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Veteran outfielder, new GM for revamped KBO club expect big things in 2022

Kia Tigers' outfielder Choi Hyoung-woo speaks to reporters after the inauguration ceremony for the team's new manager, Kim Jong-kook, held in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Kia Tigers' outfielder Choi Hyoung-woo speaks to reporters after the inauguration ceremony for the team's new manager, Kim Jong-kook, held in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)
GWANGJU -- For Choi Hyoung-woo, the 38-year-old outfielder for the Kia Tigers, the 2021 season wasn't any fun. But the veteran is confident that things will be far different in the new season.

In 2021, the Tigers missed the postseason in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) for the third straight season. And Choi endured his least productive full season as a pro; his .233 batting average, .375 slugging percentage, 12 home runs and 55 RBIs were all Choi's worst numbers since he became an everyday player in 2008.

The Tigers went into a full makeover mode this offseason. Out went manager Matt Williams, general manager Cho Kye-hyeon and CEO Lee Hwa-won. All three foreign players from last season were let go.

In came the new bench boss Kim Jong-kook, who earned an internal promotion after serving as the team's base running coach in 2021. The Tigers also brought in new general manager Jang Jung-suk and CEO Choi Jun-young.

On the field, the Tigers added some big-name players. They signed former NC Dinos outfielder Na Sung-bum in free agency, handing the perennial All-Star a six-year, 15 billion won ($12.5 million) contract that tied the record for the largest deal in KBO history. The Tigers also reunited with their longtime ace Yang Hyeon-jong, who'd pitched for them from 2007 to 2020 and spent 2021 with the Texas Rangers. Yang signed a four-year deal valued at 10.3 billion won.

These new additions have Choi feeling all giddy about what the 2022 campaign may bring.

"I think we'll definitely be a much better team this year than last year," Choi told reporters on Thursday after attending the inauguration ceremony for his new manager, Kim Jong-kook. "Adding Na Sung-bum and Yang Hyeon-jong to our team will make us so much stronger. Whether we win or lose, we will play much better baseball than last year."

Choi said he had high expectations for Kim, who played for the Tigers for 14 years and coached them for another 12.

"He knows the players inside out, and I think communication will be more free-flowing with him," Choi said.

As a fellow outfielder, Choi said he was so "elated" to hear the news of the Tigers' signing of Na, who has put up 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs in each of the past two years, that Choi even called the front office staff to personally thank them for the job well done.

"He's going to bring so much to the team," Choi said. "We have some great, easygoing guys here and Sung-bum will have no problem making his transition."

Jang, the new GM who signed Na and Yang as his first major moves, also predicted huge seasons from the two.

"On top of being great players, they are also incredible human beings," Jang said. "I think they will contribute to changing the culture of our team with so much more than their performance on the field."

Unlike Na, Choi had a 2021 season he'd rather forget. He was limited to 104 games, the fewest since he appeared in just two games in 2004, as he battled a hamstring injury and an eye condition in which fluid built up under the retina in his right eye. One of the most selective hitters in the KBO -- Choi led the league in walks in 2017 and 2019, and ranked in the top 10 on six other occasions -- suddenly started swinging at bad pitches.

Choi, who has mostly batted third or cleanup as a Tiger, said he'd prefer to hit further down in the order, perhaps sixth. He said he wanted younger players to feel the pressure of batting in the heart of the order and grow from that experience.

Manager Kim may have other ideas, though. With Na and Choi both being left-handed, Kim will likely keep them separated, putting Na in the third hole and Choi at No. 5. Hwang Dae-in, who had a breakout season last year with 13 home runs in 86 games, could become the everyday cleanup hitter. The right-handed infielder made 178 plate appearances in that role in 2021. (Yonhap)
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