When the Korea Baseball Organization starts its 36th season with all 10 clubs in action Friday, one team will have the proverbial bull's-eye on its back as it chases its third straight championship.
The Doosan Bears have won the past two KBO titles and will enter the 2017 season firmly entrenched as the favorite once again.
|Members of the Doosan Bears celebrate their preseason victory over the Samsung Lions in the KBO at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul on March 24, 2017. (Yonhap)|
Only two other franchises have won at least three titles in a row in the KBO history -- the Haitai (now Kia) Tigers from 1986 to 1989 and the Samsung Lions from 2011 to 2014 -- and the Bears looked poised to join the elite company.
The Bears, based at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, have retained what was the best starting rotation in the league last year. Dustin Nippert, voted the league MVP with 22 victories, is back for his seventh season. He's joined by fellow American Michael Bowden and two homegrown left-handers: Chang Won-jun and Yoo Hee-kwan.
Together, they formed the first starting rotation in the KBO with four 15-game winners. The Bears' starters in all were responsible for 74 of the team's 90 wins, tied for the league single-season record.
The lineup that led the KBO with a .298 batting average, 935 runs scored and 183 home runs is mostly intact, too. The Bears produced five hitters with at least 20 home runs, led by Kim Jae-hwan's 37, and seven regulars hit at least .300. They're all back to compete for another championship.
The NC Dinos, who were swept by the Bears in last year's Korean Series, have lost former MVP-winning slugger Eric Thames to the majors, while their No. 2 starter, Zach Stewart, has also departed.
Jeff Manship, who pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series, will take Stewart's spot in the rotation, while Xavier Scruggs, former major league infielder, will be asked to provide some punch in Thames' absence.
With the Dinos expected to take a step back, another playoff contestant from last season, the LG Twins, could make a run in 2017.
The Twins share Jamsil Stadium with the Bears, but their rivalry has only been renewed in recent seasons as the Twins finally ended a long postseason drought and joined the Bears in KBO relevancy.
The Twins may just have the starting rotation to match the Bears. They will bring back David Huff and Henry Sosa, along with former US minor league right-hander Ryu Jae-kuk. Brilliant second-half performances by Huff and Ryu propelled the Twins to the postseason last year.
The Twins then splurged on prized free agent left-hander Cha Woo-chan, handing him a four-year, 9.5 billion-won ($8.5 million) deal to lure him away from the Lions. It was the largest contract ever signed by a free agent pitcher in the league.
The 29-year-old with a 70-48 career record and a 4.44 ERA has split his 11 seasons as a starter and a reliever. Though the Twins certainly like his versatility, Cha will be counted on as a starter on the new team.
The Twins will have to ride out the storm early in the season, with Huff recovering from a knee injury and closer Lim Jung-woo dealing with right shoulder problems.
A third Seoul-based club, the Nexen Heroes, will try to make their fifth consecutive trip to the postseason under new manager Jang Jung-suk. The SK Wyverns also have a new manager in Trey Hillman, former skipper for the Kansas City Royals, and he'll have to end a stretch of mediocrity for the club that hasn't played .500 ball since 2012.
Off the field, the players will have to deal with an expanded strike zone. Earlier this month, Kim Poong-gi, head of the KBO's umpiring committee, said the zone will grow this season to better reflect its rule book definition.
The KBO's official rule book states that the strike zone is the area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform trousers. The lower level is a line at the bottom of the knees.
Kim admitted the umpires called a tight zone last season. He said the term "expansion" of the strike zone isn't even accurate because the umps will merely seek to establish a proper zone.
The small zone has been blamed for inflated offensive numbers in recent years. In 2016, the 10 KBO teams hit a combined .290, a single-season record, and they together produced 40 hitters with a batting average of at least .300, also a record.
The KBO will also set up a new video replay center in Seoul, a la major league style.
The Video Review Center will handle all replay reviews; previously, umpires have had to walk back into their locker room at individual stadiums to rely on broadcast footage of disputed plays.
When a team calls for a review, the crew chief will be put in touch with officials at the Video Review Center through headsets and will make the ruling based on findings at the replay facility.
The Video Review Center will receive feeds from TV broadcasts and also from three of KBO's own cameras. The video review in the KBO covers safe-out, fair-foul and catch-trap calls, in addition to disputed home run calls. (Yonhap)