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24 KBO players are now eligible for free agency

Oh and Jeon are the biggest stars, but don’t expect huge contracts
Nov 01,2019
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The KBO announced the 24 players eligible for free agency on Thursday.

Of the 24, 11 are eligible to become free agents for the first time, 10 re-earned their eligibility after fulfilling a contract and three retained their status from last year.

The KBO will announce the players that have decided to put themselves on the market on Sunday, Nov. 3. Once that is finalized, clubs will start negotiating with the players on Monday, Nov. 4.

A number of KBO clubs are expected to try to keep their own free agents this year, as signing new players is expensive and there aren’t as many big names on the list.

If a club signs a free agent from another team, they have to pay the former team twice the amount of the player’s 2019 salary and provide a compensation player. Alternatively, a team can choose not to provide a compensation player and pay three times the 2019 salary instead.

This year is expected to be a bit quieter. Back in 2016, the KBO broke the 10 billion won ($8.6 million) mark for the first time, when the Kia Tigers signed a four-year contract with Choi Hyoung-woo. Just two months later, the Lotte Giants signed a record-breaking deal with Lee Dae-ho at 15 billion won.

Since 2016, at least one player has signed a contract above 10 billion won each season. In 2017, Kim Hyun-soo passed the threshold, signing a four-year contract at 11.5 billion won with the LG Twins.

Last year, Yang Eui-ji signed the KBO’s most expensive contract ever as a catcher, a four-year deal at 12.5 billion won with the NC Dinos. Along with Yang, Choi Jeong also broke the 10 billion won mark by signing a six-year contract with the SK Wyverns at 10.6 billion won.

In total, five players have signed free agent contracts at over 10 billion won in the past three years.

But this season is expected to be less dramatic. While there still are some notable players up for free agency, none are expected to net over 10 billion won.

Of the 24, the Giants’ Jeon Jun-woo is expected to be the biggest name.

At age 33, Jeon earned his eligibility for the first time this year. Jeon made his KBO debut with the Giants in 2008 after graduating from Konkuk University. After limited playing time, Jeon started playing full-time in his third season, in 2010. Jeon’s career started to standout after he returned from the Police Team where he fulfilled his military duty.

In 2017, Jeon had a career high 0.321 batting average with 18 home runs, which he then topped last year with a 0.342 batting average and 33 home runs in 144 games. This was also the first time in his career that Jeon played in all of the regular season games.

Although his 2019 season wasn’t as good as last year, Jeon still managed to hit 22 home runs with a 0.301 batting average in 141 games.

While Jeon earned his eligibility for the first time, Doosan Bears’ captain Oh Jae-won is expected to enter the free agent market once again this year. When the 2015 season ended with a Korean Series win for the Bears, the club signed a four-year contract with Oh at 3.8 billion won.

As the Bears captain, Oh had been fulfilling his role both on and off the field. Although he struggled throughout the regular season this year, recording a disappointing 0.164 batting average with three home runs and 18 RBIs in 98 games, he proved his worth in the Korean Series.

Oh played in all four games for the Bears in the Korean Series and had an impressive 0.500 batting average with three RBIs to lead the team to its sixth championship title.

Just like Oh, Kiwoom Heroes catcher Lee Ji-young burst onto the scene in the postseason. After playing eight seasons for the Samsung Lions, Lee was traded to the Heroes after the 2018 season. Throughout the regular season, Lee played in 106 games and had a 0.282 batting average with only one home run.

But in the postseason, Lee turned out to be a crucial player in both defense and offense. During the first playoff round, Lee had a 0.333 batting average in four games against the LG Twins and in the second round it went up to 0.364 and an RBI in three games against the SK Wyverns. Although his batting average wasn’t as high in the Korean Series, Lee still managed 0.300 with three RBIs in three games.

With his performance in the postseason, Lee quickly rose as a player to watch in this year’s free agent market.

Along with Lee, the NC Dinos’ Kim Tae-gun is another catcher who earned eligibility this year.

This year’s market is likely to contain a lot of infielders, with Oh Ji-hwan of the Twins and An Chi-hong and Kim Sun-bin of the Kia Tigers both earning eligibility, among others.

BY KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]