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American teammates see future major leaguers in current KBO stars

Sports 07:00 September 26, 2020

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 26 (Yonhap) -- As former major leaguers now plying their trade in South Korea, Aaron Brooks and Drew Rucinski know a future big leaguer when they see one. And they believe they're both playing with eventual major leaguers on their respective Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) clubs.

This year, Brooks has been leading the Kia Tigers' rotation that also features left-hander Yang Hyeon-jong, the 2017 KBO regular season and Korean Series MVP. At 32, Yang will likely take his second crack at Major League Baseball (MLB) in free agency after this season.

Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Kiwoom Heroes in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 22, 2020. (Yonhap)

Rucinski, starter for the NC Dinos, is the KBO leader with 15 wins. He has also enjoyed strong offensive support, too, with 4.91 runs scored per start putting him in second place among qualified starters in the KBO. That's thanks in no small part to slugging designated hitter/outfielder Na Sung-bum.

For the Tigers, Yang has pitched to an uncharacteristic 4.64 ERA -- his worst as a starter since 2014. But Brooks said the bespectacled ace still has what it takes to be successful in the bigs.

"When he's on, I haven't seen anybody this year being able to hit the bottom of the zone like he does," Brooks said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Monday. "And he's got a really good changeup and a curveball to go off of that. When he's on, he's filling up the bottom of the zone, and that's going to get him a lot of groundballs and soft contact."

Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Kiwoom Heroes in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 22, 2020. (Yonhap)

Brooks, in his first KBO season, wasn't around here to see Yang win 20 games in the 2017 regular season and then lifting the Tigers to their first Korean Series title that same year, ending an eight-year drought. Now with a front-row seat on one of the KBO's top starters over recent seasons, Brooks said Yang's up-and-down performance this year has mostly to do with his inability to consistently stay ahead in the count.

"I think a little bit of why he's struggled this year is just falling behind and guys guessing right on what he's going to throw," Brooks observed. "And they get base hits here and there."

In 2014, Yang was posted by the Tigers, putting the pitcher up for a silent auction among big league clubs for the exclusive rights to negotiate with him. The Tigers, though, weren't satisfied with the amount of the winning bid, which they would have pocketed had Yang reached a deal with the unidentified MLB team. Yang was taken off the market without even sitting down for contract talks.

In this file photo from July 17, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers (C) greets teammate Aaron Brooks from the top step of the dugout after the top of the eighth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Doosan Bears at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Since 2015, no KBO pitcher has thrown more innings than Yang's 1,077. That workload may finally be taking its toll on the 32-year-old body, but Brooks said he has noticed something in Yang beyond his obvious pitching skills.

"He also has that confidence on the mound. I think that goes a long way, too. Hitters can tell, and they can feel the energy that he brings when he's out there," Brooks said. "I think as long as he can fill up the bottom of the zone with all his pitches like I've seen him, I think he's got as good a chance as anybody (to make it to MLB)."

In this file photo from Aug. 28, 2020, Na Sung-bum of the NC Dinos hits a single against the Doosan Bears in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Rucinski said Na, who was batting .322/.392/.618 through Friday, should be just fine against big league pitching, as long as he can survive an early adjustment period.

"He does well when he is facing foreign pitchers here," Rucinski told Yonhap on Tuesday. "It'll be a change of pace for him, seeing consistently harder velocity. But I think hitters can make that adjustment. Anyone can hit a fastball regardless of velocity. They just need to see enough of them."

Na, tied for third with 29 home runs and fifth with 93 RBIs, can be posted this offseason and he has already hired uber-agent Scott Boras to represent him. The Dinos are blessed with another potential future big leaguer in left-hander Koo Chang-mon, who is still a few years away from posting eligibility.

In this file photo from Aug. 29, 2020, Na Sung-bum of the NC Dinos heads to first base after hitting a ground ball against the SK Wyverns during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Koo was sensational at the start of this season, going 9-0 with a 1.55 ERA in 13 starts. He had 99 strikeouts in 87 innings when the Dinos deactivated him from the roster to give him a breather. Then they discovered inflammation in his left forearm and later during his rehab, a slight fracture in the same arm was detected. He hasn't pitched since July 26.

But Rucinski already saw enough of Koo's dominant stretch this year to feel convinced the 23-year-old can pitch in MLB.

n this file photo from July 26, 2020, Koo Chang-mo of the NC Dinos pitches against the KT Wiz in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Rucinski also made a comparison with a former KBO left-hander who enjoyed a successful rookie season in the majors: St. Louis Cardinals' starter Kim Kwang-hyun, who went 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA.

Kim was an MVP-winning starter and a perennial All-Star here before making the jump to the majors. Rucinski said Koo is capable of following a similar career trajectory.

"It's been incredible to watch Kim and how much success he's had with the Cardinals this year," Rucinski said. "For Chang-mo, he's the exact same guy. He can go do all that. Just got to get him to stay healthy, and the sky is the limit for him."

In this file photo from July 18, 2020, Koo Chang-mo of the NC Dinos pitches against the KT Wiz in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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