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Returning big leaguers among key players to watch in new baseball season

All Headlines 07:00 March 22, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- Not one, not two, but three South Koreans who once plied their trade in the majors have come home for the new Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season, hoping to bring their respective clubs to the promised land.

Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes, Kim Hyun-soo of the LG Twins and Hwang Jae-gyun of the KT Wiz will be among the players to watch during the 2018 season, which begins on Saturday with all 10 clubs in action.

After two seasons in the Minnesota Twins system, Park is back with the Heroes, for whom he won the regular season MVP in 2012 and 2013. He led the KBO in both home runs and RBIs every year from 2012 to 2015. In 2014 and 2015, Park launched 52 and 53 home runs, becoming the first player in the league to go deep at least 50 times in consecutive seasons.

In this file photo taken on March 14, 2018, Kim Kwang-hyun of the SK Wyverns throws a pitch against the NC Dinos in the clubs' Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

In the United States, he never showed the same power stroke that made him one of the most feared sluggers here. He played in 62 major league games in 2016, hitting .191 with 12 home runs and 24 RBIs. He was sent down to Triple-A Rochester in midseason and never returned to the majors. Park was removed from the Twins' 40-man roster early last year and spent the entire season in Triple-A, batting .253 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs in 111 games.

Though he had two years remaining on his four-year, US$12 million contract, Park asked to be released from the deal and signed with the Heroes.

And the team will need Park, 31, to be the bopper that he was a few years back. The Heroes led the KBO in runs and home runs in Park's last season before his departure, but suffered significant drops in both categories in his absence, which also coincided with a move from hitter-friendly Mokdong Stadium to more cavernous Gocheok Sky Dome.

Park will be surrounded by other capable hitters, including former big leaguer Michael Choice, 2014 KBO MVP Seo Geon-chang and the 2017 Rookie of the Year Lee Jung-hoo, in what should be a dangerous Heroes lineup.

The Twins will need even more help on offense than the Heroes, who still finished third in runs last year. The Twins posted the best ERA in the league in 2017 but still missed the playoffs because of their maddening inability to score runs. They were one of just two teams to fail to score at least 700 runs in the 144-game season last year.

And enter Kim, one of the KBO's best contact hitters, who has also shown some pop in the past seasons.

In this file photo from March 13, 2018, Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes watches his solo home run against the Hanwha Eagles during their Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Hanwha Life Eagles Park in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Before signing with the Baltimore Orioles in 2015, Kim spent 10 seasons with the Doosan Bears -- who share Seoul's Jamsil Stadium with the LG Twins -- and he had a .318 lifetime batting average, at the time the second-highest mark among active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances. He earned the moniker "Hitting Machine."

In 1,131 games, Kim also had a career on-base percentage of .406, with 597 walks against 501 strikeouts.

Kim put up outstanding numbers in his most recent KBO season in 2015, with career-highs of 28 home runs, 121 RBIs, 103 runs scored and 101 walks.

Much like Park, Kim was unable to duplicate his KBO production in his short major league career, which was split between the Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies.

He overcame a slow start in his rookie year with the Orioles in 2016 and ended up with a .302 batting average and a .382 on-base percentage in 95 games.

But in 2017, Kim was an odd-man out in the crowded Orioles outfield and was traded to a rebuilding Phillies club in July, after batting just .232 with a home run and 10 RBIs in 56 games in Baltimore.

Kim, 30, was mostly limited to a bench role with the Phillies, and hit .230 in 40 games there.

After his two-year big league deal expired, Kim signed a four-year deal worth 11.5 billion won ($10.7 million) with the LG Twins in December.

At least Kim got to play in 191 big league games over two years. Hwang only appeared in 18 games with the San Francisco Giants last year, while spending the majority of the time in Triple-A Sacramento.

Kim Hyun-soo of the LG Twins watches his fly ball against the Nexen Heroes in their Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 20, 2018. (Yonhap)

Those 18 games came in two stints. Hwang opened the 2017 season in the minors, and after getting called up on June 28, he homered in his very first big league game. But he ended up batting just .167 in 13 games and got sent down to Triple-A.

He was brought back up later but did little to justify his place in the lineup. He finished with a .154 batting average with a home run and five RBIs.

In Triple-A, Hwang batted .285 with 10 home runs and 55 RBIs in 98 games.

Hwang, 30, played 10 seasons in the KBO before leaving and enjoyed his best year in 2016 with the Lotte Giants. He had a .335/.394/.570 line, 27 home runs and 113 RBIs -- all career highs. He also cut down on his strikeouts, from 122 in 2015 to 66 in 2016. Hwang stole 25 bases, the fourth time he's swiped at least 20 bags in a season.

The Wiz signed him to a four-year deal worth 8.8 billion won ($8.2 million), hoping he could spark what has been among the KBO's least productive offenses in the past three years.

The Wiz ranked last in runs scored and second to last in home runs in 2017. The Wiz joined the KBO in 2015 and have finished last in each of their first three seasons, winning 52, 53 and 50 games out of 144 games each.

The Heroes, the Twins and the Wiz all missed the playoffs in 2017. The Wiz may still be a long shot, but the Heroes and the Twins could duke it out for one of the last postseason berths come September.

One other player who didn't play in the KBO last year will bear watching in 2018: SK Wyverns' left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun.

Kim missed the entire last season after undergoing surgery to repair damage in his left elbow on Jan. 5, 2017. Kim was 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA in 2016 but was limited to 137 innings as he was bothered by lingering elbow pain all season.

He has looked sharp in preseason, as he held opponents to two earned runs over eight innings, with eight strikeouts against two walks.

Kim, 29, will try to recapture the form that once made him one of the KBO's best starters. He was voted the regular season MVP in 2008 after leading the league with 16 wins and 150 strikeouts while finishing second with a 2.39 ERA.

Kim won his first ERA title the next year with a 2.37 mark. He ranked second in the category in 2010 and again in 2014. In 2010, Kim was first in wins (17), first in innings pitched (193 2/3) and second in strikeouts (183).

A series of injuries starting in the 2011 season threatened to derail a once-promising career as Kim failed to keep his ERA below 4.00 from 2011 to 2013.

The left-hander bounced back in 2014 with a 13-9 record and a 3.42 ERA in 173 2/3 innings, his most in four seasons. After that year, Kim was posted for interested major league clubs, but his contract negotiations with the San Diego Padres fell through.

Kim remained with the Wyverns and went 25-14 over the next two seasons before sitting out 2017 with the elbow injury. He will now try to turn back the clock and help the Wyverns reach their second straight postseason.

In this file photo from March 13, 2018, Hwang Jae-gyun of the KT Wiz (C) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run in a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game against the Samsung Lions at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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