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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 4 (Yonhap) -- The reigning South Korean baseball champions opened the new year by bringing back two key foreign players, as the foreign player puzzle in the league neared completion.
After the NC Dinos re-signed right-hander Drew Rucinski and outfielder Aaron Altherr on New Year's Day, four teams in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) are now one piece away from filling up their foreign player slots for the 2021 season. The six other teams finished their work on that front before flipping their calendars.
KBO clubs can each acquire up to three players from overseas, with a maximum of two pitchers. And the league's 10 teams will once again each sign two pitchers and one position player for 2021.
The Dinos awarded Rucinski a new one-year deal worth up to US$1.8 million -- $1.3 million in salary, $300,000 in signing bonus and $200,000 in incentives. He earned $1.4 million last year while winning 19 games in the regular season and going 2-0 with a save in the Dinos' six-game Korean Series victory over the Doosan Bears in November.
Altherr had 31 home runs, 22 steals and 108 RBIs in his first KBO season in 2020, and batted .333 with a home run and five RBIs in the Korean Series. His reward: a new contract for 2021 that can net him up to $1.4 million. He'll make $1.1 million in salary and $200,000 in signing bonus and pick up an additional $100,000 in incentives.
The Dinos are looking for a second foreign pitcher to join Rucinski in the rotation after parting ways with Mike Wright.
Three Seoul-based clubs each remain one foreign player short: The Doosan Bears and the LG Twins are both looking to add a pitcher, and the Kiwoom Heroes are in need of a new batter.
The Bears are said to be close to signing right-hander Walker Lockett, and the Twins have been linked to left-hander Andrew Suarez.
Time isn't necessarily on these teams' side.
Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, all KBO teams will have spring training in South Korea, instead of warmer regions in the United States or other parts of Asia as they did in the past. Camps will open on Feb. 1, and given the mandatory 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals into South Korea, teams must sign new foreign players by next week if they want to have them available at the start of spring training.
Of the four clubs still needing to sign one more foreign player, the Heroes may have the most urgency.
Their two foreign bats, Taylor Motter and his midseason replacement Addison Russell, were major disappointments. They combined for just three home runs and 34 RBIs in 75 games, and batted only .237. With such dismal production from their foreign hitters, it was a minor miracle that the Heroes even qualified for the postseason.
Their hard-hitting shortstop Kim Ha-seong certainly did his part to take them to the playoffs, as he led the club with 30 home runs and 109 RBIs. But he recently signed a four-year deal with the San Diego Padres, leaving a gaping hole on the left side of the infield and the middle of the lineup.
The Heroes have not yet hired a manager for 2021.
Kiwoom general manager Kim Chi-hyun said Monday he will prioritize offense over defense in his pursuit of a new foreign position player and added he'd like to have the player in South Korea by the end of January, at the latest.
"Given the amount of time required to get the visa processed and the two-week quarantine, we can't afford to wait much longer, and we'll try to get a deal done within this week," Kim said. "Ideally, it'd be nice to have a player who can hit and play good defense too. But for now, we're focusing on the bat."
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