Reviewing the KBO Offseason: Part 1

While MLB’s lockout means baseball in the United States has descended to the is-Jon-Lester-a-Hall-of-Famer level of purgatory, the KBO has been going swimmingly. As of this writing, all available free agents have signed, and only one team, the Doosan Bears, is without a third foreign player on its roster. And with the chances of a blockbuster trade extremely slim, I thought now would be a good time to recap what happened in the KBO this winter.

I’m doing this in order of the regular season standings, so Part 1 will discuss 2021’s top five teams, while Part 2 will deal with the remaining five. Without further ado, here’s the latest news on baseball in Korea:

Team Notes

KT Wiz
As defending champions, the Wiz only needed to maintain a certain amount of talent on their roster to have another shot at contending – and that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished. William Cuevas 쿠에바스 and Odrisamer Despaigne 데스파이네 both agreed to return on one-year deals, which is great news for the Wiz: Their rotation last season ranked first in ERA and innings pitched by a wide margin. Notably, Despaigne has tossed 396.1 innings since joining the Wiz in 2020, meaning even if he’s a bit rustier in 2022, he’ll still anchor what projects to be a deep staff.

Replacing Jared Hoying 호잉 in the outfield is Henry Ramos, who most recently appeared in 18 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hitting for a paltry 48 wRC+ before getting outrighted from the 40-man roster in October. But he absolutely raked in Triple-A (.371/.439/.582), and if there’s anything we’ve learned from his predecessors, it’s that minor league stats can be a reliable predictor of KBO success.

The Wiz focused on retaining talent on the free agent market as well, bringing back starting catcher Sung-woo Jang 장성우 and the versatile Jae-Gyun Hwang on multi-year contracts. What did come as a surprise, however, was the team’s decision to sign Kiwoom franchise icon ByungHo Park 박병호 for three years and three billion won.

That may seem reasonable, but Park’s decline has been precipitous – alarmingly so. Father time is much more forgiving in the KBO, especially to elite hitters; it’s not rare for a slugger to remain productive into his mid-30s. But below is Park’s wRC+ from his age-32 to 35 seasons against those of his contemporaries, and well, something is off:

KBO Hitter wRC+ by Age
Player Age-32 Age-33 Age-34 Age-35
Ji-wan Na 나지완 139 131 83 124
Hyung-woo Choi 175 160 139 148
Taekyun Kim 김태균 159 154 164 140
ByungHo Park 184 160 109 101

Can he rebound this season? Maybe, but it’s clear his power has dwindled, and Park has spent the last few seasons dealing with various injuries. At the very least, he’ll fill a gaping hole the Wiz had at the DH position, and besides, it’s just too early to send off what will always be remembered as an excellent career.

Samsung Lions
To kick off the offseason, the Lions and left-handed pitcher Jung-hyun Baek 백정현 agreed to a four-year contract worth 3.8 billion won. After languishing as an unremarkable member of the Lions’ ‘pen for over a decade, then as a backup starter, Baek’s 2021 represented career-bests in ERA (2.63) and innings pitched (157.2). A middling strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests he’ll be around league-average moving forward, but the Lions can’t complain about locking up the only starter on the domestic market. They did lose center fielder Hae-min Park 박해민 to the Twins, however, and his absence will be felt: Potential replacement Hun Gon Kim 김헌곤 has speed but an atrocious hit tool, and to my knowledge, there’s no outfield prospect who can reliably handle center.

Giving a four-year contract to a 36-year-old catcher? Only in the KBO! But really, Minho Kang 강민호 is one of the most durable receivers in the league. His framing and blocking may leave much to be desired, but his bat more than makes up for those shortcomings – he led all qualified catchers in offensive WAR last season. In addition, Samsung has great depth at the catcher position, meaning the team can afford to manage Kang’s workload if necessary.

The Lions bolstered their rotation with former NPB pitcher Albert Suárez and re-signed ace David Buchanan 뷰캐넌, but they also brought back Jose Pirela 피렐라. He presents an interesting case, because depending on whom you ask, Pirela had either an excellent or iffy season. He had a triple slash of .286/.359/.495! He played in 140 games! But also: He was terrible in the second half! And issues with his flat feet kept him at DH, which doesn’t bode well for his future value! Both sides have a legitimate case, leaving Pirela on the borderline of “don’t sign” and “re-sign,” with the Lions ultimately choosing the latter.

Also, and this isn’t a slight on Pirela, but rather something I found amusing: Lions Park is notorious for being hitter-friendly, and Pirela, a fly ball hitter, reaped the benefits from its odd dimensions. Here are his home/road splits from last season, for the lols:

  • Home: .309/.374/.578 (21 HR)
  • Road: .263/.345/.414 (8 HR)

Maybe it’s good the Lions kept him, after all.

LG Twins
Was there any chance he’d end up somewhere else? Hyun Soo Kim 김현수’s new contract guarantees him nine billion won across four years, with an option tacking on two more if he meets certain criteria. The plate discipline is still there despite a recent decline in power, and as the team’s captain, the Twins’ lineup is much stronger for Kim’s presence – both in terms of what we can and can’t measure.

Another no-brainer was a reunion with Casey Kelly 켈리, who’s been the bedrock of the Twins’ rotation since his KBO debut in 2019. I’m a little surprised they let Andrew Suárez go – he did miss time due to various minor injuries in the second half, but when healthy, Suárez dominated with his fastball-slider combo. I’m also surprised by the choice of Adam Plutko as a replacement, since he profiles as a discount version of Suárez. Two positives in his favor are a decent fastball shape and solid slider command, but I’ll likely remain skeptical until Plutko actually faces off against hitters.

In contrast, the Hae-min Park 박해민 signing is a great one, for a couple of reasons. He’s been extremely prolific for quite some time, having eclipsed 140 games in five consecutive seasons (2015-19). He’s undeniably good, too, so expect his range to shine at the cavernous Jamsil stadium. Plus, he provides flexibility in the outfield, perhaps in preparation for when the Twins can’t even hide Hyun Soo Kim in left. Park might have to move to a corner eventually – he turns 32 next month – but four years isn’t some massive commitment. As it is, he’ll continue to make dazzling catches for us to admire.

Additionally, the Twins added former Orioles infielder Rio Ruiz as their foreign hitter. Based on scouting reports and minor league statistics, I’d peg Ruiz to have a slightly better bat, but also slightly worse glove, than Dixon Machado 마차도, which is a fantastic outcome – though, of course, new KBO hitters are notoriously difficult to project. Also, let’s not forget Do-hwan Hur 허도환, who agreed to a modest two-year, 400 million won deal, bolstering the Twins’ catching depth. Every deal counts!

Doosan Bears
In case you missed it, Aríel Miranda 미란다 had an unbelievable 2021 campaign. After a rough first two months during which he struggled with control, it only took him 173.2 innings to set a new single-season strikeout record with 225. Miranda might have been incentivized to search for work in the NPB, but the Bears luckily re-signed him for a total of $1.9 million in salary and bonuses. He’s probably the league’s number one starter heading into 2022.

The Bears are still holding out for José Miguel Fernández 페르난데스, their designated hitter since 2019 – a reunion is close, it seems, but there has yet to be an official announcement. And filling out the last foreign player slot is right-handed pitcher Robert Stock, who replaces an effective but oft-injured Walker Lockett. (Remember Chris Flexen 플렉센 in the KBO? The Bears sure love their Mets.) What the Bears are hoping for is velocity, and lots of it. True flamethrowers are still awfully rare in Korea, and Stock sat 95-97 mph last season. If there’s a concern, however, it’s that he may be ill-equipped to deal with a starter’s workload; a 71-inning stint in Single-A represents a career high. Still, if Stock can manage to throw an above-average rate of strikes, it’s unlikely KBO hitters can do much against him, contact-wise.

Unlike last year’s mass exodus, just two Bears hit the free agent market this offseason: speedy outfielder Kun-woo Park 박건우 and lefty slugger Jae-hwan Kim 김재환. The former signed with the NC Dinos on a six-year deal, but the latter will remain in Jamsil Stadium after agreeing to a hefty four-year deal worth 11.5 billion won. That’s more than what many foresaw, but I imagine the alarm bells went off after losing Park to the Dinos, and though Kim is no longer at the height of his career, he’s still set to lead his team in home runs.

As a side note, the Bears selected Jin-sung Kang 강진성 as compensation for losing Kun-woo Park to free agency. Kang broke out in 2020 thanks to a new, contact-centric swing but regressed the following season, and is likely a league-average bat moving forward. He’ll remedy the Bears’ lack of player depth, as he has prior experience at third base as well as left field.

Kiwoom Heroes
Congrats, Heroes! You successfully brought back Eric Jokisch, the KBO’s premium sinker-baller, for a fourth season. He’s been so darn effective that I wonder if KBO teams should invest more in groundball pitchers with decent command and sufficient velocity (90+ mph). It seems to work!

Tyler Eppler is Kiwoom’s new foreign pitcher, but eh, there’s not much to say about him. He spent two seasons (2017-18) in Triple-A as an organizational depth starter, then had a disappointing stint with the Orix Buffaloes the following year. Eppler sits 91-93 with his fastball and pairs it with a changeup that works off a high release point, but he lacks a clear third pitch. He’ll provide innings, though, and with Jokisch’s raise and Yasiel Puig’s maxed out $1 million contract, Eppler was likely considered as a cost-saving measure; he’ll earn up to $400,000 in 2022.

Now a Kiwoom Hero, Puig is undeniably the biggest name to ever head to Korea. His track record makes him an attractive signing, of course – he has a career 124 wRC+ at the highest level of professional baseball, along with experience at all outfield positions. That doesn’t mean Puig is without potential drawbacks, though. In December 2021, The Washington Post reported on two alarming allegations of sexual assault against the former big leaguer. The assaults reportedly occurred in early 2017 during Puig’s tenure with the Dodgers; Puig reached confidential settlements with the two women — settlements not previously made public despite MLB’s domestic violence and sexual assault policy — and last year settled a suit brought by a third woman who alleges that Puig sexually assaulted her in 2018.

On the field, his whiff rate in 2019 soared against offspeed and breaking pitches, which KBO pitchers are more likely to use. And he hasn’t played in said highest level since then, complicating how we should project Puig moving forward:

But he did keep himself in shape at the Mexican League last year (.312/.409/.517 in 62 games), and while I don’t expect him to obliterate our modest peninsula, Eric Thames 테임즈-style, he should shine as a middle-of-the-order bat for the Heroes barring a catastrophic decline.

I’d also note that over the years, there have been numerous articles concerning Puig’s attitude and reportedly questionable work ethic. I won’t speculate on how this will affect his KBO performance, because it’s difficult to know how (and how much) the biases of those around Puig interacted with his actions to shape those public narratives. What I will say is that success in Korea requires not only talent but also a willingness to acclimate oneself to a new environment and I sincerely hope Puig doesn’t treat the KBO as merely a gateway to a second major league stint.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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10 months ago

I love this. More coverage of all baseball please 🙂