In this file photo from June 10, 2021, NC Dinos' second baseman Park Min-woo (L) throws to first to complete a double play against the LG Twins in the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)
With the start of the Tokyo Olympics about a month away, two key members of the South Korean baseball team are toiling in the minor league -- one sent down to rediscover his stroke and the other exiled for disciplinary reasons.
A roster that already had a few question marks when it was announced on June 16 will be scrutinized even more in the coming days, as long as second baseman Park Min-woo and outfielder Park Kun-woo remain out of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) spotlight.
The NC Dinos sent Park Min-woo to their Futures League affiliate last Friday, when the usually reliable hitter was stuck at a .257 batting average through 46 games. He had a lifetime .330 batting average entering this season and had batted at least .300 every year since 2015.
Park had been getting on base at a .404 clip in his eight previous seasons. In 2021, the on-base percentage dropped to .351, his lowest for a full season.
The 28-year-old looked just like his normal self in April, when he batted .314 with a .407 on-base percentage. He slumped to a .254 average in May and then a .204 mark in June before the demotion. Park never hit below .300 in any month in 2020.
NC manager Lee Dong-wook said Park had looked lost at the plate. Park spent a few days near the end of April on the injured list after his car got rear-ended. He didn't suffer any injury then, but he hasn't been the same player since.
Park has played three games since his demotion, and is batting 4-for-14 with two RBIs and two steals. Lee watched Park in action Tuesday and noted that Park still didn't have his timing down at the plate.
The national team manager Kim Kyung-moon picked Park as the regular second baseman who can bat near the top of the lineup. Park has also been a strong defender. But Kim's assertion that he assembled the team based on players' current form rings hollow, given Park's mediocre season and a career-best campaign by the 21-year-old second baseman Jung Eun-won.
Jung is leading all second baseman this season in wins above replacement (WAR) with 3.00, more than two full wins ahead of Park. Jung is batting .297 with a .432 on-base percentage, tops among all second basemen. The only apparent edge that Park has over Jung is his international experience, as Park has played at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 Premier12, which doubled as the Olympic qualifying tournament.
The other second baseman on the national team, Choi Joo-hwan of the SSG Landers, is a bat-first type player who can bring pop off the bench but can't be trusted with his defense in a tight game.
If Park doesn't get his act together soon, Kim may be forced to make a last-minute change.
Kim has another potential headache in the outfield. Park Kun-woo of the Doosan Bears was shipped to the Futures League on Tuesday for what his manager, Kim Tae-hyoung, implied were disciplinary reasons.
Park had told Kim that he was fatigued and wanted to take some time off. Hours after the demotion Tuesday, Kim said, "I told him he could go rest as much as he wants in the minor league."
At the time of his demotion, Park was fifth in the KBO with a .333 batting average this season and 12th with a .404 on-base percentage. He has batted .300 or better in every season since 2015. No KBO player has hit more doubles than Park's 180 since 2016, the year that he became an everyday player.
The 30-year-old has handled center field and right field this year. As the only right-handed bat among four outfielders on the national team, he was expected to get regular action in Tokyo.
But Kim Tae-hyoung wasn't concerned about any of that. His focus was on making sure his own players competed with the right mindset and on not allowing one player, even if it's an All-Star like Park, to become the bad apple.
The no-nonsense skipper has always had a low tolerance for players' complaints about fatigue not related to any injury. On Thursday, Kim said Park acted selfishly and affected the morale of the team.
"We're all in the same boat here, and we all have our own set of challenges," Kim said. "Regular guys must not take their playing time for granted. If those guys say they're tired, do you think backups would feel sorry for them? As manager, I am not going to go around and tell coaches that I am stressed out. It's not going to resonate with them at all."
A player demoted to the Futures League must spend a minimum 10 days there. Kim said there's no timetable for Park's return, and he'll only start thinking about that once the required 10 days are up. (Yonhap)