By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- Now comes the hard part.
Over the weekend, South Korean pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong took a huge step toward realizing his lifelong dream of pitching in Major League Baseball (MLB), as he signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers.
It's a split contract, meaning he'll be paid different amounts of money based on the time spent in the majors and the minors. If Yang pitches in the majors all season, he'll receive US$1.3 million, and another $550,000 in performance-based incentives will be up for grabs.
Yang, 32, has not been placed on the Rangers' 40-man roster but received an invitation to spring training, where he'll have a chance to win a big league job in what should be an intriguing rotation battle.
For the Rangers, pitchers and catchers will report to camp in Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday.
His mediocre 2020 season notwithstanding, Yang has a proven track record from his 14 years for the Kia Tigers in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
Most notably, Yang was the regular season MVP here in 2017 by going 20-6 with a 3.44 ERA, and also won the Korean Series MVP that year after helping the Tigers to their first title since 2009. Yang remains the only KBO player to capture both awards in the same year. The left-hander later earned his second career ERA title in 2019 with a 2.29 mark in 184 2/3 innings.
Yang has a four-pitch mix of four-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. The fastball has been Yang's primary pitch, with the usage rate ranging from 54.2 percent to 60.2 percent since 2014. The slider was Yang's secondary pitch from 2014 to 2016, but the changeup has since taken over. Yang threw his changeup a career-high 21.7 percent of the time last year.
Yang has never been an overpowering type, even by the KBO's modest standard compared to MLB. He did throw harder in 2020 than any other season as a starter: according to the statistics website Statiz, Yang averaged a career-best 144.2 kilometers per hour (89.6 miles per hour) with his fastball. He also set or matched personal highs in average velocities for curveball, slider and changeup.
As it stands, Kyle Gibson, Mike Foltynewicz and Kohei Arihara appear to be locks in the Rangers' rotation. Gibson is an eight-year big league veteran with 200 starts to his credit, and the Rangers signed both Foltynewicz and Arihara as free agents with the intention of using them as starters. The former made 118 major league starts for the Atlanta Braves from 2015 to 2020, and the latter has been a successful starter in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) before inking a two-year deal with the Rangers.
That leaves the likes of Yang, Kyle Cody, Jordan Lyles and half-Korean Dane Dunning battling for the final couple of spots in a conventional five-man unit.
Cody made five starts last year as a rookie. Lyles is already entering his 11th year at age 30. In 2020, Lyles allowed an MLB-worst 45 earned runs in 57 2/3 innings over his 12 appearances, including nine starts, which translated into a 7.02 ERA.
The Rangers dealt their former ace Lance Lynn to the Chicago White Sox in December to acquire Dunning, who was a perfect 2-0 with a 3.97 ERA in seven starts in 2020 as a rookie.
Unlike others in the mix, Yang has no prior major league experience. But considering some other factors, he will likely get his share of opportunities to toe the rubber against big league hitters this year.
For one, because MLB had to shorten its schedule from 162 games to 60 games last year due to effects of the coronavirus pandemic, no one in the rotation battle threw more innings in 2020 than Yang's 172 1/3.
With MLB back to the usual 162-game slate for 2021, the Rangers and many other clubs will be carefully monitoring the workloads of their starters, young or old.
And in Cody and Dunning, the Rangers have a pair of 26-year-old right-handers who likely won't be pushed to make 30 starts this year.
They both missed the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgeries on their elbows, and were eased back into action in the truncated 2020 season. This year will be their first full season since the operations.
Yang is as durable as they come in the KBO, with no history of shoulder and elbow injuries other than dealing with minor shoulder pains during spring training in 2012. Yang has thrown at least 170 innings every year since 2014, the season when he became a full-time starter with no more bullpen cameos. In that span, no KBO pitcher has gobbled up more innings than Yang's 1,290 2/3.
With a surplus of starter-caliber arms in camp ahead of a rebuilding season, the Rangers may do away with the traditional five-man rotation and go with six starters this year.
As COVID-19 is once again expected to wreak havoc on the season, there will be plenty of double headers that will force managers' hands. The Rangers, just as other teams, could opt to have two starter-level pitchers split innings in the same game in a piggyback arrangement.
That Yang is the only left-hander in this battle may also work to his favor. Kolby Allard made eight starts for the Rangers last year to lead all southpaws on the team, but he was moved to the relief role late in the season and is seen as a bullpen piece moving forward.
If Yang had hit free agency a few years earlier, he likely would have been able to secure a guaranteed big league deal.
Yang's 4.70 ERA in 2020 was his worst mark as a full-time starter. While some advanced numbers suggest Yang may have been tad unlucky, he didn't help himself by walking more than twice as many batters per nine innings as he did in 2019. His strikeout rate dipped, too.
Recency bias likely kept major league clubs from aggressively pursuing Yang's services earlier in the offseason. The Rangers got him less than a week before pitchers are to report to camp, and did so with a minor league deal at that.
But the Rangers have known and kept their eyes on Yang for years. After the 2014 season, Yang was posted for MLB clubs. Under a different set of rules back then, interested big league clubs had to submit bids in a silent auction for the exclusive rights to negotiate with the posted player. The Rangers apparently won the bid, but the Tigers, Yang's KBO club, weren't pleased with the amount of that bid -- they stood to pocket that money in compensation if Yang signed a big league contract -- and pulled Yang from the market.
The Rangers then watched Yang evolve further before finally acquiring him.
"He's a proven winner, not only for Kia in the KBO, but in competing on big stages in international competition," Rangers assistant general manager Josh Boyd told The Dallas Morning News on Friday. "He's a durable strike-thrower with great feel for executing four pitches. He's a highly-respected teammate, and he's hungry to prove himself and fulfill his goal of continuing his success in the major leagues."
If Yang makes the Rangers out of camp, he'd become the third South Korean player to don their uniform, after retired pitcher Park Chan-ho and free agent outfielder Choo Shin-soo.
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