By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) -- As the year 2020 winds down, just over half the teams in the South Korean baseball league have taken care of one piece of important business for the new season: signing their three foreign players.
Clubs in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) are each permitted to sign up to three players from overseas, with a maximum of two pitchers. The league's 10 teams almost always sign two pitchers and one position player, and the 2021 season will be no exception.
Rare is a team that enjoys success without significant contributions from foreign players, but on the flip side, a club can still miss the postseason despite strong performances from foreign players. In 2020, the Lotte Giants finished below .500 and nine games out of the playoffs in seventh place, despite impressive debut seasons from right-hander Dan Straily, who topped the league with 205 strikeouts, and shortstop Dixon Machado, who quickly became one of the KBO's best defenders at any position.
It came as no surprise that Machado was one of the first foreign players to re-sign for next season, as he inked his new one-year deal, with a club option for a second season, on Nov. 6. Two weeks later, the Giants signed new pitcher Enderson Franco and then retained Straily on a new one-year deal on Dec. 3.
The Giants are one of six clubs to have filled their foreign player quota for next season. Incidentally, five of those are non-playoff teams from 2020, and their swift action -- relatively speaking, anyway -- seems to indicate their urgency to turn things around in the new season.
The KT Wiz are the only playoff club to have signed three foreign players for 2021. They had huge shoes to fill, as outfielder Mel Rojas Jr., the reigning league MVP, signed with the Japanese club Hanshin Tigers. The Wiz signed switch-hitting, outfielder Zoilo Almonte, coming from Japan, to a $775,000 contract last week.
Both of the Wiz's starters from 2020, Odrisamer Despaigne and William Cuevas, will be back.
The reigning champions NC Dinos have been curiously quiet. They have already decided to part ways with right-hander Mike Wright, and are said to be in talks with the 19-game winner Drew Rucinski and 30-homer slugger Aaron Altherr for their third and second seasons, respectively.
Runners-up Doosan Bears newly acquired left-hander Ariel Miranda and re-signed designated hitter Jose Miguel Fernandez two days before Christmas. They're also nearing an agreement with right-hander Walker Lockett.
Their two Seoul rivals, LG Twins and the Kiwoom Heroes, both remain one foreign player short.
The Twins have re-signed starter Casey Kelly and first baseman Roberto Ramos, and are looking to replace right-hander Tyler Wilson.
The Heroes will bring back the reigning ERA champion Eric Jokisch for his third season, and signed Josh A. Smith in place of veteran starter Jake Brigham, who will pitch in Taiwan next year.
They still need a new foreign bat after letting go of Addison Russell. The former National League All-Star with the Chicago Cubs was a huge disappointment after joining the Heroes in midseason.
The SK Wyverns, which finished in ninth place just two seasons after winning the Korean Series, beat everyone to the punch. On Oct. 31, just one day after their final regular season game, the Wyverns announced the re-signing of first baseman Jamie Romak and acquisitions of new pitchers, Wilmer Font and Artie Lewicki.
The Hanwha Eagles, the only team to finish below the Wyverns in 2020, signed two new pitchers, Nick Kingham and Ryan Carpenter, at the end of November, and then added infielder Ryon Healy to the mix a week later.
Of the non-playoff clubs, the sixth-ranked Kia Tigers became the last to complete the puzzle, as they signed new pitcher Daniel Mengden on Christmas Day.
The former Oakland Athletics right-hander has appeared in 60 major league games, including 48 starts, and compiled a 17-20 record with a 4.64 ERA.
The mustachioed 27-year-old joins his former Oakland teammate Aaron Brooks in the Tigers' rotation. Brooks was one of the KBO's best starters in 2020, finishing third in ERA with 2.50 and second in walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) with 1.02. Brooks' season was cut short in late September when he had to return to the United States to attend to family matters, but the Tigers made another one-year commitment to the right-hander in November.
The Samsung Lions, which finished in eighth after an encouraging start, will bring back both of their foreign starters, David Buchanan and Ben Lively. They also signed new outfielder Jose Pirela.
Buchanan will be the highest-paid foreign player next year at $1.5 million. The KBO imposes a $1 million cap only on first-year foreign players.
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