Korean Rankings: The Boys Are Back in Town
I could see the KBO stating it’s season with a highlight reel backed by “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Maybe some closeups of the players pointing bats at the cameras, a few goofy smiles from some of the funnier looking players in the league, maybe some cartoon characters running into the frame. That said, it’s nice to have the league back — for me, nothing says spring/summer in Korea like warm weather, samgyupsal and beer, and a big screen TV showing the Lotte Giants.
This is the first edition of my KBO rankings. In the past I’ve tried to do them every week, but I’m much busier now and won’t attempt to hang that over my head. Let’s call them periodic. For this first edition I’m going to make it something of a combination rankings/2009 preview, meaning I’ll be including some thoughts about where teams might end up at the end of the year. For example, I can’t very well knock the back-to-back champs from the No. 1 slot as the season begins, but I do not think SK will make it a three-peat.
1. SK Wyverns (1): Even though the Asia Series is an exhibition, watching the games in Tokyo last November made me wonder if SK had finally peaked and was due for a bit of a dip in 2009. The Wyvrens are still arguably the best run organization in Korean baseball, but their winning has always had more to do with attitude than pure talent. This year the talent took another hit with the departure of WBC member Lee Jin-yeong to LG, and I think the attitude takes a hit in the form of being Korea-beaters two years running. I still see this team going to the playoffs, but I don’t see them winning it all.
2. Doosan Bears (3): And for those who expect me to make a homer pick and have Lotte winning it all, think again. Doosan is the team to beat in 2009 and I expect the Bears to win the KBO championship this year. Despite the recent loss of pitcher Matt Randell, who was injured in a Seoul subway and subsequently cut from the team, Doosan has superb young pitching that will keep the team competitive for years to come. The bullpen, which turned into a big strength last year with 2007 rookie of the year Lim Tae-hoon, WBC member Lee Jae-woo, and closer Lee Yeong-chan. I suspect 2007 top pick Jin Ya-gop will emerge this season, and the team is also adding Song Yeong-hoon, it’s top pick in 2008, and one of the most exciting talents entering the KBO this season. Couple the young pitching with the same offensive core that reached the KBO final two years running and you have a team primed to take it all the way.
3. Lotte Giants (2): Lotte could win it all in 2009, but will need a few things to happen. It will need Karim Garcia to replicate his fantastic 2009, it will need Doosan transplant DH Hong Sung-hoon to replicate his career-best 2009, and it will need a starting pitcher to step up and become what Son Min-han was during the first half of 2008, since I don’t think Son himself will (he won’t even make his first start until the end of the month). I see one of those things happening, and possibly two, but in no way no how do I see all three happening. The Giants should spend most of the year in the top half of the standings, but I still see this being an up and down team who can beat or lose to anyone on any given night. That just doesn’t work during playoff time.
4. Samsung Lions (4): The Lions squeezed into the playoffs last year and then thumped Lotte before losing to Doosan. I’d love to write this team off, but the fact is the Lions may have added exactly what the team needs — pitching and a legitimate lead-off hitter in rookie Kim Sang-soo, a great fielder with speed to burn, who should compete with Doosan’s Sung for rookie-of-the-year. I’m less convinced on the pitching because 2/5 of the rotation will be new foreign arms in Runelvys Hernandez and Francisco Cruceta. On paper both should throw well in Korea, but in 2008 foreign arms let Samsung down big time. If they do pitch well, this team can make the playoffs again.
5. Kia Tigers (6): I recently got an email from someone asking me to name the Top 3 Korean baseball players in the world right now. No. 1 is Choo Shin-soo, who I give a bump due to the competition he plays against in MLB. No. 2 is reigning MVP Kim Kwang-hyun. Fair enough. But number three had me thinking. I finally had to say Yoon Suk-min, who has electric stuff and was the single most consistent player for both the Olympic and the WBC team. In the KBO, a true ace can take your team a long way and I expect Kia to outperform expectations in 2009 and end up as the second or third best team in the league. Crazy talk? Roar. Of course there’s still the brain of Choi Hee-seop and there’s no telling where that’ll be in 2009, but so long as he isn’t terrible, I see the offense being enough to make both Yoon and Seo Jae-weong good bets to win every time they pitch.
6. Hanwha Eagles (5): When the Eagles had Doug Clark rolling, plus Kim Tae-keun and Lee Bum-ho, they were capable of outscoring any team on any given night. Clark plays for Woori now, but Victor Diaz, who could challenge for the HR title playing in the Eagles band box, is an interesting addition with both Tae-keun and Bum-ho auditioning for big contracts in MLB or Japan. Still, I have to wonder where the starting pitching outside of Ryu Hyun-jin will come from. Fans in Daejeon have a lot of 10-9 games with 12 pitching changes to look forward to.
7. Woori Seoul Heroes (7): I think things are getting better in, um, the south west part of Seoul. The Heroes brought back their old Unicorns manager, Lee Gwang-hwan, who’d been more or less tossed to the curb when the team was sold during spring training, setting a bad tone for all of 2008. I like the addition of Doug Clark, IF it’s the Clark from the first half of 2008. Outside of him, WBC member Lee Tae-keun, and Cliff Brumbaugh, who is now the foreigner with the longest tenure in the KBO, this lineup doesn’t have much going for it. The starting pitching is still solid with Ma Il-yeong, Jang Won-sam and Kim Su-kyeong, but I’m not sure everything comes together. At best this is a team with a outside chance at the playoffs. Hey wait. That’s not so bad.
8. LG Twins (8) – Still the worst team in Korea, and the news that Chris Oxspring is having serious elbow trouble (already being refuted) isn’t going to help anything. The team will move the fences is during home games at Jamsil, which, coupled with the additions of Lee Jin-yeong from SK (who will hit No. 2) and Jung Sung-hoon from Woori (who will hit No. 6), should make for some great four hour 13-11 games with Hanwha in August. Wake me up in October please. But outside of Bong Jung-keun, the pitching is terrible and the Twins should find themselves in last for all of 2009.