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Amid off-field incidents, new KBO season to feature repeat title bid, managerial duels

March 30, 2023 - 09:20 By Yonhap
Fans take in a Korea Baseball Organization preseason game between the home team Kia Tigers and the NC Dinos at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, some 270 kilometers south of Seoul, last Sunday. (Yonhap)

They say in baseball that hope springs eternal for every team this time of year, just before the beginning of a new season. Everyone starts with a 0-0 record, and there's cause for optimism for all.

Some off-field issues, however, have threatened to dampen the excitement in the buildup to the new Korea Baseball Organization season, which starts Saturday for all 10 clubs across the nation.

The league had hoped to use the World Baseball Classic earlier this month as a launching pad of sorts, where a strong showing by the national team, made up almost entirely of KBO stars, would drive up interest in the professional league as well.

That hope died a quick death, though, as South Korea lost its first two games en route to a third consecutive first-round exit. The performance left the KBO to do plenty of soul-searching on the future of baseball in the country.

Last week, the Lotte Giants severed ties with pitcher Seo Jun-won after discovering the 22-year-old had faced a criminal investigation for alleged sexual misconduct involving a minor. The KBO has since suspended him indefinitely.

On Wednesday, the Kia Tigers fired their general manager Jang Jung-suk for allegedly asking the team's former catcher Park Dong-won for a kickback during contract negotiations last offseason.

Off-field problems have been blamed for decreasing attendance in the KBO in recent seasons, and the league has already been dealt a couple of blows even before the start of this season.

When the action begins this weekend, the defending champions SSG Landers will try to become the first back-to-back champions since the 2015-2016 Doosan Bears.

In 2022, the Landers became the first team ever to spend an entire regular season in first place and go on to win the Korean Series.

Over the offseason, the Landers took an unusual step of replacing all three foreign players that finished the 2022 season. The new faces are: pitchers Enny Romero and Kirk McCarty, and outfielder Guillermo Heredia.

Romero missed the exhibition season with shoulder problems and will not be ready at the start of the regular season. But McCarty had a solid spring training with a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings. Heredia batted .320 and knocked in four runs while stealing two bags in 10 preseason games.

They will join a strong, if aging, team, led by former major league All-Star Choo Shin-soo, who is now entering his third and possibly final KBO season at age 41.

The Kiwoom Heroes, runners-up to the Landers last year, will chase their first Korean Series title in what could be star outfielder Lee Jung-hoo's final season here. The reigning regular season MVP will be posted after the season for interested major league clubs and is expected to draw suitors in the offseason.

The Heroes boast a stout starting rotation, led by a pair of former ERA champions in An Woo-jin and Eric Jokisch.

The LG Twins have played in every postseason since 2019 but have not been able to get over the hump. In pursuit of their first Korean Series trophy since 1994, they hired new manager Youm Kyoung-youb, who previously managed the Heroes and the SK Wyverns, the former incarnation of the Landers.

The Twins' Seoul rivals, Doosan Bears, also have a new skipper in charge. Lee Seung-yuop, the all-time KBO home run king with 467 but with no prior coaching experience anywhere, will try to guide the Bears back to the postseason. They missed out on the party in 2022 by finishing in ninth place among 10 clubs, the first time they didn't play for the title since 2014.

Lee's former teammate with the Samsung Lions and one of his closest friends in baseball, Park Jin-man, will begin his first full season as the Lions manager. The former star shortstop served as interim manager last year, after the Lions emerged from the franchise-worst 13-game losing streak in July, and signed on as the full-time skipper in October.

While Lee and Park are in the first years of their deals, the league's only two foreign managers, Carlos Subero of the Hanwha Eagles and Larry Sutton of the Lotte Giants, are going into their final years.

Subero, in particular, will have to accomplish a major turnaround to extend his stay here. The Eagles finished in last place in each of his first two seasons here, and their first-place showing in this year's preseason is still no guarantee that the perennially rebuilding Eagles will make the postseason for only the second time since 2008.

The Giants haven't been to the postseason since 2017 and Sutton hasn't been able to make a difference since taking charge as interim manager in the middle of 2021 and then becoming the full-time boss in 2022.

The KT Wiz have made the past three postseasons, winning it all in 2021, but will have to try to keep that streak alive amid mounting injuries.

They have lost two key relievers, Ju Kwon and Kim Min-su, for at least the first two months of the season with forearm and shoulder problems, respectively. Starting center fielder Bae Jung-dae broke the top of his left hand after getting hit by a pitch Sunday and will be sidelined for up to six weeks.

Since winning their first Korean Series title in 2020, the NC Dinos have been stuck in the middle. Former interim manager Kang In-kwon was promoted to the full-time position this season, tasked with taking the team out of purgatory.

The Kia Tigers, also a playoff participant last year, will try to return in 2023 amid front office turmoil. (Yonhap)