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Big leaguers expected to join KBO stars for S. Korea at World Baseball Classic

Lee Jung-hoo of the Kiwoom Heroes tosses his bat after hitting a triple against the NC Dinos during the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on July 8, 2022. (Yonhap)
Lee Jung-hoo of the Kiwoom Heroes tosses his bat after hitting a triple against the NC Dinos during the bottom of the fifth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul on July 8, 2022. (Yonhap)

A handful of current and former big leaguers should join domestic league stars when South Korea announces its roster for the World Baseball Classic this week.

The Korea Baseball Organization is scheduled to unveil the national team roster for the March 8-21 tournament on Wednesday. As of Tuesday morning, however, it hadn't been determined whether national team manager Lee Kang-chul will announce the 35-man provisional roster or the 30-man final roster on Wednesday, well ahead of the Feb. 7 deadline.

Lee and his staff currently have a 50-man "interest list" with which to work, but they can also pick players not currently on that list for the final roster.

The 30-man squad must include at least 14 pitches and two catchers, and Lee has already stated that he will select 14 pitchers, three catchers and 13 position players.

There are some no-brainer choices from the 50-man list. From the KBO, three former major leaguers made the interest list: SSG Landers pitcher Kim Kwang-hyun, Kia Tigers pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong and LG Twins outfielder Kim Hyun-soo.

Current major leaguers from South Korea on the 50-man list are Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Choi Ji-man, San Diego Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong, and former Pirates infielder Park Hoy-jun, who has been traded twice and designated for assignment three times this offseason and currently remains without a team.

One potential future big leaguer in the mix is Kiwoom Heroes outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, the 2022 KBO regular season MVP who will be posted for MLB clubs after the 2023 season.

The WBC also allows players to compete for countries of their parents' birth, even if the players themselves weren't born there. For the first time in its WBC history, South Korea could take one such player in Tommy Edman, the 2021 National League Gold Glove winner at second base for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Edman was born in Michigan to an American father and a Korean mother. He will offer excellent glove and positional versatility -- he split most of his time last season at second base and shortstop, while also appearing at third base, right field and center field. Over the past two seasons, Edman has stolen an NL-best 62 bases and got caught just eight times.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Rob Refsnyder, also on the 50-man interest list, was born in South Korea but was adopted by an American family as a baby. In 2022, his first season with the Red Sox, the 31-year-old veteran of six major league teams had a solid .881 on-base plus slugging in 57 games. He has played all three outfield positions over his major league career.

South Korea should be fairly strong up the middle. Doosan Bears backstop Yang Eui-ji, a perennial MVP candidate in the KBO, has long been considered the most complete catcher in the South Korean league, combining great game-calling abilities with excellent hitting. Two major leaguers could form an effective double play duo, with Edman and Kim Ha-seong, the 2022 NL Gold Glove finalist at shortstop, able to play both second base and shortstop. The starting center fielder, barring any catastrophic injury, will be Lee Jung-hoo.

And even if Refsnyder doesn't commit to the WBC, South Korea is fairly deep in the outfield with KBO talent. Na Sung-bum of the Tigers brings middle-of-the-lineup power. Kim Hyun-soo has always batted well in international competitions. Kim's Twins teammate Park Hae-min is the best defensive center fielder in the KBO who can be a late-inning option as a pinch runner or a defensive replacement.

On the other hand, first base is a question mark.

Choi Ji-man, a seven-year major league veteran with some power and above-average on-base skills, had elbow surgery on Nov. 23. Choi's agency said at the time that the player would need up to 12 weeks of rehab, putting him in a time crunch to get ready for the WBC.

KT Wiz first baseman Park Byung-ho, who was not put on the interest list, could draw in for the final roster. He is rehabbing from a right ankle injury that limited him in the final weeks of the 2022 KBO season. Park, who led the KBO last year with 35 home runs, is expected to be ready for the Wiz's spring training in February, though his mobility at first base may be compromised.

Three other first basemen on the interest list are Chae Eun-seong of the Hanwha Eagles, Oh Jae-il of the Samsung Lions and Kang Baek-ho of the Wiz, all of them with limited international experience.

Putting together pitching usage plans will also present challenges because of pitch count limits at the WBC.

Because the WBC is held before the start of professional seasons in participating countries such as South Korea, Japan and the United States, the tournament has instituted pitch count limits at every edition so far.

At the most recent iteration in 2017, pitchers couldn't throw more than 65 pitches in the first round, 80 pitches in the second round, and 95 pitches in the semifinals and the final.

South Korea's interest list had 22 pitchers, and 13 were either full-time relievers or current starters with varying degrees of relief experience in past seasons.

There are 20 countries divided into four groups of five at this year's WBC. South Korea is in Pool B with Japan, Australia, China and the Czech Republic. The top two teams from each group will advance to the quarterfinals, and Pool B teams will be up against qualifiers from Pool A, made up of Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Panama and the Netherlands.

Pool B teams will play all of their group matches and quarterfinals matches at Tokyo Dome in the Japanese capital. The semifinals and the final will take place at LoanDepot Park in Miami, home of the major league club Miami Marlins.

South Korea finished third at the inaugural WBC in 2006 and then runner-up at the next one in 2009. But the country crashed out of the first round in both 2013 and 2017. (Yonhap)

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