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KBO veterans see more foreign players as boon

Jan. 9, 2014 - 20:21 By Korea Herald
A recent decision by the Korea Baseball Organization to add an extra roster spot for foreign players starting in 2014 will likely have a positive impact on the quality of play in the top-flight domestic league, three veteran pitchers from overseas say.

Previously, the KBO teams were allowed to sign up to two imports. From 2014, they will be permitted to put a maximum of three players on their active rosters, and have two of them play at the same time. The maximum number is four for the expansion team NC Dinos. All nine teams in 2014 must also include at least one position player. In the past two seasons, all KBO teams have filled their quotas with pitchers.

In separate written interviews with Yonhap News Agency, pitchers Shane Youman and Chris Oxspring of the Lotte Giants, and pitcher Brandon Knight of the Nexen Heroes shared their thoughts about having an extra teammate from overseas starting in the 2014 season.

Youman, an American southpaw entering his third KBO season with Lotte, called the league’s decision “a good move.”

“This will help strengthen all teams in the areas they may feel they need depth the most,” the left-hander said. “It will also make the KBO more competitive with expansion teams coming into the league.”

The Dinos became the ninth KBO team in 2013, and the KT Wiz will make it a 10-team circuit in 2015. Many have expressed concerns that these new teams will water down the level of play in the league, and Youman said he felt extra foreign players will “make the league stronger.” So far this offseason, teams have signed a handful of players with a varying degree of success and experience at both the major and minor league levels. Luke Scott, who joined the SK Wyverns, and Jorge Cantu, a new member of the Doosan Bears, are two high-profile figures, each with more than 100 career homers in Major League Baseball.

Oxspring, Youman’s teammate, also said the presence of new foreign players, usually veterans of U.S. major or minor leagues, will force everyone else to get better, too.

Oxspring, an Australian right-hander, pitched for the LG Twins in 2007 and 2008, and then returned to the KBO with the Giants last year. He will be back for his fourth KBO season in 2014.

Youman and Oxspring formed one of the most effective starting duos in the KBO last season. Youman was 13-4 with a 3.54 ERA in 193 1/3 innings, while Oxspring, after a slow start, ended up 13-7 with a 3.29 ERA in 183 1/3 innings.

They slightly differed on how they will face down new bats in opposing lineups. Youman said the presence of new players “won’t change my approach nor should it change any other pitchers’ approach.”

“As a pitcher, we first go with our strengths, and then make adjustments if need be,” he said. “However, with an extra experienced bat in every team’s lineup, (it) forces pitchers to have to focus just a bit more throughout the course of a game.”

Oxspring said he might change his approach somewhat based on individual matchups but added, “I’m always up for a challenge.”

Knight, an American right-hander, will be pitching in his sixth KBO season, and his fourth straight with the Heroes. He said adding another foreigner won’t just be a beneficial decision for the league, but “a necessary move.”

“I believe that the KBO is a very competitive league but can certainly use an infusion of talent,” he said. “This can only help the brand and the overall competitiveness of the league.”

The Heroes have re-signed Knight and another pitcher, Andy Van Hekken, for next season. The duo combined for 24 wins last season, and 27 wins in 2012. The team then added infielder Vinny Rottino this offseason.

Rottino, 33, has three career homers in 97 big league at-bats for four different clubs. He spent 10 seasons in the minors and played with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in 2013, with four homers and a .206 average in 37 games.

Rottino’s stats aren’t eye-popping by any measure, but Knight argued his new teammate could still have success here regardless of what he’s done in the past.

“When the scouts go and look at these guys, they don’t just look at the stat sheet,” Knight said. “In my experience, the best imports are the guys who make the quickest adjustment to Korean life: both baseball and everyday life.”

The pitcher said he expects Rottino to have a similar level of production as Doug Clark, who played for Nexen from 2009 to 2010.

Clark hit 24 homers and 24 doubles in 125 games in 2009, and followed that up in 2010 with 12 home runs and 16 doubles in 92 games.

“My understanding is that Vinny was a doubles guy who did a good job getting on base,” Knight said. “I expect him to hit more home runs because the parks are so small here.”

Youman and Oxspring also had hopes for their new teammate, Luis Jimenez. At 192 centimeters and 127 kilograms, the 31-year-old Venezuelan will be among the biggest players in the KBO in 2014.

In 2013, he belted 18 long balls along with 73 RBIs for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo.

“I think he will be a big presence in our lineup, not only body wise, but (he will) give the guys in front of him some protection, and get them better pitches to hit,” Oxspring said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how he makes us better.”

Oxspring admitted he doesn’t know much about players that have come through the U.S. minors in the past six or seven years because he has been away from the minor ball for a while. Youman, on the other hand, recalled pitching against Jimenez in Double-A in 2005 and 2006.

“He was a very good hitter back then,” Youman said. “I don’t know much about him these days. However, I do believe if he can come in and hit for average, with some power, it will make our lineup a whole lot better, because it will take pressure off guys like Kang Min-ho, Jeon Jun-woo, and Son Ah-seop (all incumbent veterans) to do so much.”

Youman, Oxspring and Knight have combined for 10 KBO seasons so far. In a league where foreign players are often sent home packing in the middle of a season, their tenure here is a testament to their consistency. These veterans all advised new comers from overseas to have an open mind about playing in a new league in a new country.

Knight stressed that a different style of baseball isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Understand that this is a great opportunity to further your career,” he said. “The guys who take the ’my way or the highway’ attitude end up on a plane pretty quick.”

Oxspring urged the newcomers to accept and embrace changes in the playing style.

“The way the game is coached, the way it’s managed, the way it’s played, is all different from what you have known and been taught through your whole career,” he said. “It’s only very small differences, but they change the way you think as a player, and that changes the way you play and approach the game on a personal level.”

Oxspring also said players should be “willing to go outside your comfort zone to experience something new” off the field because, “You might find something that suits you.”

Youman, long known for his affinity for Korean food, said new players should be open-minded both in and outside the stadium.

“My only advice to the new guys is, be yourself, and believe in your skills as a ball player, but be open to trying new things,” Youman said. “As far as off the field, I’d tell them to enjoy the experience of being in Korea to the fullest. Learn the culture, but have patience. Have fun, but make good decisions.” (Yonhap News)