By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- From hulking sluggers to former major league starters, the 2017 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season will not be short on star power, even as its greatest home run hitter embarks on a farewell tour.
Former KBO MVP Lee Dae-ho has rejoined his former club Lotte Giants after spending the previous five seasons in Japan and the United States. He signed a four-year deal worth 15 billion won (US$13.5 million), the largest contract ever handed to a free agent in the league's 35-year history. The Giants, who haven't been to the postseason since 2012, are hoping the 34-year-old will live up to his massive contract.
Long the face of the Giants franchise and one of the KBO's most feared sluggers, Lee hit .309 with 225 homers and 809 RBIs in 1,150 games here during his first tour of duty, while winning two batting Triple Crowns and capturing the 2010 MVP. Lee batted .253 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs in 104 games for the Seattle Mariners in 2016.
While Lee may not be able to turn the fortunes around for the downtrodden franchise -- the Giants will still need pitching -- he will at least put more fans in the seats.
The Kia Tigers also spent big on a slugger, as they lured free agent Choi Hyoung-woo from the Samsung Lions on a four-year, 10 billion won contract.
Choi, 33, won the KBO's batting title last year with a .376 average, and also led the league with 144 RBIs, 195 hits and 46 doubles. He belted 31 home runs for his third consecutive 30-homer season. He finished second in the MVP voting.
Without former MVP Eric Thames, who left the NC Dinos for the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason, Lee and Choi are expected to duel each other in major offensive categories. Both are complete hitters who can hit for power and average.
On the mound, reigning MVP Dustin Nippert will be back for his seventh season with the Doosan Bears. The 22-game winner from last season re-signed for $2.1 million, the most lucrative contract for a foreign player, and Nippert will once again be the leader of the KBO's deepest starting rotation.
Though they haven't yet thrown a KBO regular season pitch, two former big league pitchers, Alexi Ogando and Jeff Manship, nearly matched Nippert in their annual salaries.
The Hanwha Eagles signed Ogando for $1.8 million, and the Dinos paid Manship the same amount of money.
Ogando compiled a 33-18 record with a 3.47 ERA in seven major league seasons with three different clubs. Manship pitched in last year's World Series for the Cleveland Indians, and after spending the majority of his big league career as a reliever, the right-hander will slide in as the Dinos' No. 2 starter behind Eric Hacker.
While fans cheer on these stars, they will also bid adieu to the KBO's career home run king, Lee Seung-yuop of the Lions.
At 40, Lee said he will retire after the 2017 season, his 15th in the KBO.
He is the all-time KBO leader in home runs (443) and RBIs (1,411), and is expected to also overtake the lead in total bases and runs scored this season -- all this despite spending eight seasons in Japan.
The ageless wonder has been quite productive in recent years. He hammered 27 homers last year and knocked in 118 runs, his highest total since 2003, and has batted over .300 in each of the past three seasons.
The industrious veteran could perhaps play another couple of strong seasons, but Lee has insisted he'd rather go out on top.
Modest to a fault, Lee has said he prefers not to have a lavish retirement ceremony or have a grand farewell tour at all visiting parks. Yet the Lions and the rest of the league feel otherwise.
Lee's team is already planning his sendoff ceremony, and the nine other clubs will likely agree to organize some sort of an event at Lee's final game at their stadiums.
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