The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current, April 04, 2016, Page Page 7, Image 7

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    SPORTS
April 4, 2016
THE ASIAN REPORTER n Page 7
Asians in American sports w Asian Americans in world sports
Korean hitters try to succeed in major league baseball
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
n recent years, Major League Baseball (MLB) teams
have imported fewer Japanese hitters. Last season,
outfielder Norichika Aoki of the San Francisco Giants
was the only MLB position player who’d begun his career
in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). But as the
Japanese market has cooled down, the market for Korean
Baseball Organization (KBO) players has heated up. This
season, four former KBO position players should take the
field in MLB.
The burgeoning Korean market can be traced to
Jung-ho Kang, a KBO second baseman who debuted for
the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. Kang played nine
years in the KBO as a shortstop with three different
teams. In that time, he amassed a .298 batting average
with 139 home runs, including 87 over his final three
seasons. He also swiped 51 bases and drove in 545 runs,
but all of those numbers were diluted by the perceptions
about KBO and its players.
Despite Korea’s success in international tournaments
like the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic, many
still regard the KBO as a vastly inferior league, much as
NPB once had a bad name. That was before the arrival of
the phenomenal Ichiro Suzuki from NPB. Ichiro erased
those perceptions in his first season, leading the league
with a .350 average, 242 hits, and 56 stolen bases, in the
process of winning both Rookie of the Year and Most
Valuable Player awards.
While Kang did not dazzle the way Ichiro did, Kang did
remarkably well before an injury cut his season short in
mid-September. When an aggressive slide by Chris
Coghlan broke Kang’s leg and injured his knee, Kang was
hitting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBI (Runs Batted
In). Much of that production came in the second half of the
season, when he’d hit .310 with 11 home runs.
Kang’s success led to several offseason KBO position-
player acquisitions. The Minnesota Twins signed first
baseman Byung-ho Park, the Baltimore Orioles inked
outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, and the Seattle Mariners picked
up first baseman Dae-ho Lee (who had been most recently
playing in the NPB). All of them will get a chance to prove
whether KBO players can succeed in MLB — or even just
survive.
The best of the bunch is Byung-ho Park, who led the
KBO last season with 53 home runs and 146 RBI while
hitting .343. That season was no fluke. Park hit .314 over
the past four seasons, averaging 43 homers, 123 RBI, and
12 steals. The Twins paid $12.85 million for Park’s posting
fee, and signed him to a four-year deal worth $12 million.
Although Park plays a solid first base, the Twins
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I
already have Joe Mauer playing there, so Park is expected
to serve mainly as the team’s designated hitter. So far in
spring training, Park has dazzled with a .279 average,
with three home runs and 12 RBI, both second-best on the
Twins. Minnesota hopes he can maintain that production
in the regular season and live up to his Korean nickname,
“Bang Park.”
Expectations were similarly lofty for Hyun-soo Kim, an
outfielder for the KBO’s Doosan Bears who has also been
among the top KBO hitters. Since signing as the top hitter
out of high school in 2006, Kim has hit at least .300 in
every season. He lacks Park’s prodigious power, with last
season’s 28 homers — a career high — but Kim bolsters
his lifetime .318 batting average with a .406 on-base
KBO TO MLB. Byung-ho Park (left photo) of the Minnesota Twins
takes a lead off second base during a spring-training game against the
Boston Red Sox. In the right photo, left fielder Hyun-soo Kim of the Balti-
more Orioles chases after a fly ball during a pre-season game against the
Minnesota Twins. Both games were played in Fort Myers, Florida.
average, showing his excellent eye at the plate.
The Orioles signed Kim to a two-year, $7-million
contract; since he was a free agent, they owed no posting
fee. Orioles management cited his durability — he is
nicknamed “Iron Man” for playing in 98 percent of his
team’s games — as well as his defense and ability to hit
the other way.
Kim’s spring training has been less than impressive so
far, as he is hitting just .182. However, Kang also
struggled in his first spring training. Baltimore should
remain patient with Kim, whose contract does not allow
him to be assigned to the minors without his permission.
Another impressive KBO hitter, Dae-ho Lee, is also
fighting for a position with the Seattle Mariners. Lee
signed a minor-league deal with the Mariners in February
after spending ten years in KBO and four more in NPB. In
the KBO, he hit 225 home runs, leading the league twice
Continued on page 8