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Teams shun free agents to concentrate on development

Nov 24,2018
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From left: Ryu Seung-hyun hits a two-run double at the top of the seventh inning during a game against the Hanwha Eagles at Hanwha Life Eagles Park in Daejeon on July 25. Jang Won-sam throws a pitch at the top of the first inning during a game against the Lotte Giants at Daegu Samsung Lions Park in Daegu on May 23. [YONHAP]
Once a big spender in Korean baseball’s free agency, the Kia Tigers will stay away from the open market this winter, their general manager said Friday.

Cho Kye-hyun said his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club will not go after any free agents during this offseason and added, “We felt we’d be better off trying to develop our own assets.”

The Tigers won the Korean Series title in 2017 after posting the best regular season record at 87-56-1 (wins-losses-ties) but squeaked into the wild-card game this year after going 70-74 and lost to the Nexen Heroes to bow out of their title defense.

House cleaning is already under way for the aging team. The Tigers have parted ways with 34-year-old outfielder Roger Bernadina, despite his 47 home runs and 64 steals in his two KBO seasons. They signed former big league outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, who’s three years younger. Left-hander Pat Dean has been replaced by right-hander Jacob Turner. Kim Jin-woo, a 35-year-old pitcher, was one of 14 players to be cut after the season.

There are some 30-something free agents who could help the Tigers immediately next year, but Cho said he’d be happy to see his own players grow.

KBO teams have their minor league affiliates in the Futures League, where most clubs have a mix of young prospects and veterans who are either fringe players in the bigs or rehabbing from an injury.

Their presence can eat into the playing time of younger players who need to get reps. And in 2018, Cho made sure only the developing youngsters played in the Futures League, while other veterans were placed on a separate squad and played collegiate teams to stay sharp.

And it paid dividends for the Tigers, who saw the emergence of a young infielder who may warrant a long look in the KBO next year.

Infielder Ryu Seung-hyun batted .335 with five home runs and 45 RBIs in 62 games in the Futures League. The 21-year-old was called up in early June and acquitted himself well at the plate, hitting .307 in 35 games.

Another young player, a 22-year-old right-hander Jeon Sang-hyun, completed his mandatory military service with Sangmu in the Futures League this past summer and made five late season appearances for the Tigers.

Jeon dominated the Southern League of the Futures, where he topped all pitchers with 13 wins, a 3.06 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 120 and two-thirds innings. Jeon had a 6.10 ERA in five games with the big team, a number inflated by his final outing when he allowed three earned runs in one inning in a start.

Cho said he believes the club is going in the right direction.

“Using only prospects in the Futures League has fostered competition among the players, and they’ve responded well to the change,” the general manager said. “We’ll continue to encourage our young players to compete against each other for opportunities.”

The Tigers are left with one big signing for the 2019 season, its pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong. Since Yang became a free agent after the 2016 season, he has been renewing his contract with the Tigers every year as he chose a yearly contract rather than a four-year contract. Due to this, after winning the regular season and the Korean Series, Yang signed another one-year contract with the Tigers at 2.3 billion won ($2 million) last year.

Although he didn’t have as successful a season as last year, Yang was once again the leading pitcher in the Tigers’ starting rotation, finishing the season by picking up 13 wins and 11 losses with a 4.15 ERA.

Cho added the Tigers will look to hire coaches with extensive experience in player development, and they will be responsible for working with the team’s prospects.

While the Tigers are focusing on developing their young players and retaining existing players, the LG Twins also didn’t spend billions this season to strengthen their roster. The Twins announced the signing of two veteran pitchers - Jang Won-sam of the Samsung Lions and Shim Soo-chang of the Hanwha Eagles - on Friday.

Jang, who made his KBO debut in 2006, is considered the KBO’s dominant left-handed domestic pitcher. After making his debut with the Hyundai Unicorns, Jang was traded to the Samsung Lions in 2010. In 346 games throughout his career, Jang picked up 121 wins, 93 losses, one save and nine holds with a 4.17 ERA. But Jang didn’t meet expectations in 2018 season, picking up three wins and one loss in eight games with a 6.16 ERA. Due to this, Jang requested the Lions release him so he could sign with a different team.

By joining the Twins, Jang will once again play for manager Ryu Joong-il, who led the Lions to four straight Korean Series titles, from 2011 to 2014.

For Shim, this is his return to the Twins after seven years away. Shim made his KBO debut with the Twins and was traded to the Heroes in 2011. Then, after playing for the Lotte Giants, he signed with the Eagles as a free agent. As the Eagles created its team mainly with younger pitchers in the 2018 season, Shim spent the majority of his season in the Futures League. Throughout his career, he has picked up 41 wins, 67 losses, 14 saves and 24 holds with a 5.36 ERA in 385 games.

Shim was also released by the Eagles after the 2018 season.

“Both Jang and Shim are very experienced pitchers,” said Cha Myung-seok, general manager of the Twins. “The addition of the two pitchers will help strengthen our team of pitchers.”

In addition to two veteran pitchers, the Twins added an outfielder, Chun Min-su of the KT Wiz. Chun completed the 2018 season with a disappointing .172 batting average in 21 games, but he is also an experienced outfielder in the KBO, where he has a career batting average of .270 with four home runs and 42 RBIs in 165 games.

“As for Chun Min-su, we expect him to help our team significantly, both in offense and defense, as an outfielder,” Cha said.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, YONHAP [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]