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S. Korean players faced with uncertainty in new MLB season

By Yonhap

Published : March 29, 2023 - 09:23

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San Diego Padres' Ha-Seong Kim warms up during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, last Friday, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York) San Diego Padres' Ha-Seong Kim warms up during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, last Friday, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

South Korean players in Major League Baseball will enter the 2023 season faced with varying degrees of uncertainty. One will switch positions, another may switch teams, and a third will try to establish himself in the big show. The fourth, and the most seasoned of them all, will try to come back in the summer from last year's surgery

The new major league season will begin Thursday afternoon across the United States, or early Friday in South Korea. Kim Ha-seong of the San Diego Padres will enter his third season, and despite being named a National League Gold Glove finalist at shortstop last season, Kim won't begin this season at the same position.

This is because the Padres signed All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts to a massive 11-year contract during the offseason. With another All-Star, Manny Machado, firmly entrenched at third base, Kim is expected to spend the majority of the 2023 season at second base, while spelling Bogaerts and Machado at the two positions on the left side.

Kim played 21 games at second base as a rookie in 2021. Though he didn't play there at all last year, Kim should be able to bank on his athleticism to handle the position well.

Kim has said he will try to be more productive at the plate too. He was a premier offensive shortstop during his seven-year career in the Korea Baseball Organization but has hit just 19 home runs in 267 games over his first two big league seasons. While he may never hit 30 homers as he once did in South Korea, improving on a career .372 slugging percentage would be a start.

Also in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates feature two South Koreans in first baseman Choi Ji-man and utility player Bae Ji-hwan. They have become the first pair of Korean position players to make the Opening Day roster for the same team, but it remains to be seen whether they will finish the year together.

Choi was traded by the Tampa Bay Rays to the Pirates in November, and since Choi is set to become a free agent after this season, the rebuilding Pirates may ship out the 31-year-old before the midseason trade deadline in exchange for younger prospects, rather than risking losing him for nothing.

There have already been signs of some tensions between Choi and the Bucs. In early February, the Pirates denied Choi a chance to play for South Korea at the World Baseball Classic, citing health concerns after Choi's offseason elbow surgery. Choi said he was "deeply hurt" by the club's decision.

Later that same month, Choi lost his salary arbitration case against the club, settling for $4.65 million after filing for $5.4 million.

Bae, 23, made his major league debut last September and left a good impression during his 10-game run, batting .333/.405/.424 with three doubles and three steals. He handled three positions in the field -- second base, left field and center field.

On the Pirates website, Bae is listed as an infielder, but he will likely be asked to play all over the field in 2023.

In the American League, Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin is rehabbing from the Tommy John elbow reconstructive surgery he had last June. He told MLB.com in a recent interview that his goal is to be back by mid-July, though that may be an overly optimistic target for the 36-year-old coming off his second Tommy John procedure.

This is the final year of Ryu's four-year, $80 million contract. (Yonhap)