Foreign Players Spearhead Hopes for Baseball Teams
Kenny Rayborn went 17-8 with a 3.27 ERA for the Korean Series champion SK Wyverns last season. / Korea Times File
By Kim Tong-hyung
With parity becoming evident in the Korean professional baseball league, an impact player or two could be the difference between a title contender and a bottom feeder.
Look no further than the Doosan Bears, who rode Daniel Rios' 22-5 season to a Korean Series berth before their lack of offense finally caught up with them against the eventual champion SK Wyverns.
At the other end of the spectrum were the Lotte Giants, who made the mistake of committing to the ancient Felix Jose for too long, while allowing the consistently erratic Jose Cabrera to determine their fate in the late innings.
With the exception of the now-defunct Hyundai Unicorns, who are awaiting a new owner to pull them off the streets, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO)'s remaining seven teams have completed the signings of their foreign players for the 2008 season.
Some of them might be destined for a fate like Rios, who used his brilliant KBO numbers to fetch a bigger deal in Japan. Others could end up like Jose, swinging and missing their way out of the league.
Kenny Rayborn (pitcher), Darwin Cubillan (pitcher)
The defending champion SK Wyverns are clearly a team built around pitching depth, so re-signing 17-game winner Rayborn was a top priority in the offseason.
Rayborn was arguably the league's second-best starter behind Rios last season, but manager Kim Sung-keun has to wonder how many dominant years are left in his 35-year-old ace.
Rayborn gets a fellow senior citizen in the 36-year-old Cubillan, a hard-throwing Venezuelan who went 2-2 with a 3.36 ERA as a reliever for Japan's Hanshin Tigers last season.
Cubillan, who had a stint with the Baltimore Orioles, is labeled as a surefire player, has a fastball that touches 153kmph, a decent splitter and a straight changeup.
Kim is considering converting Cubillan into a starter, which would allow him to send out arguably the league's best starting rotation, headed by Rayborn, Cubillan, Chei Byung-yong and Kim Kwang-hyun.
Filling his two-man quota for foreign players with pitchers, manager Kim could only hope that first baseman Lee Ho-joon and outfielder Lee Jin-young will be enough to carry the middle of the batting order.
Matt Randel (pitcher), Gary Rath (pitcher)
With Rios jetting off to the Yakult Swallows, Randel has big shoes to fill at the top of the rotation.
Randel, who has 40 career wins in his four-year KBO career, finished 12-5 with a 3.12 ERA in 2007, despite struggling with an elbow injury during the later half of the season.
Rath, a 35-year-old who also played for the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers, is a gamble. The soft-throwing lefty did win 17-games with the Bears in 2004, but failed to impress after moving to Japan's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Rath rebounded with a 12-5 season with Taiwan's La New Bears in 2007, but it remains to be seen whether the numbers would translate in Korean baseball, which is clearly a league with better talent.
Former San Francisco Giant Kim Sun-woo and Philadelphia Phillies flameout Lee Seung-hak are expected to challenge Rath's status as the No. 2 starter.
Brad Thomas (pitcher), Doug Clark (outfielder)
The Eagles are placing high hopes on Thomas, who manager Kim In-sik is leaning toward using as his closer with Goo Daesung moving to the starting rotation.
Thomas, a 31-year-old lefty whose best pitch is a 150kmph fastball, went 8-6 with a 4.87 ERA with the Tacoma Rainiers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.
With Jacob Cruz moving to the Samsung Lions, the Eagles signed former San Francisco Giants prospect Clark to complement Kim Tae-kyun and Lee Bum-ho in the heart of the order.
Jacob Cruz (outfielder), Wes Obermueller (pitcher)
Cruz, who batted .321 with 21 home runs and 85 RBIs for the Eagles last year, is expected to anchor a potent Lions lineup that also features Yang Joon-hyuk, who hit .337 with 22 home runs, and Shim Jung-soo, who led the league with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs in 2007.
Obermueller is more of a gamble, after finishing 2-3 with a 6.56 ERA in limited appearances for the Florida Marlins in 2007. Lions manager Sun Dong-yol projects the 32-year-old American as the second or third starter with ace Bae Young-su and possibly Jung Byung-ho pitching ahead of him.
Chris Oxspring (pitcher), Jamie Brown (pitcher)
The Twins re-signed Oxspring, who went 4-5 with a 3.24 ERA after joining the Seoul-based club in midseason. Oxspring is likely to pitch behind Brown, who went 12-8 with the Lions in 2007.
Marty McLeary (pitcher), Karim Garcia (outfielder)
New manager Jerry Royster is expecting McLeary, who was with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization last year, to head his rotation along with ace Son Min-han, although he now needs to find a homegrown closer to replace Cabrera.
McLeary, a 33-year-old right-hander, mixes a 145kmph fastball with a sweeping slider and has good command of all of his pitches.
The Giants are also finally getting protection for slugger Lee Dae-ho with the signing of former New York Yankees star Karim Garcia.
Jose Lima (pitching), Wilson Valdez (infielder)
No team is taking a bigger gamble than the Tigers, who are betting that Lima would be a reliable starter complementing staff ace Seo Jae-weong and strikeout artist Yoon Suk-min.
Lima earned a trip to the All-Star game in 1999 when he won 21 games for the Houston Astros.
A year later, however, Lima surrendered a league-leading 48 home runs, which was only two short of the single-season record held by Bert Blyleven, and lost 16 games.
Lima then became a journeyman, pitching for the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, LA Dodgers and New York Mets, but failed to excel with any of those teams.
The Tigers also signed former Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Wilson Valdez, who is an upgrade over Lee Jae-joo at shortstop and could also hit in the heart of the order.