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Renewed hope

Two veterans vow to lead Hanwha Eagles out of KBO cellar

Eagles outfielder Lee Yong-kyu (left) and second baseman Jeong Keun-woo pose with manager Kim Euong-yong during a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Eagles outfielder Lee Yong-kyu (left) and second baseman Jeong Keun-woo pose with manager Kim Euong-yong during a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap News)
Two newly acquired veterans of the Hanwha Eagles said Wednesday they’re ready to lead their Korea Baseball Organization club out of the league cellar next season.

Second baseman Jeong Keun-woo and outfielder Lee Yong-kyu were introduced as the new members of the Eagles at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. They signed with the Daejeon-based club as free agents earlier this month.

Jeong, 31, left the SK Wyverns after nine seasons for a four-year deal worth 7 billion won ($6.6 million) with the Eagles.

Lee, 28, split his first 10 KBO seasons with the LG Twins and the Kia Tigers before signing with the Eagles for four years and 6.7 billion won. They are the second- and the third-largest free agent contracts ever in the KBO.

The Eagles had the worst record in the league in 2013 at 42-85-1. They finished 10 games back of the eighth-place Kia Tigers, and were 11.5 games worse than the expansion NC Dinos.

The Eagles also ranked last in the KBO in 2009, 2010 and 2012.

Determined to lose the unflattering tag as the perennial KBO doormat, the Eagles opened their wallet this winter and splurged on two of the most sought-after free agents who will be counted on to provide sparks at the top of the order on offense and steadiness on defense.

At the press conference, Jeong said he hopes to help the Eagles finish among the top four teams and reach the postseason.

“It still feels strange to call myself a Hanwha player and I am looking forward to a fresh start,” he said. “I hope to gel with my new teammates and lead the club to the playoffs.”

Lee said he will put aside all of his personal goals in 2014 to help the Eagles post a better record.

“The Eagles offered me a contract that was well beyond my expectations, and made me feel really wanted,” Lee said. “I will try to live up to their expectations and let my performance on the ground take care of business.”

Jeong, right-handed, is a career .301 hitter. Scrappy and pesky, Jeong is also seen as the KBO’s best defensive second baseman. He’s swiped at least 20 bases in every season since 2006.

The left-handed Lee has a lifetime batting average of .295 and has stolen an average of 30 bags over the past three seasons. One of the KBO’s top contact hitters, Lee has made a career out of working pitchers deep into the counts and fouling off pitches. He’s struck out once in every 10 at-bats over his career.

The Eagles had the second-lowest team batting average with .259 in 2013, and scored the fewest runs with 480 in 128 games.

The Eagles also had the league-low 70 steals this past season, while Jeong and Lee combined for 49 steals.

Jeong said he clearly understands what the Eagles expect him and Lee to do.

“In recent seasons, the Eagles would often fall behind early in the game and the players had trouble coming back,” Jeong noted. “I think my job is to breathe more life into the offense from the top of the order. You will always win some and lose some, but the key is never to get down too much on ourselves.”

Lee said the Eagles’ lineup, with the new additions, should stack up well against any in the KBO.

“If our pitchers can hold their ground in April and May, I think we have a strong enough lineup to go to the playoffs,” Lee said. “Even teams with talented players can struggle if they have injuries. If we can stay healthy for the entire season, I think we can crack the top four.”

Accompanying the two players to the press conference, the Eagles’ manager Kim Euong-yong said the new faces should be able to address the team’s glaring weaknesses.

“Both are speedy players with great defensive skills,” Kim said. “As long as they play the way they’re capable of playing, we should have good results.”

They are also known as hard-working players willing to get their uniforms dirty, and the Eagles are hoping that their work ethic will have a positive impact on the rest of the team.

Jeong and Lee have also been fixtures on the South Korean national team at the Olympic Games and the World Baseball Classics, and also bring some playoff pedigree. Jeong won three championships with the Wyverns in 2007, 2008 and 2010, while Lee captured one title with the Tigers in 2009.

There is one caveat with Lee. He underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder last September and is expected to miss the early portion of next season.

Lee said he will make sure he won’t rush back from the operation and that he’s targeting a return in May.

“The front office wants me to come back 100 percent healthy,” Lee said. “I am itching to take the field as early as I can. I think I can resume throwing in early March and that will put me on track for a comeback before the end of May.”

The Eagles had the resources to sign these two players after letting go the face of their franchise last winter. (Yonhap News)