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Trio of ex-big leaguers eager for new opportunity in S. Korea

Sports 08:01 February 04, 2019

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Feb. 4 (Yonhap) -- After failing to defend their South Korean baseball championship in 2018, the Kia Tigers did some house cleaning and replaced all three of their foreign players.

They were one of the two teams in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), along with the last-place NC Dinos, to sign three new imports this offseason. And the new faces for the Tigers -- outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker and pitchers Jacob Turner and Joe Wieland -- said they're ready to write a new chapter in their careers.

In this Getty Images file photo from April 9, 2017, Jeremy Hazelbaker, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks, adjusts his batting gloves during a Major League Baseball regular season game against the Cleveland Indians at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Hazelbaker now plays for the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization. (Yonhap)

Hazelbaker, 31, will be replacing Roger Bernadina, who batted .310 with 20 homers, 70 RBIs and 32 steals in 2018. The year before that, Bernadina hit .320 with 27 homers, 111 RBIs and 32 steals, and had a strong Korean Series to help the Tigers win their first title since 2009.

Bernadina, who patrolled center field, was one of the KBO's most productive leadoff hitters, and Hazelbaker said he's ready to step right in for the departed star.

"(Playing center field and batting leadoff) are both things I've done before in the big leagues, and I've had success," Hazelbaker said Thursday before departing for Okinawa, Japan, the site of the Tigers' spring training. "I feel like, whatever the organization wants, I am ready for it. Whether it's offensively or defensively, whatever I can, it's my goal to help this team out."

Some players in the recent past, notably infielder Eric Thames and pitcher Merrill Kelly, have signed with big league clubs after a successful run in the KBO. Asked if he wanted to follow in their footsteps, Hazelbaker said he won't look beyond 2019.

"My goal is just to play well this year and see what happens," he said. "I don't have any plans for the future. If things work out here and I love it here and the team loves me here, I feel like I can stay here and play. Right now, the goal is to perform well this year."

In this Getty Images file photo from Aug. 7, 2017, Jacob Turner, then with the Detroit Tigers, pitches against the Los Angeles Angels in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Angel Stadium In Anaheim, California. Turner is now pitching for the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization. (Yonhap)

On the mound, Turner and Wieland, both right-handers, are going to take over from former 20-game winner Hector Noesi and left-hander Pat Dean.

Turner, who has pitched in 102 major league games, including five appearances in 2018, said coming to the KBO was "a good opportunity for me to continue to get better as a player."

"I am just excited to do something new and experience something new," the 27-year-old said. "I'll just try to attack the hitter. My biggest focus is to be aggressive. Obviously, I am confident. I wouldn't be playing baseball if I wasn't confident in what I was doing."

Wielend, 29, last pitched in the majors in 2016. He spent the past two seasons with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and was a combined 14-11 with a 3.80 ERA in 37 starts, covering 225 innings.

Wieland said there are more power hitters in the KBO than in the NPB, and he was looking forward to the chance to see more of the differences and figure out how to make adjustments.

While in Japan, Wieland said he often marveled at his teammates' work ethic, and he's ready to bring the same approach here.

"They really, really, really practice. There are a lot of times you look around and it's like, 'Gosh, these guys are already in mid-season form and it's January or early February.' The attention to detail and how hard they work is definitely the biggest difference (with MLB), in my opinion. But at the end of the day, it's still the same baseball."

This photo provided by the Kia Tigers baseball club on Dec. 5, 2018, shows their new pitcher, Joe Wieland. (Yonhap)


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