In this file photo from Oct. 20, 2021, NC Dinos' manager Lee Dong-wook speaks to reporters prior to a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game against the SSG Landers at Incheon SSG Landers Field in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. (Yonhap)
After winning their first Korean Series title in 2020, the NC Dinos missed out on the postseason altogether in 2021. They became the first Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club in 11 years to miss the playoffs in their title-defending season.
Then came a massive overhaul in the offseason. The Dinos let their franchise icon Na Sung-bum walk via free agency and either traded or released several others who had been with the club since Day 1 in 2013.
And they signed a pair of big-name free agents in outfielders Park Kun-woo and Son Ah-seop. They also replaced outfielder Aaron Altherr with Nick Martini.
Manager Lee Dong-wook, who has also been with the Dinos since their founding days as coach, said those offseason changes hit too close to home.
"It's the reality of professional baseball. We can't be together forever," Lee said. "I was sad to see those players leave, because I'd grown very close to them. But as manager of this team, I have to put those feelings aside."
Lee has to figure out how to piece together a new puzzle. Park and Son are two of the KBO's premier contact hitters, and they will step right in as regular outfielders. Lee said Martini can handle either of the two corner outfield positions but can also play first base.
The Dinos lost their regular first baseman Kang Jin-sung, who was shipped to the Doosan Bears as compensation after the Dinos signed Park, a former Doosan outfielder, as a free agent. A few players will battle for the first base job, and if a clear winner emerges, then Martini will settle down in the outfield.
The Dinos will also be without four veterans for the early part of the season, following their lengthy bans issued last year over violations of COVID-19 protocols. Third baseman Park Sok-min, second baseman Park Min-woo, and outfielders Lee Myung-ki and Kwon Hui-dong were slapped with 72-game bans by the KBO. The Dinos meted out their own punishments: 50 games on Park Sok-min and 25 games on the other three.
"We will have to hold down the fort and make do with the players that we have in the meantime," manager Lee said. "We will have different players fill those holes."
On the mound, the oft-injured ace Koo Chang-mo will also missed the early portion of the season following his left arm operation last July.
"He will play some catch this month and continue his rehab in spring training," Lee said. "We will wait until he is able to throw at least 80 pitches. It's more important to have him completely healthy than to get him back on the mound fast."
Lee said how the Dinos will handle early-season adversity will go a long way toward determining their postseason fate.
"Our focus at spring training will be on getting the players ready to navigate early days of the season," Lee added. (Yonhap)