Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buzz Kill

Doosan Bears’ slugger Kim Dong-joo will get his money, but what about the other free agents? / Korea Times File

Controversial Free Agent Rules Take Heat Out of Baseball Stove League

By Kim Tong-hyung
Staff Reporter

With the free-agent market having its share of all-stars and impact players, it would be easy to presume baseball clubs would light up the stove league fire to challenge the league's balance of power.

Think again.

Although parity has never been more evident in the league, with the race toward the championship basically turning into a lottery, there isn't a rush for teams to add difference-makers to their rosters.

Sure, Doosan Bears slugger Kim Dong-joo will eventually get his 6.2 billion won ($6.6 million)-plus deal from the Seoul club or somebody else.

And although SK Wyverns first baseman Lee Ho-joon is not as good as he thinks he is ― no team is paying 4 billion won for a strikeout prone free swinger with sub-par fielding skills ― he will still end up among the league's highest-paid hitters when everything is said and done.

But aside of Kim and Lee, can you name any other player that is creating a meaningful offseason buzz? Didn't think so.

LG Twins catcher Cho In-sung, considered the top player at his position with superb defensive skills and pop in his bat, was quick to re-sign with his team on a four-year, 3.4 billion won contract, after it became apparent that he wasn't getting that kind of money elsewhere. The Twins also re-signed veteran reliever Ryu Tae-hyeon to a three-year, 640 million won deal, with the 36-year-old generating little interest in the open market.

Cho Woong-chun, a reliever for the Korean Series champion SK Wyverns, is also likely to re-sign, as teams aren't willing to loosen the purse strings for a 36-year-old setup man.

It's not that the teams aren't trying to win. Considering the ridiculous amount of money a team has to pay to a player's former team to sign him as a free agent, it has become a lot more feasible to rebuild through the draft and develop players from farm teams.

Under league rules, a team that signs a free agent must either pay his former team cash worth three times his previous salary and send it a ``compensation player'' from its own roster, or cut a paycheck worth 4.5 times of the player's previous salary.

Unaffordable Luxury

For example, should the Twins pry away Kim from their Seoul rivals on a 6 billion won contract, they will have to pay the Bears 1.26 billion won in cash and also give up one of their own players.

It's hard to argue that any player is worth that much money in the Korean baseball league.

Kim and Lee, considered this year's top catches, are likely to command more than 10 billion won combined, which is just about the entire payroll of the four-time Korean Series champion Hyundai Unicorns, who are now on the streets looking for a new owner.

The absurd compensation rule becomes more of a problem considering that Korean players obtain free agency after nine years in the league, compared to Major League Baseball (MLB)'s six years.

Considering that most of the players are subject to compulsory military duty, it usually takes 11 or 12 years for a player to obtain free-agent rights, at a time when his athletic abilities are way past his prime.

Because of this rule, only the top echelon of players are managing to test their value on the open market, while mid-level players tend to stay with their teams instead of risking losing their jobs completely. Only six of the 20 eligible players filed for free agency this year.

Since free agency was introduced in 1999, only a handful of free agent signees have lived up to their hefty contracts, while most were reduced to overpaid benchwarmers.

Samsung Lions outfielder Shim Chong-soo, who signed a record 6 billion won contract with the Lions in 2005, led the league with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs this year, rebounding from a horrific 2006 season when he hit .141.

Other big signees, such as Ma Hae-young and Jin Pil-joong, are out of the league.

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