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KBO MVP, sage veterans among S. Koreans to watch besides major leaguers

By Yonhap

Published : March 7, 2023 - 10:08

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Lee Jung-hoo of South Korea heads to third base on a single during an exhibition game against the Orix Buffaloes ahead of the World Baseball Classic at Kyocera Dome Osaka in Osaka on Monday. (Yonhap) Lee Jung-hoo of South Korea heads to third base on a single during an exhibition game against the Orix Buffaloes ahead of the World Baseball Classic at Kyocera Dome Osaka in Osaka on Monday. (Yonhap)

OSAKA -- This may be hard to believe, but there are other players on the South Korean squad for the World Baseball Classic aside from its two major leaguers, Kim Ha-seong of the San Diego Padres and Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The duo have been the headliners for a team on a redemption tour in Japan, after crashing out of the first round in each of the past two iterations in 2013 and 2017, and deservedly so. Edman, born in Michigan to a Korean mother and an American father, is the first half-Korean and foreign national baseball player to represent South Korea internationally. He is the 2021 National League Gold Glove winner at second base. And Kim was a finalist for the same award at shortstop last season, his sophomore campaign in the bigs after an excellent seven-year run in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).

Aside from this dynamic double play tandem, who are some other South Korean players to keep an eye on?

Outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, 24, is an obvious choice. The reigning KBO regular season MVP for the Kiwoom Heroes may join Kim and Edman in the majors next year, as his club plans to post him following the 2023 season.

In 2022, Lee led the KBO in five major categories:

Lee, considered South Korea's best pure hitter, has been drawing attention from major league scouts for a few years now, and this WBC will be the first major international showcase for Lee featuring active major leaguers as opponents.

With a lifetime batting average of .342, Lee leads all KBO players with at least 3,000 plate appearances. And he hardly strikes out. Last year, he drew 66 walks and struck out only 32 times in 627 trips to the plate.

The lineup features two former major leaguers who are also two of the most respected veterans on the team: outfielder and team captain Kim Hyun-soo, 35, and first baseman Park Byung-ho, 36.

Kim, who once played for the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies, has represented South Korea nine times internationally, starting with the gold medal-winning performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Kim has also won three Asian Games gold medals and the 2015 Premier12 title. In 59 international games, Kim has batted .364 with 46 RBIs.

Park, a former Minnesota Twin, is the reigning KBO home run leader and the most dangerous right-handed power bat for South Korea here. The two-time KBO MVP also plays solid first base.

There are also two ex-major league players on the pitching staff: former Cardinals starter Kim Kwang-hyun and ex-Texas Ranger Yang Hyeon-jong. Much like Kim and Park for position players, these two left-handers are sage leaders in their mid-30s who can back up whatever they tell younger guys with their performances on the hill. The two pitchers have each won an MVP award in the KBO.

Among younger players, closer Go Woo-suk, 24, should bear watching. The right-hander throws a heavy fastball and a devastating slider, a combination that helped him pick up a KBO-best 42 saves in 2022.

He also happens to be Lee Jung-hoo's brother-in-law, having recently married Lee's younger sister.

The national team features the last six KBO Rookie of the Year winners: Lee Jung-hoo, first baseman Kang Baek-ho, reliever Jung Woo-young, starter So Hyeong-jun, starter Lee Eui-lee and reliever Jeong Cheol-won.

From this bunch, non-Lee Jung-hoo department, Jung could be a key weapon out of the bullpen. The lanky right-hander with a sidearm delivery has perhaps the most unhittable sinker in the KBO. He averaged a ridiculous 151.5 kilometers per hour (94.1 miles per hour) with that pitch last year.

Jung is as good as anyone at suppressing power. He pitched the entire 2021 season without surrendering a home run, covering 65 innings, and has served up only eight long balls in 263 1/3 innings for his career. (Yonhap)