28-man roster announced in November included Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles. On Wednesday, though, Kim pulled himself out of consideration under thinly veiled pressure from his club.
Earlier in the week, Orioles' manager Buck Showalter spoke of his misgivings about his reliever Mychal Givens representing the United States at the WBC. Though he was talking about pitchers, Showalter may as well have been referring to all other big leaguers when he told the Baltimore Sun, "These guys are creatures of routine and habit, and when you take them out of it, you create some challenges that aren't normally there."
That Kim was only a part-time player last year -- 346 plate appearances in 95 games -- and will have to further establish himself in spring training this year clearly didn't help his cause. But Showalter's words illustrate the kind of reluctance that big league clubs harbor about their players' participation in the WBC. Since the tournament is actually organized by Major League Baseball (MLB), clubs can't officially tell players whether to play or not. But the WBC, now in its fourth edition, has always been played in March, at a time when big leaguers are getting ready for new seasons in comparatively leisurely spring training games, instead of competing in more high-intensity affairs with national bragging rights at stake.
What the clubs can do is file requests with the tournament organizers to keep players with a recent injury history out of the competition.
And the Rangers have done just that with Choo, a 34-year-old who made four trips to the disabled list last year en route to missing 114 games. That request falls under the WBC's "chronic condition" provision.
If the Rangers' appeal is rejected, then Choo can decide whether he wants to play. However, South Korean manager Kim was pessimistic on Wednesday.
"I think (the Rangers) are worried because Choo is an expensive player who suffered a lot of injuries last year," said Kim of the player who is in the fourth year of his seven-year, US$130 million contract.
Kim created some confusion earlier in the day when he said the Rangers had already told the KBO they didn't want Choo to play. An official with the KBO explained that while the Rangers certainly appear to be leaning that way, no decision has been reached on Choo's status yet.
A discussion is ongoing between MLB and its players' association, and the KBO will learn of the result after Jan. 20, according to the KBO official.
Veteran first baseman Lee Dae-ho, who played for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, made the national team as a free agent. The veteran of both the KBO and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is still looking for a team for 2017. He is hoping for a full-time gig in the majors after platooning at the bag with Adam Lind last year, though teams may be hesitant to hand that to a 34-year-old with limited defensive chops at first base.
One active big leaguer who seemed certain to stay on the national team got himself into trouble and off the national team.
Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates was arrested last month in Seoul for leaving the scene of an accident after driving under the influence of alcohol. The public was further enraged when police said it was Kang's third DUI arrest since 2009, the first two cases having gone unreported. Manager Kim cut him from the national team last Wednesday.
Among other major leaguers from a season ago, Minnesota Twins' designated hitter Park Byung-ho and Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin were never even considered because of their injuries.
Park had finger surgery in August that prematurely ended his up-and-down rookie season. Ryu, who missed all of 2015 after a shoulder operation, made one start in 2016 before an elbow problem sidelined him the rest of the year. Both are rehabbing to get ready for 2017.
Choi Ji-man, who played left field and first base for the Los Angeles Angels in 2016, was deemed simply not good enough to crack the national team at either position. He batted .170 with five home runs in 54 games, and also spent time in the minors.
South Korea, paired with Israel, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei, will play its first round games at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. It was knocked out of the first round in 2013, four years after finishing runner-up to Japan. South Korea made it to the semifinals at the inaugural WBC in 2006.
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