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Despite decimated bullpen, KBO club manager not about to rush young arms into relief role

All News 09:05 March 17, 2021

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 17 (Yonhap) -- With three key relievers sidelined with injuries in spring training and not expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, Kiwoom Heroes' manager Hong Won-ki acknowledges he's more concerned about his bullpen than anything else on his team.

But the first-year skipper in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) will resist temptations to move around future starters just to plug those holes.

The Heroes have lost their All-Star closer Cho Sang-woo to a serious ankle injury, while setup man Lee Young-jun is out with an elbow issue. Han Hyun-hee, a swingman who has both started and pitched in relief, is dealing with a right index finger injury. The Heroes may open the season on April 3 with all of them on the mend.

With Cho expected to be out at least until mid-May, Hong said he hasn't settled on a temporary closer yet, and added he won't take a "closer-by-committee" approach, whereby multiple relievers take turns trying to protect leads in the ninth inning.

In this file photo from March 2, 2021, Cho Young-gun of the Kiwoom Heroes pitches in an intrasquad game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

"The audition will continue through the exhibition season (from Saturday to March 30)," Hong said Tuesday, before an unofficial practice game against the LG Twins at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. "I believe an experienced pitcher should take on that role, but I first want to see different pitchers in exhibition games."

Hong said the silver lining from these injuries is that it will give other pitchers an opportunity to step up and make an impression.

The manager insisted, however, that his two young right-handers, Cho Young-gun and Kim Jeong-in, will continue to get stretched out as starters, and they won't be asked to switch roles in the middle of spring training.

"They will be back-end starters during the season," Hong said. "Considering their future in this game, I think it's only right for them to keep preparing for the starting job."

In this file photo from March 2, 2021, Kim Jeong-in of the Kiwoom Heroes pitches in an intrasquad game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Cho Young-gun, 22, made 10 starts and 10 relief appearances last year, while going 3-3 with a 5.28 ERA in 44 1/3 innings. Kim only pitched twice last year after completing his mandatory military service and was shelled for six runs in one inning of work. But more is expected out of the 24-year-old this year.

In a traditional five-man rotation, the Heroes will roll out Eric Jokisch, Josh A. Smith, Choi Won-tae, An Woo-jin and Lee Seung-ho. There's a decent balance thanks to two lefties in Jokisch and Lee. Jokisch is the prototypical crafty lefty, and An is at the other end of the spectrum as the hard-throwing righty.

In this file photo from Feb. 1, 2021, Kiwoom Heroes' manager Hong Won-ki addresses his team at the start of spring training at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Lee threw four shutout innings in a practice game versus the Doosan Bears on Sunday but also issued three walks. Hong showed some tough love for his 22-year-old left-hander.

"It wasn't just based on that one outing; I've been telling him since last year (while Hong was the team's bench coach) that he needed to be more efficient with his pitch count," Hong said. Lee needed 60 pitches to retire 17 batters in four innings against the Bears.

"If he were to eat up more innings as a starter, he has to be better," Hong added. "But at the same time, I know he was experimenting with different things in that game, and he said things are progressing well."

Lee Seung-ho of the Kiwoom Heroes pitches against the Doosan Bears in an unofficial practice game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on March 14, 2021. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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