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Free agent pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong shuns KBO offer to keep pursuing MLB dreams

Sports 17:24 January 30, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korean free agent pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong has turned down an offer to stay at home in order to keep chasing his major league dreams, rolling the dice into an uncertain future rather than taking a safer route.

Yang ended negotiations with his original Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club, Kia Tigers, on Saturday. The day was the self-imposed deadline for Yang to decide on his destination for 2021. He had two choices: re-sign with the Tigers, who reportedly had a multiyear deal on the table, or to sign a major league contract, or at least to keep waiting for an offer to his liking.

In this file photo from Oct. 13, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the NC Dinos in the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Yang, 32, has only played for the Tigers since making his professional debut in 2007. With the big league free agency market moving slowly for pitchers, Yang had generated virtually no buzz up to this point. It led to speculation that Yang would sign what could be his final multiyear contract with the Tigers and finish his career with the club.

Instead, Yang decided to keep waiting for a big league offer that may or may not come.

"I'd like to thank the Tigers for their patience, and I am also sorry that I had to make this decision," Yang said. "But I am doing this to chase my dream. I told my manager, Matt Williams, that I was sorry I won't be with him this year. I also want to thank my fans for their continued support."

The Tigers said they "respect" Yang's decision.

"We want to thank Yang for his dedication to our ball club over the years," the club said. "We wish him nothing but success in the majors."

In this file photo from Oct. 18, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the LG Twins in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Shunning the Tigers' offer in favor of a big league pursuit is certainly a bold decision for Yang, who is coming off a poor 2020 season.

Last year, he went only 11-10 in 31 starts with a 4.70 ERA, his worst as a full-time starter. He walked 3.34 batters per nine innings, his highest in five seasons. He issued 64 walks in 172 1/3 innings in 2020 after allowing only 33 free passes in 184 2/3 innings the previous year.

Also in 2020, Yang's walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) reached 1.42. It was his worst figure since 2014.

It was only in 2017 that Yang was voted the regular season MVP, thanks to a 20-6 record and a 3.44 ERA. He also earned the Korean Series MVP award that same season by leading the Tigers to their first championship in eight years. Yang pitched a complete game shutout and saved the clinching game in that series.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers pitches against the Doosan Bears in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Yang was even better in 2019, when he was 16-8 with a 2.29 ERA in 29 starts. He served up just six home runs in 184 2/3 innings.

Yang previously tried to reach the majors in 2014. He was posted by the Tigers that year but couldn't land a deal then. A mysterious club won the bidding for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Yang, but the Tigers weren't satisfied with the amount of the winning bid and pulled Yang back from the market.

In each of the ensuing six seasons since deciding to stay with the Tigers, Yang has thrown at least 170 innings. In that span, the workhorse left-hander leads all KBO pitchers with 85 wins, 10 complete games, 925 strikeouts and 1,119 1/3 innings pitched.

The quiet pitching market in the majors doesn't appear to be helping. The top free agent pitcher, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, remains unsigned.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers (R) is greeted by his manager Matt Williams (L) in front of the dugout during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Doosan Bears at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

In early January, Yang's Korean agent, Choi In-gook, had said the pitcher wouldn't settle for anything less than a fully-guaranteed major league contract. He has since softened his stance and said Yang would agree to any deal as long as he's included in a team's 40-man roster -- in which case he wouldn't be guaranteed a major league job and could potentially begin the season in the minors.

In this file photo from Oct. 29, 2020, Yang Hyeon-jong of the Kia Tigers takes a bow before fans at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, during a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the Doosan Bears. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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