KT Wiz manager Lee Kang-chul poses next to the team's 2021 Korean Series trophy at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, around 45 kilometers south of Seoul, on Monday. (Yonhap)
SUWON -- The KT Wiz, after years as the bottom feeder of South Korean baseball, finally earned their inaugural Korean Series title in 2021.
And the goal for their manager, Lee Kang-chul, in 2022 is simple: defend that championship.
"I feel like defending the turf is a lot more difficult than going after the trophy the first time," Lee said in an interview at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, about 45 kilometers south of Seoul, on Monday. "Teams made a flurry of moves in the offseason, and there will be more parity across the league this year. We'll be in a dogfight to keep our championship trophy here."
The Wiz won the regular season crown at 76-59-9 (wins-losses-ties). The Wiz and the Samsung Lions finished tied for the best record, and the Wiz prevailed 1-0 in a rare regular season tiebreaker. That sent the Wiz straight to the Korean Series, where they swept the Doosan Bears in four games.
The Wiz rode their starting pitching to the title. During the regular season, they had the lowest starting rotation ERA with 3.67. In the four-game victory in the Korean Series, their top four starters -- William Cuevas, So Hyeong-jun, Odrisamer Despaigne and Bae Je-seong -- combined to allow just four runs in 24 1/3 innings, for a collective ERA of 1.48.
The quartet will be back for 2022, and Lee plans to roll out a six-man rotation early in the season. Ko Young-pyo, a starter who pitched in relief in the Korean Series, and Um Sang-back, who returned to the rotation in the second half of last year after completing his military service, will round out the unit.
"We have some starters who threw a lot of pitches last year," the manager noted. "It would help them if we go with six starters from the beginning of the season."
And Lee will likely need that extra starter come September, when So is expected to get selected for the national team competing at the Hangzhou Asian Games.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) plans to build the Asian Games squad with under-24 players only this time. So, who will turn 21 in September, is one of the top starters in that age group.
First baseman Kang Baek-ho, one of the league's premier hitters who turns 23 in July, is another prime candidate to be chosen for the Asian Games.
Contenders like the Wiz will be jockeying for playoff position in September, but the KBO, unlike in the past, will keep the season moving during the Asian Games. Clubs with talented young players will be shorthanded for a couple of weeks, though the Wiz do have a backup plan at first base.
They signed two-time MVP Park Byung-ho as a free agent last month. Though his numbers have declined over recent seasons, Park can still be a serviceable option at first base with some pop left in his bat.
The expansion of the strike zone this season could also effect the Wiz's title defense. As a staff, the Wiz allowed the fewest walks last year with 489 and ranked second in strikeouts with 1,062. Umpires will expand the zone at the top end and on both sides of the plate.
"We will see how this will change things," said Lee, a former All-Star pitcher in his playing days. "Ultimately, pitchers will have to attack the expanded part of the zone, and it will be important to have pitchers who can command their pitches and enjoy the benefits of the new zone."
As strong as the Wiz's rotation looks on paper, Lee said he has concerns about his bullpen.
"For years, we've been able to plug holes with different pitchers," Lee said. "If you look at our past three years, we don't have a lot of relievers who pitched the full season."
Indeed, the Wiz have lucked out with castoffs from other teams.
Some minor pieces that they'd acquired in trades also found unexpected success in KT uniforms.
This winter, former closer Rhee Dae-eun abruptly retired at age 31, and Lee now has to scramble to piece together a relief corps.
Enter rookie Park Young-hyun, the Wiz's territorial pick out of high school in last year's draft.
"From what I've seen on video, I could tell his pitches have a lot of zip to them," Lee said. "He once said in an interview he wanted to become a closer for our team, and I hope he realizes that dream." (Yonhap)