Choo Shin-soo of the SSG Landers takes a swing against the LG Twins in the top of the fourth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Perhaps no player has generated quite as much buzz ahead of a South Korean baseball season as Choo Shin-soo has this spring for the SSG Landers.
He isn't the first ex-major leaguer from the country to set foot in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). Even Park Chan-ho, the first South Korean to play in Major League Baseball (MLB), chose to finish out his career at home.
But Park arrived here in 2012 in the twilight of his career, having spent the previous year in Japan. His lone season with the Hanwha Eagles was going to be his swan song in every sense of the word. Few, if any, expected Park to dominate KBO lineups.
Although Choo is at the same age that Park was nine years ago, set to turn 39 in the middle of the season, expectations are vastly different.
Choo is just two years removed from hitting a career-high 24 home runs for the Texas Rangers. He had an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .826, right along his career line, while playing in 151 games, his most in six years.
The year before that in 2018, Choo earned his first All-Star selection, while setting a franchise record with a 52-game on-base streak. His career on-base percentage of .377 was 10th best among active players at the end of the 2020 season.
Though Choo was hampered by injuries in 2020, he has proven he can still play at a high level in his late 30s. And Choo didn't come here just to sell jerseys for the newly named club that has just undergone an ownership change; he will be counted on to be a savior for a franchise coming off a ninth-place finish in the 10-team league.
Whether Choo can live up to the considerable hype will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2021 season.
Among former major leaguers from overseas, LG Twins' left-hander Andrew Suarez was virtually unhittable in spring training games and then in official preseason action.
Suarez threw three shutout innings in preseason last Thursday, following up on four scoreless innings in a practice game eight days earlier. The former San Francisco Giant wrapped up his preparation by tossing four innings of one-run ball against the Bears' minor leaguers Tuesday.
Another new pitcher to keep an eye on will be Kia Tigers' right-hander Daniel Mengden, formerly with the Oakland Athletics.
Mengden went four scoreless innings in his first spring training game on March 18, and then gave up one unearned run in 4 2/3 innings five days later. He got roughed up in his final preseason game Tuesday, though, serving up six runs on seven hits, including two dingers, in 4 2/3 frames.
Mengden's teammate Aaron Brooks will try to build upon his strong debut season, in which he posted a 2.50 ERA in 151 1/3 innings covering 23 starts. The Tigers will go as far as the two former Oakland pitchers take them, especially since their rotation is missing former ace Yang Hyeon-jong, who signed with the Texas Rangers in February.
Elsewhere, Eric Jokisch of the Kiwoom Heroes, the reigning ERA champion, is back for his third KBO season. Dan Straily, who led the league with 205 strikeouts, is entering his second season with the Lotte Giants.
Among homegrown stars, NC Dinos' backstop Yang Eui-ji will chase the elusive regular season MVP award. Considered the most complete catcher in the KBO today, Yang finished runner-up in MVP voting in each of the last two years, coming up short against two foreign stars -- Mel Rojas Jr. in 2020 and Josh Lindblom in 2019. Both are now playing elsewhere, and Yang, at 33, hasn't shown signs of slowing down.
Yang was the Korean Series MVP last year and will try to become just the fifth player to win both the regular season and Korean Series MVP honors.
The Heroes' outfielder Lee Jung-hoo will try to continue his impressive career trajectory and prove his power surge in 2020 wasn't a fluke. The slender gap hitter had 14 homers combined in his first three seasons, and then launched 15 home runs last year, while also driving in 101 runs and slugging at a .524 clip, both career highs.
With slugging shortstop Kim Ha-seong now with the San Diego Padres and two-time MVP Park Byung-ho in apparent decline, Lee, 22, will have to do some heavy lifting in the heart of the Heroes' lineup.
Another young hitter to watch this year will be Kang Baek-ho of the KT Wiz. The precocious 21-year-old mashed to the tune of a .330/.411/.544 line while putting up 23 home runs, 89 RBIs and 36 doubles. Much like the Heroes, the Wiz lost a key hitter in the offseason, as reigning league MVP Mel Rojas Jr. took his talent to Japan. That sets the stage for Kang, who has already proven to be a fearless hitter, to step up and take the mantle as the Wiz's top slugger.
Kang fired his warning shots across the league in the preseason by batting 10-for-16 with two homers -- both of them against Mengden -- and six RBIs.
Kang's teammate on the mound, So Hyeong-jun, is coming off a Rookie of the Year campaign, in which he went 13-6 with a 3.86 ERA. With one starter, William Cuevas, expected to miss the early portion of the season, So will be carrying extra pressure on his 20-year-old shoulders. (Yonhap)