Reviewing the KBO Offseason: Part 2

This is Part 2 of my recap of what happened this winter in the KBO, a league that saw a flurry of signings that changed the outlooks of several teams heading into the 2022 season. Part 1 can be found here, featuring analysis of the KT Wiz, Samsung Lions, LG Twins, Doosan Bears, and Kiwoom Heroes. Part 2 will cover the remaining five teams: Landers, Dinos, Giants, Tigers, and Eagles.

Team Notes

SSG Landers
Shin-Soo Choo 추신수 signed a highly publicized one-year deal with the Landers last season and proceeded to do what he does best: get on base. His .409 on-base percentage last season ranked sixth among qualified KBO hitters, and he took advantage of all those trips to first base by swiping 25 bags, which also ranked sixth. Choo didn’t generate the monstrous home run totals some Korean fans expected of him, but power was never his strongest suit. Instead, he’ll be an excellent leadoff hitter for the Landers for an additional year.

Also returning is Wilmer Font 폰트, a righty with mesmerizing stuff but a lack of consistency. He’ll fan nine or ten batters with ease when he’s on but will otherwise rack up pitch counts with substandard command, often failing to go beyond the fifth inning. He has the potential to dominate the KBO, though, which is why the Landers are committed to him once more. Count me in as well. I’m hoping Font gains trust in his stuff and starts locating more in the zone — even down the pipe. Few would have a chance. Lastly, because KBO players can now sign multi-year contracts in non–free-agent years, right-handers Jong-hun Park 박종훈 and Seung-won Moon 문승원, and outfielder Yoo-seom Han 한유섬 all agreed to five-year extensions.

As for newcomers, Kevin Cron is arriving to replace Jamie Romak 로맥, who served as the Landers’ (and formerly Wyverns’) first baseman for five seasons. Cron enters Korea with an eye-popping resume, including a .329/.446/.777 Triple-A line in 2019, but it’s worth noting he played in the Pacific Coast League, where offense skyrockets due to the hitter-friendly parks and the introduction of those bouncy, bouncy balls back in 2019. His NPB stint was lackluster (.239/.296/.433 in 95 games), which raises further concerns. But Cron is still 28, and the upside is enormous; 30-or-so home runs seem reasonable to expect from his rookie KBO season.

If asked to guess before this offseason which pitcher the Landers would sign, I legitimately think it would have taken 50 attempts for Iván Nova’s name to pop up. It’s just rare for a pitcher his age with his pedigree to consider baseball in Korea. But why even pursue him, anyways? Well, his average fastball velocity in 2020 was still a robust 92.7 mph, and he’s a groundball machine with decent walk rates that might be effective in the KBO. Nova is also 35, however, so there are clear pros and cons. All in all, he has enough positive qualities that he should end up a reliable contributor to the Landers, who barely missed the playoffs last season.

NC Dinos
The Dinos might have enjoyed a peaceful offseason if not for the Tigers, who ended up snatching away Sung-bum Na 나성범. But as some saying out there probably goes, adversity leads to opportunity, and the Dinos followed that to heart. Rather than out-bid the Tigers, the front office pursued Kun-woo Park 박건우 (six years, 10 billion won) and Ah-seop Son 손아섭 (four years, 6.4 billion won) to cover the outfield. Considering that Na signed for a total of 15 billion won, the Dinos managed to add two All-Star–caliber outfielders by spending just a little extra.

Park, who’s set to replace Aaron Altherr 알테어 in center, has an average glove at best but can absolutely clobber a baseball: Since 2015, his 138 wRC+ ranks fifth-best among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances (it’s also one point higher than Na’s, but shhhh). Son is ninth on that same list, and though he’s shown signs of aging, a 110-ish wRC+ during his tenure as Dinos’ right fielder seems like a reasonable expectation.

That leaves Nick Martini, the Dinos’ latest foreign hitter, to handle left field. He doesn’t fit the mold of the typical KBO mercenary; rather than raw power, his strengths lie in his plate discipline, as evidenced by a long track record of not striking out while maintaining an above-average walk rate and BABIP. He may be lucky to hit even ten jacks in Korea, but then again, the team’s coaching staff has had success coaxing batted ball distance out of groundball hitters, so maybe there’s untapped potential here. Even without a swing change, Martini’s floor is high enough that the Dinos should at least end up with a usable leadoff man.

No changes occurred to the starting rotation, where the Dinos are still sticking with Drew Rucinski 루친스키, their ace, and re-signed last year’s newcomer, Wes Parsons. The former is a no-brainer, but the latter sticks out as borderline “don’t sign” candidate, and I guess the Dinos decided to forgo the hassle of searching for a new pitcher. Parsons threw just enough innings (133) to qualify for the ERA title, and early issues with control led to an unsightly walk rate (10.9%). But he became sharper as the season went on, threw hard even for a foreign pitcher, and wielded an undeniably plus slider whose run value per 100 ranked fourth in the league. Maybe that’s enough promise for the Dinos. While injuries, bullpen implosions, and COVID-related suspensions led to a disappointing 2021, this largely successful offseason should have them in contention once more.

Lotte Giants
The Giants distanced themselves from the free-agent market once again, but they made sure to re-sign first baseman Hoon Jung 정훈 to a modest three-year, 1.8 billion won deal. Though Jung turns 35 next season and is unlikely to improve from here on, the Giants seem to be betting on his ability to consistently get on base — a David Justice type, if you will. Additionally, top prospect Seung-yeup Na (1B/3B) stumbled in his KBO debut (a 55 wRC+ in 60 games); that about sums up the Giants’ options at first. Jung’s presence grants them a semblance of depth.

Fan favorites Dan Straily 스트레일리 and Dixon Machado 마차도 are sadly not returning to Busan, but the Giants have come prepared with three ambitious foreign player signings. First up is DJ Peters, who came from the Dodgers’ farm system and was called up last season before getting shipped to the Rangers. His main selling point is his 70-grade raw power, but issues with contact have kept him from tapping into it consistently. Going to the KBO won’t alleviate his tendency to strike out, but Peters may have an easier time hitting against pitches with relatively milder movement and velocity. Realistic upside combined with recent experience in the big leagues should make him a prime fit to thrive in Korea.

Watching Glenn Sparkman pitch, it became evident that yes, he absolutely should continue to throw his slider more often. With the way he spins it, the pitch generates more vertical movement and less horizontal movement than one would expect from its axis, leading to some awkward swings and misses. His fastball generates next to no ride, however, and he lacks a strong third pitch, which might hurt him a second or third time through the order. Meanwhile, Charlie Barnes strikingly resembles Eric Jokisch 요키시 repertoire-wise. The prerequisite here is command, but this is perhaps a reason to remain optimistic: According to Cameron Grove’s model, Barnes had 50 command of his sinker and 55 command of his changeup last season, both solid marks. Overall, he’s not as bad his big league debut might suggest and should have a reasonable shot in the KBO.

KIA Tigers
You can’t say the Tigers didn’t try to improve. After spiraling all the way down to ninth place last season, they sought the biggest name of the offseason, Sung-bum Na, and landed him with a six-year deal. Their outfield was in desperate need of reinforcements, and the former Dino should provide plenty. Meanwhile, the team also reunited with franchise icon Hyeon-Jong Yang 양현종, who agreed to a four-year contract worth up to 10.3 billion won. It does seem rooted in sentimentality, but the Tigers could use a starter, so sure. This isn’t inherently bad.

The timing of it all is a bit strange, however. Kia has just started its rebuilding phase in hopes of building a more sustainable future, but the two marquee free agents are unlikely to contribute when the Tigers are contenders once more. I respect the decision to avoid a full-on tank, but if there’s anything to take away from the Tigers’ past, it’s that copious spending on veterans can be a foolish act, especially down the line.

I’m also not enthusiastic about Kia’s choice of foreign players. All three are newcomers, with lefty outfielder Sócrates Brito standing out. He has the Jeff Sullivan stamp of approval, with blazing speed and supposedly plus defense. The bat is the weaker element of Brito’s game, and although he had just a 86 wRC+ in Triple-A last season across 419 plate appearances, there might still be a double-digit homer season within him. For fun, here’s a GIF of Brito chugging down to first base:

Brito, I have no qualms with; it’s the pitchers who seem questionable. Sean Nolin and Ronnie Williams are both pure relief prospects who didn’t pan out, and they’re now tasked with holding together a Tigers rotation that lacks considerable depth. If the two can’t handle a massive jump in innings, they might very well be unavailable past the summer months. They’ll at least come with higher velocities than your average foreign KBO pitcher, but longevity is a real concern the Tigers should have in mind.

Hanwha Eagles
The rebuilding Eagles were dead silent on the free-agent market, even announcing on December 15 that they had officially removed themselves from the competition. But they held onto one of their own free agents by handing veteran catcher Jae-hoon Choi 최재훈 a five-year deal worth 5.4 billion won. As a patient contact hitter, he’s the answer to the question, “What if Brandon Nimmo were a catcher instead?” and should remain valuable for the majority of his contract.

On the foreign player front, the Eagles played it safe and re-signed both Ryan Carpenter 카펜터, who fanned 179 batters in 170 innings last season, and Nick Kingham, who reliably commands a five-pitch mix. Then they brought in Mike Tauchman as their foreign hitter, a decision that I’m a huge, huge fan of. The Eagles’ most glaring weakness in 2021 was their outfield; while their starting infielders amassed 13.1 WAR thanks to the young core of Si-hwan Roh 노시환 (3B), Ju-suk Ha 하주석 (SS), and Eun-won Jung 정은원 (2B), their outfielders contributed a meager 1.1 WAR. Tauchman will bring a superior bat, but it’s also exciting to consider how he’ll contribute defensively. In addition to infield shifting, the Eagles are also experimenting with four-man outfields, for which Tauchman seems like a perfect fit; per Baseball Savant, he was a +9 in Outs Above Average in 2019 and +3 in 2021 manning all three outfield positions. This is the most logical foreign player signing a team has made in a while.

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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2 years ago

i remember fondly Nick Martini’s 2018 cup of coffee with the A’s. Even without SungBum Na and Altherr, the Dinos’ lineup should be a fun one to watch this year.