By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- Fans pining for professional baseball in South Korea this spring will have their shortest wait ever, with the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) having its earliest start to a regular season this weekend.
The 2018 season will begin on Saturday, March 24. The previous record for the earliest start to any season was March 27, which was set in the inaugural KBO season in 1982 and matched in 2010. Last year, the season began on March 31.
This is also the first time since 2015 that a season will start on a Saturday. The past two Opening Days fell on Fridays.
The KBO scheduled an early start to accommodate the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2. South Korea, the defending baseball champion, will send KBO stars, and the league will go on a hiatus from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3.
A shorter preparation time in spring training and a forced midseason break will make for an unpredictable year -- with the 10 clubs trying to figure out how to get their players ready for the start of the season and bring them back fresh after Sept. 3.
Against this backdrop, the Kia Tigers, the 2017 champions, have been the picture of stability.
They have retained their championship corps from last year, and they're the only club to bring back all three foreign players -- right-hander Hector Noesi, left-hander Pat Dean and outfielder Roger Bernadina.
Homegrown left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong, who won both the regular season and Korean Series MVP awards, will be back for an encore. He and Noesi tied for the league lead with 20 wins a season ago. If the duo can duplicate their performance, and the offense that last year topped the KBO with 906 runs scored and a .302 batting average can match that success, the Tigers will once again be the team to beat.
The Tigers will begin their title defense by hosting the KT Wiz for two games at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul.
The Doosan Bears, the runners-up last year, will play at home against the Samsung Lions at Jamsil Stadium in the nation's capital. Also in Seoul, the Nexen Heroes will face off against the Hanwha Eagles at Gocheok Sky Dome.
The SK Wyverns and the Lotte Giants will play at SK Happy Dream Park in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. The NC Dinos will host the LG Twins at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 450 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
All games will start at 2 p.m.
The Bears may have taken a step or two back from last year. They've parted ways with longtime ace Dustin Nippert, who signed with the Wiz, and also didn't retain right-hander Michael Bowden and infielder Nick Evans. They filled Nippert's spot in the rotation with former Lotte starter Josh Lindblom, who got roughed up in two preseason starts to the tune of seven runs on 12 hits, including six doubles, in just nine innings of work.
Jimmy Paredes, who has replaced Evans, hasn't exactly set the league on fire in preseason, both at the plate and on the field.
The Dinos, a playoff contestant in each of the past four seasons, have some question marks in their aging lineup. In the rotation, they have replaced seasoned veterans Eric Hacker and Jeff Manship with a pair of 20-somethings, Logan Verrett and Wang Wei-Chung, who will be asked to provide the same kind of stability as their predecessors.
The Lotte Giants ended their five-year postseason drought in 2017. Though they got knocked out in the first round, they should be back stronger this year. They signed former Doosan outfielder Min Byung-hun via free agency, putting the All-Star in what could be the best-hitting outfield in the league.
Min is a career .299 hitter in 1,096 games and has batted at least .300 in each of the past five seasons. In 2017, Min batted .304/.389/.445 with 14 home runs, 71 RBIs and 21 doubles.
Son A-seop, the starting right fielder, is a career .325 hitter who led the KBO in hits and posted his first 20-20 season in 2017. Jeon Jun-woo patrolled center field in 2017 while setting career highs with a .321 batting average and 69 RBIs.
In the rotation, they replaced the departed Lindblom with former big league starter Felix Doubront, who, along with returning southpaw Brooks Raley, should give the club the finest lefty-lefty duo in any rotation.
The Wyverns, who won the wild card last year as the fifth-ranked team in the regular season, will welcome back their own star left-hander in Kim Kwang-hyun. The 2008 league MVP missed the entire last season following an elbow surgery, and he has looked sharp in preseason this spring. He won't have the burden of carrying the rotation, with Merrill Kelly, the 2017 strikeout leader, back for his fourth season.
In 2017, the Wyverns actually had a middling staff aside from Kelly. It was the offense that defined this club, which established a new single season record with 234 home runs, including a league-leading 46 home runs by third baseman Choi Jeong. In this offense-happy league, long balls will always be a recipe for success.
The Heroes could give the Wyverns a run for their money in the home run department, as they've reacquired Park Byung-ho, a two-time MVP and a four-time home run king who spent the past two seasons in the Minnesota Twins system.
In his two previous KBO seasons, Park smacked 52 homers in 2014 and 53 in 2015, becoming the first KBO player with two straight 50-homer seasons. If he can recapture that power stroke, he and Choi, who has hit 86 homers the past two years, should put on a memorable race.
Park will also try to take the Heroes back to the postseason after they finished 5.5 games out of the wild card spot in 2017. Finishing half a game up on the Heroes were the Twins, who came undone due to an anemic offense that ranked at or near the bottom in batting average, runs scored and home runs.
The signing of former major league outfielder Kim Hyun-soo, formerly of the Baltimore Orioles and the Minnesota Twins, may not be enough unless their other young hitters show significant progress.
The bottom third of the KBO will likely remain the same for the second straight year. The Eagles, the Lions and the Wiz occupied the last three spots in the standings, and none of them made enough improvements in the offseason to instill much confidence in their frustrated fan bases.
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