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Four free agents sign huge deals

Four All-Star-caliber players fattened their bank accounts over the past week as the opening free agent negotiating period ended and the second negotiating window opened during the weekend in the top domestic baseball league.

Earlier this month, 16 players in the Korea Baseball Organization declared free agency, and they had between Nov. 10 and 16 to negotiate with their current clubs.

During that period, nine players re-signed with their original teams, and none enjoyed a bigger payday than Lotte Giants catcher Kang Min-ho.

Kang, 28, inked the most lucrative free agent contract in the league’s 31-year history last Wednesday, returning to Lotte on a four-year deal worth 7.5 billion won ($7.1 million). The figure includes a signing bonus of 3.5 billion won, with an annual salary of 1 billion won.

The signing sent shockwaves through the market, with general managers of rival clubs griping about the inflated price tag.

Though Kang has been one of the league’s few offensive-minded catchers for the past several years, he batted a career-low .235 in 2013. He averaged 20 home runs a year from 2010 to 2012 but had just 11 long balls this year.

With the bar set so high on free agents, teams worried that they would have to at least try to come close to matching the money Lotte offered Kang with their own players.

Their concerns became real when the Samsung Lions shelled out 6 billion won over four years to retain left-handed pitcher Jang Won-sam, making him the highest-paid free agent pitcher ever in the KBO.

Jang, 30, has been a steady starter, with a career 88-65 record and a 3.66 ERA in 1,187 1/3 innings, but he likely wouldn’t have commanded such a large contract if the market hadn’t been so overheated. In 2013, he was 13-10 with a 4.38 ERA, his worst stats since 2009.

As soon as the opening negotiating period closed, the Hanwha Eagles, the KBO’s bottom feeders the past two seasons, opened their wallets, and snatched two All-Stars and national team fixtures.

They signed former SK Wyverns second baseman Jeong Keun-woo to a four-year deal worth 7 billion won and also acquired ex-Kia Tigers outfielder Lee Yong-kyu on a four-year contract worth 6.7 billion won.

Their contracts are the second- and third-largest free agent contracts ever, right behind Kang’s deal with the Giants.

The two will be counted on to provide some spark at the top of the order for the Eagles, which had the second-lowest team batting average and scored the fewest runs in the KBO in 2013.

Jeong, 31, has a lifetime batting average of .301 in nine seasons, all of them with the Wyverns.

The scrappy player is widely regarded as the league’s best defensive second baseman and has stolen at least 20 bases in each of the past eight seasons.

Lee, 28, is a career .295 hitter with an average of 30 steals per season over the past three years. Lee has struck out only once in every 10 at-bats over his 10-year career. (Yonhap News)