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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 1 (Yonhap) -- Before coming into his first South Korean baseball spring training as a manager, Kiwoom Heroes' skipper Hong Won-ki worked the phones, calling every player on his club for some heart-to-heart.
It's not as though Hong needed to get to know the players personally. He had been working with the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club for more than a decade, most recently as the bench coach in 2020. But the nature of his relationships with the players changed when Hong was appointed as the manager in January.
Prior to opening his camp at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on Monday, Hong said he was glad he reached out to his players.
"Sometimes, when you sit down face to face with someone, it can be difficult to open up," Hong said. "But we were able to talk about a lot of things on the phone, and I think it was beneficial for me, too. I saw it as an opportunity for me to listen to what the players had on their mind, before I gave them any sort of a message."
Hong said the phone conversations mostly centered on how to best prepare for the new season and how the players should try to stay healthy for the full season.
The new manager said he'll let the players run the clubhouse and police themselves for the most part.
"My job is to encourage them," Hong said. "(Captain) Park Byung-ho said he's going to help me out in that regard, too. In our ball club, veteran guys have always had an important role with younger guys, more so than coaches. Older guys will show the way and set a good example."
One of those veterans this year will be outfielder Lee Yong-kyu, who signed as a free agent in November after some fallout with the Hanwha Eagles. The 35-year-old is expected to bring some speed and defense on the field and grit and leadership off the field.
"I want to give him a bear hug and personally welcome him to our club," Hong said of Lee. "There are areas where we'll definitely need him. He's going to bring a lot of intangibles to our team."
Naming the new manager was far from the only offseason business for the Heroes. They've lost slugging shortstop Kim Ha-seong to the San Diego Padres, and his absence will leave a gaping hole in the heart of the lineup. Utility man Kim Hye-seong is an excellent defender who can handle multiple positions, but he isn't nearly the power hitter that Kim Ha-seong is.
Kim Ha-seong led the Heroes with 30 home runs and 109 RBIs while slugging a career-high .523. But Kim Hye-seong had just seven homers and posted a .399 slugging percentage.
Hong acknowledged that the Heroes' power numbers will suffer without Kim Ha-seong, and the team will have to adjust its game plan accordingly.
"It will take a team effort to fill that void," Hong said of Kim's absence. "We don't know exactly where Kim Hye-seong will play (on the field). But he'll just have to play to his strengths."
Compounding that expected power outage is the fact that the Heroes haven't been able to sign a new foreign hitter yet. They're the only KBO team not to have acquired a foreign bat before spring training.
Last year, they received dismal production from their two foreign hitters, Taylor Motter and Addison Russell. Now that Kim Ha-seong is gone and few internal options exist, the Heroes will need to hit a jackpot with their foreign bat signing.
"I've asked the front office to sign someone who can hit in clutch and drive in runs," Hong said. "Considering the mandatory quarantine (14 days for all international arrivals) and preparation time, we'd like to have someone by early March so he'll be ready for April 3 Opening Day."
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