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Following reunion with ex-MLB pitcher, Landers emerge as KBO title favorite

In this UPI photo, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Kansas City Royals in the top of the second inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Aug. 7, 2021. (UPI)
In this UPI photo, Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Kansas City Royals in the top of the second inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Aug. 7, 2021. (UPI)

Baseball is never played on paper, but it is difficult not to be impressed by the starting rotation that the SSG Landers have put together for the upcoming Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season.

By reuniting with their former franchise star Kim Kwang-hyun, who is returning after two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Landers have put three former major league starters on their staff.

Kim, who signed a four-year deal worth a record 15.1 billion won ($12.3 million), was the face of the Landers franchise from 2007 to 2019 when they were called the SK Wyverns under a different ownership. The 2008 KBO regular season MVP won four Korean Series championships with the Wyverns, and consistently ranked among the league leaders in wins, ERA and strikeouts during his first tour of duty here.

With the Cardinals, Kim went 10-7 with a 2.97 ERA in 35 appearances, including 28 starts. The left-hander was a perfect 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA in eight games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He bounced between the rotation and the bullpen in 2021 but still pitched to an effective 3.46 ERA over 106 2/3 innings.

On the Landers, Kim will join two ex-big league right-handers in Wilmer Font and Ivan Nova.

The Landers re-signed Font to a new one-year deal, worth $1.5 million, in December. In 2021, the Venezuelan went 8-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 25 starts, while striking out 157 in 145 2/3 innings. He ranked second in the KBO with 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings, behind only Ariel Miranda of the Doosan Bears (11.66 Ks per nine innings).

Nova signed a one-year, $1 million contract in December, and the Dominican right-hander brings the most impressive big league resume of the trio. He won 90 games over 11 years in the majors, including a career-best 16 games for the New York Yankees in 2011 en route to finishing fourth in the American League (AL) Rookie of the Year voting.

The three pitchers will be backed by two solid homegrown starters in the middle of the new season.

Park Jong-hun and Moon Seung-won both underwent elbow operations in June last year and are eyeing a return to the mound in June this year. But the Landers had so much faith in their future performances that they handed both of them five-year extensions in December -- with Park signing for 6.5 billion won and Moon getting 5.5 billion won. They became the first KBO players to sign multiyear contracts before hitting free agency.

Park, a right-handed submarine pitcher, has a 66-62 record with a 4.55 ERA in 201 appearances. He had been one of the team's steadiest starters before hitting the shelves last year. Park, who generated some major league interest with his extreme underhand delivery, was 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in nine starts in 2021 prior to his surgery.

Moon, another righty, has gone 37-43 with a 4.51 ERA in 158 games. He carried a 2.86 ERA in nine starts this year before undergoing operation.

The Landers have another former major leaguer in their lineup, in the form of former AL All-Star, Choo Shin-soo. He will be back for his second season with the club.

At age 39 last year, Choo became the oldest KBO player to record a 20-20 season, with 21 home runs and 25 steals. The veritable on-base machine ranked third in the league with 103 walks and sixth with a .409 on-base percentage.

Choo had an offseason elbow surgery that will limit him to designated hitter duties for the early part of the season. But he proved in 2021 that he can still do damage with his bat and his speed. And it's perhaps better for the Landers not to have Choo play in the outfield at this stage in his career.

Choi Jeong, a veteran third baseman and another franchise icon alongside Kim Kwang-hyun, will resume his assault on the record books in 2022. After launching 35 home runs last year -- his fifth 30-plus homer campaign since 2016 -- Choi is now sitting at 403 home runs for his career.

Choi is 64 home runs behind the all-time leader, former Samsung Lions star Lee Seung-yuop. Choi is also the only active player with more than 400 career home runs. With no signs of slowing down at age 35, it seems only a matter of time before Choi surpasses Lee's mark.

The Landers missed out on the 2021 postseason by a half game. But with some big names in the fold for 2022, they can dream big -- big enough that merely making the playoffs will be considered a disappointment. (Yonhap)

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