In this file photo from March 17, 2021, Yang Eui-ji of the NC Dinos smiles as he enters the batter's box in the bottom of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization spring training game against the Lotte Giants at Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)
In a season unlike any other in South Korean baseball history in 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic, the NC Dinos emerged as the first-time champions.
While the rest of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) may be hoping the 2021 season will be different than last year -- more fans in the stands would be a nice change, for one -- the Dinos will try to ensure the end result will be the same, with the Korean Series title staying with them.
The 2021 season will open Saturday, an on-time start for a 144-game marathon. Last year, the start of the regular season was pushed back from March 28 to May 5 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The league's 10 teams still managed to play the full 144-game schedule, which was possible because they sometimes had to play on Monday -- normally a designated off day -- and play a few doubleheaders. There was also no All-Star break.
Still, the KBO had the latest conclusion to a season since its inaugural campaign in 1982, as the Dinos knocked off the defending champions Doosan Bears in Game 6 of the Korean Series on Nov. 24.
After a quick turnaround, with teams opening spring training on Feb. 1, the Dinos will run it back with most of their championship core in place.
That group includes catcher Yang Eui-ji, the reigning Korean Series MVP, and slugging outfielders Na Sung-bum and Aaron Altherr. Staff ace Drew Rucinski is back for his third KBO season, and Wes Parsons is considered an upgrade over erstwhile starter Mike Wright. The Dinos are hoping homegrown left-hander Koo Chang-mo, who set the KBO on fire with first-half dominance in 2020 before being hampered by an arm injury, will be healthier this time around.
The Dinos aren't a young team but their championship window appears open for at least another season.
However, as the Dinos attempt to become the first team to defend a title since the 2015-2016 Bears, another club will be hogging the spotlight early on, or perhaps the whole season depending on how they perform.
The SSG Landers are the newest member of the league, with the retail giant Shinsegae Group having taken over the SK Wyverns from the mobile carrier SK Telecom earlier in the year.
The Landers also landed the biggest name this spring, signing the 2018 major league All-Star Choo Shin-soo to a one-year deal worth 2.7 billion won ($2.4 million) and making him the highest-paid player in league history.
Choo brings impressive major league credentials -- his 218 home runs and 782 RBIs are the most ever among Asian-born players -- and he will be asked to revive the franchise that, after winning the Korean Series in 2018, stumbled to ninth place in 2020.
While their lineup looks formidable and may be good enough on its own to send the club back to the postseason, the Landers' pitching will still face some question marks, especially in the bullpen.
Among last year's postseason contestants, the Bears and the Kiwoom Heroes have taken a few steps back.
The Bears have played in every Korean Series from 2015 to 2020, tying the KBO record for the most consecutive appearance, but the streak could be in jeopardy this year. They have lost two regulars on the right side of the infield, as first baseman Oh Jae-il and second baseman Choi Joo-hwan departed as free agents. On the mound, 20-game winner Raul Alcantara signed with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan and playoff hero Chris Flexen returned to the majors with the Seattle Mariners. Their replacements, Walker Lockett and Ariel Miranda, struggled in spring training and then preseason, unable to inspire much confidence in a fan base spoiled by a half-decade run of success.
The Heroes saw their All-Star shortstop Kim Ha-seong sign with the San Diego Padres in the offseason. Their bullpen was decimated by injuries in spring training, and they'll need major bouncebacks from former MVPs and franchise icons, first baseman Park Byung-ho and second baseman Seo Geon-chang.
The LG Twins, who beat the Heroes in the wild card game but lost to the Bears in the next round in 2020, are a trendy preseason pick to challenge the Dinos for the title.
The Twins will bring back two key foreign players from last year, starter Casey Kelly and first baseman Roberto Ramos, and new left-hander Andrew Suarez was impressive in spring. Ramos will bat in the middle of a deep and versatile lineup.
The KT Wiz, who made the postseason for the first time in franchise history in 2020, will be without the reigning regular season MVP, Mel Rojas Jr. His replacement, Zoilo Almonte, isn't quite the power hitter that Rojas was, though the rest of the lineup should still produce enough to withstand the loss of Rojas.
The Samsung Lions may miss the postseason for the sixth straight year, a dubious franchise record for futility, as their journey back to contention, or even respectability, continues. They had rotten injury luck in March. Their prized offseason free agent signing, first baseman Oh Jae-il, will miss about five weeks at the start of the season with an oblique injury. Oh's backup, Lee Sung-gyu, has been ruled out for four months after suffering an ankle injury Tuesday. Left-handed starter Choi Chae-heung will be out for two months with an oblique injury of his own.
The Lotte Giants and the Kia Tigers may leave their passionate fan bases disappointed once again in 2021. The perpetually rebuilding Hanwha Eagles have a new look coaching staff, led by skipper Carlos Subero, but they could end up in the same old situation -- outside the playoff picture.
Subero is one of four rookie skippers, joined by Kim Won-hyong of the Landers, Hong Won-ki of the Heroes and Ryu Ji-hyun of the Twins.
Under the current set of social distancing rules, teams in the greater Seoul area will begin play with crowds at 10 percent capacity, while the rest of the league will operate at 30 percent capacity. (Yonhap)