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Defending baseball champions start title defense with bull's-eye on back

All Headlines 17:03 March 22, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- As the defending champions of South Korean baseball, the Kia Tigers have the proverbial bull's-eye on their back heading into the new season.

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) held its annual media day with managers and two players each from all 10 clubs on Thursday, two days before Opening Day. At a time when hope springs eternal for every team, all 10 managers said their goal is to win the Korean Series championship in 2018 -- and that includes the Tigers' bench boss Kim Ki-tai.

Managers and player representatives from the 10 Korea Baseball Organization clubs attend the league's annual media day in Seoul on March 22, 2018. (Yonhap)

"I think nine other clubs have all improved over the winter," Kim said. "But I still think we're the team to beat. We'll try to entertain our fans once again."

The Tigers defeated the Doosan Bears in five games in last year's Korean Series. The Bears had won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, and their manager, Kim Tae-hyung, said Thursday his team will try to snatch the trophy back.

"It was disappointing to lose the championship last year, and I promise our fans that we'll bring the trophy home again," Kim said.

But the Bears' manager added, "I believe the Tigers will be very tough to beat."

Trey Hillman, the U.S.-born manager for the SK Wyverns, said both the Tigers and the Bears appear to have what it takes return to the Korean Series.

"Obviously, we'd like to win the championship ourselves," Hillman said. "But I think the two teams to beat were the teams that were in the championship series last year. Most of their guys are back healthy. If we're going to win, we're going to have to go through these two teams."

Kim Ki-tai (C), manager of the Kia Tigers, is flanked by outfielder Na Ji-wan (L) and pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong at the annual Korea Baseball Organization media day in Seoul on March 22, 2018. (Yonhap)

The Tigers have indeed retained their championships core from a year ago, including a pair of 20-game winners, Yang Hyeon-jong and Hector Noesi. Outfielder Roger Bernadina is back for his second season after batting .320 with 27 home runs, 111 RBIs and 32 steals, while leading the KBO with 118 runs scored.

The Bears have lost All-Star outfielder Min Byung-hun in free agency but all other key position players will be back, including slugger Kim Jae-hwan, who had 35 homers and 115 RBIs in 2017, and emerging outfielder Park Kun-woo, who ranked second with a .366 batting average last season.

Aside from the Tigers, the Bears and the Wyverns, the NC Dinos and the Lotte Giants also competed in last year's playoffs. NC manager Kim Kyung-moon is still searching for his first title in his 15th season as manager, and he said this just could be the year when his personal drought ends.

"I think we have the talent to compete with all the other clubs in the league," he said. "I hope the players will all have fun on the field."

The Giants' skipper Cho Won-woo also has some reason for optimism, after they acquired former Doosan star Min Byung-hun via free agency and signed former major league starter Felix Doubront.

"We've had a great spring training, and we've had some reinforcements over the winter," Cho said. "We'll take it one game at a time to try to get to the championships."

The championship trophy for the Korea Baseball Organization is on display during the league's annual media day in Seoul on March 22, 2018. (Yonhap)

Among the clubs who were left outside looking in last year, the Nexen Heroes are counting on slugger Park Byung-ho, who has rejoined the club after two years with the Minnesota Twins, to provide some much-needed offensive punch.

Their manager Jang Jung-suk said he is hoping Park and Michael Choice, former big leaguer himself, will combine for 100 home runs in 2018.

"I know it puts a lot of pressure on Byung-ho, but there's so much he can do to help the ball club off the field as well," Jang said. "I think we have a really confident group of guys here, and having that confidence will be a huge asset."

The LG Twins are another club bringing in a former Korean big leaguer, as outfielder Kim Hyun-soo has ended his two-year major league stint to return to the KBO.

The Twins' manager Ryu Joong-il said Kim will be a major part of his team's bid for a playoff spot.

"He's a proven hitter, and I am hoping he can hit at least .350 with 30 or more home runs," Ryu said. "I think we've addressed our weak points during spring training and we're only going to get better as the season wears on."

As for who he feels will be the last club standing, Ryu said, "I think the Tigers and the Bears look strong, and every other club seems pretty good, too. It's going to be a fun season."

The expansion KT Wiz have finished in last place in each of their first three seasons, winning 52, 53 and 50 games from 2015 to 2017. But their manager Kim Jin-wook, entering his second season, vowed that things will be different in 2018.

"Our goal is to reach .500 in winning percentage and crack the top five in the standings," Kim said. "And I am sure fans will enjoy watching us underdogs wreak havoc on the league. We'll give them something fun to watch."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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