By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- His stretch of dominance in South Korea having culminated in an MVP award this year, slugger Mel Rojas Jr. is taking his talent to Japan for 2021.
So why did he choose to leave the KT Wiz in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to sign with the Hanshin Tigers in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)?
For one, Rojas Jr. said he didn't just sign with Hanshin because of money. It was his competitive fire that led him to a league widely considered superior to the KBO. He wanted to prove to Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs that he could play against tougher competition than in South Korea.
"Some MLB front office people, especially general managers, said what I've been doing in Korea doesn't mean anything for MLB teams because (the KBO) is not as competitive as MLB," Rojas told Yonhap News Agency on Monday while on vacation with his family in Nashville, Tennessee.
"They said if I did something similar in Japan, then they'll give me MLB deals for sure," he said. "And that made me upset. People were doubting me, and I wanted to take on that challenge."
Rojas has little left to prove in the KBO, where he batted .321/.388/.594 with 132 home runs and 409 RBIs in 511 games.
He arrived as a midseason replacement for Johnny Monell in June 2017 and hit .301 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs in 83 games.
In 2018, his first full season, Rojas exploded for 43 home runs and 114 RBIs, while also stealing 18 bags.
He followed that up with a 24-homer, 104-RBI campaign in 2019 and then set the KBO on fire with his MVP season in 2020. Rojas led the league with 47 home runs and 135 RBIs, and finished third with a .349 batting average as he came up one category shy of winning the Triple Crown.
Rojas also topped all players with 116 runs scored, 374 total bases, .680 slugging percentage and 1.097 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
The 30-year-old has yet to play in the majors, and he feels proving himself in Japan will take him closer to the big show.
At the same time, money did come into play. Starting next year, the KBO will allow clubs to reduce player salaries if the season is interrupted by extraordinary events such as the coronavirus pandemic. Rojas said he'll be guaranteed his full salary in the NPB, no matter what the situation.
Rojas signed for two years at US$5 million, plus $500,000 in incentives. He has a player option for the second season. The Wiz said last week they were prepared to make Rojas the highest-paid foreign batter in KBO history. Former Samsung Lions' infielder Darin Ruf holds the record with $1.7 million that he earned in 2019. Rojas made $1.5 million in 2020.
Rojas acknowledged that he had the same offer from both the Tigers and the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants, but he chose the former for a combination of on-field and off-field reasons.
"They're still working on putting together a really good team for next year," Rojas said of the Tigers. "Tokyo is really nice, and the Giants are like the (New York) Yankees in Japan. But Hanshin is based in a more family-friendly city (Nishinomiya). My family is going to come with me."
Rojas said he had such a great time with the Wiz that he'd love to come back to South Korea to play again.
"KT fans have been great," he said. "I am very thankful for the way the KT fans have treated me with a lot of respect. From the bottom of my heart, I truly appreciate that."
Asked to pick his favorite moment as a member of the Wiz, Rojas chose the team's clinching of the No. 2 seed for this year's postseason on Oct. 30, their final day of the regular season. The Wiz lost to the Hanwha Eagles 4-3 that night but still secured the second seed when the LG Twins lost to the SK Wyverns 3-2.
The Wiz were dead last among 10 teams in Rojas' first season in 2017, before improving to ninth in 2018 and then sixth in 2019. They reached the postseason for the first time in 2020.
"The day we clinched second place... that was very emotional," Rojas said. "Fans were screaming in the outfield and I knew LG had lost. I had tears coming out of my eyes. When I first got there, it was the last-place team. To finish in second place (in the regular season) was very special."
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