National Team Full of Aging Stars
KBO Unveils 55-Man Roaster for Beijing Olympics Next Year
By Kim Tong-hyung
The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) announced a 55-man roster for the national team Monday with the core players of the group representing South Korea in November's Olympic qualifying tournament in Taipei.
The new team is full of familiar faces, however, with usual suspects such as Park Chan-ho, Lee Jong-beom and Koo Dae-sung, a threesome with a combined aged of 106, making the list.
Baseball officials hope they could milk out another productive tournament from these old-timers and some other 30-something players who have been a central part of the national team throughout their careers.
However, it remains further watching whether the big-name veterans could turn back the clock for a short run, with their effectiveness on the ground declining sharply.
``It was hard to pick them but equally hard not to as they have the most established careers in baseball,'' said Yoon Dong-gyun, a member of the KBO's technical committee, when asked about the inclusion of over-the-hill veteran players.
``There will be a lot of debate and the final decision will be made by the coaching staff. Those left off the first entry could make the final cut if they perform well in the regular season,'' said Yoon, a former all-star hitter for the OB (Doosan) Bears.
The roster announced by KBO includes 24 pitchers, 20 infielders including five catchers, and 11 outfielders.
Florida Marlins starter Kim Byung-hyun and Tampa Bay Devil Rays relievers Seo Jae-weong and Ryu Jae-kuk were included on the list. The hitting lineup will be anchored by Yomiuri Giants slugger Lee Seung-yeop, Lotte Giants' Lee Dae-ho, who led the domestic league in home runs and RBIs last season, and Hyundai Unicorns' first baseman Lee Seung-yong.
The Cleveland Indians' minor league outfielder Choo Shin-soo also made the cut but the KIA Tigers first baseman Choi Hee-seop, who started the season with the Devil Rays, did not.
Park, Korea's first Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher, now seems to be at the tail end of his playing career. The 33-year-old was cut off from the New York Mets opening day roster and failed to make an impact on a call-up start against Florida Marlins earlier this month, giving up seven runs in four innings.
Park was assigned to the Mets' Triple-A New Orleans affiliate since and his inconsistent pitching in the minors suggests he is not coming back to the big league anytime soon.
Despite his struggles, Park is expressing intentions of chasing Olympic glory and baseball officials are reluctant to turndown the service of the player who long ago reached the national hero status.
Just a little more than a year ago Park pitched brilliantly in the closer's role for the national team at the World Baseball Classic, so its not much of a stretch to think that he could provide valuable experience to the team in the road to Beijing.
The case for including Lee Jong-beom in the lineup is harder to defend. The 36-year-old outfielder for the domestic league's KIA Tigers saw his playing time drastically cut down due to a series of injuries.
Lee's range as a centerfielder was hard from impressive even before his body started slowing down, as he never really embraced his forced-transition from the shortstop position.
However, Lee could just make the national team by default as the professional league lacks in depth of good, right-handed hitters in the outfield.
It would also be impossible to replace Lee's presence at the top of the order. He is the only player ever to post a 30-60 (30 homeruns, 60 steals) in a season.
Lee tinkered with a .400 batting average but finished at .393 in his second year in 1994 when he also stole a league-record 84 bases, which remains arguably as the greatest statistical season for a hitter in league history.
If Lee fails to regain his health form by November, the team will look to players such as struggling Junichi Dragons outfielder Lee Byung-kyu to man the lead-off spot.
Koo, a 37-year-old relief pitcher for the Hanhwa Eagles, is a long shot to make the final cut for the national team. Koo, who earned a reputation as a big game pitcher throughout his career, has failed to completely recover from injury.
Considering the lack of quality left-hand relievers, the Korean team would need a healthy Koo. The national team will reduce its roster to 35 players by the end of September following the completion of the domestic league's regular season and introduce the final 24-man squad by November.