Posted : 2013-11-25 16:57
Updated : 2013-11-25 16:57

Eagles, Giants seen as big winners

It's safe to say that the Eagles have won the free-agency sweepstakes after they signed star hitters Jung Keun-woo, left, and Lee Yong-kyu, while the Bears bet on questionable young players like Oh Jae-il and Kim Jae-ho for their next season. / Yonhap

By Kim Tong-hyung

As the 2013 season came to an end, most baseball watchers seemed to agree that the free-agent market was going to explode. It did indeed and the impact will likely be wide-ranging.

As of Monday, 15 of Korea Baseball Organization (KBO)'s 16 free agents were signed to new terms. That probably concludes this year's free agent market for domestic clubs as Kia Tigers' pitcher Yoon Suk-min is seeking a deal to play in Major League Baseball (MLB).

The larger deals went through early. Oh Seung-hwan, the dominant closer for Samsung Lions, which just won its three consecutive Korean Series title, inked a two-year, 900 million yen (about $9 million) deal with Japanese club Hanshin Tigers.

Kang Min-ho, the Lotte Giants catcher with pop in his bat, re-signed with the Busan-based club on a four-year, 7.5 billion won (about $7 million) deal. Jung Keun-woo, considered one of the league's best second baseman, left the SK Wyverns for a four-year, 7 billion won deal with the lowly Hanwha Eagles. The Eagles also lured Kia Tigers outfielder Lee Yong-kyu by offering him a four-year, 6 billion won deal to cap their offseason splurge.

While Oh leaving for Japan was a significant loss for the Lions, the Daegu-based club did manage to re-sign their most important starter, Jang Won-sam, for four years and 6 billion won, which was the league's largest contract ever for a pitcher. The Lions also re-signed outfielder Park Han-yi on a four-year, 2.8 billion won deal, which has to be considered a bargain for one of the league's best hitters.

While there are different ways to measure the implications for teams and players alike, for now it's safe to say that the Eagles have won the free-agency sweepstakes from a baseball standpoint, if not a financial one.

The worst team in the KBO by a considerable margin, the Eagles need improvement in every area and probably didn't have much of a chance to lure top-tier free agents without overpaying them.

In Jung, they get an above-average lead-off hitter who can hit for contact and power and steal bases in bunches. Lee provides similar qualities, minus the power, from the left side of the plate. However, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to quickly regain his form after undergoing surgery to repair a bad left shoulder in September.

If Jung and Lee play up to expectations, the Eagles will certainly feature a dangerous lineup with their power hitters Choi Jin-haeng, Kim Tae-kyun and Kim Tae-wan threatening to drive home the speedy new acquisitions.

It would still be difficult to consider the Eagles a playoff contender given their depth of quality pitching is nonexistent. At least the boost in offensive output might create an illusion of hope for their tortured fan base in Daejeon.

The Giants, on the other hand, come off as serious contenders after retaining their most important free agent in Kang and getting exactly what they needed in Choi Jun-seok, the bulky slugger acquired from the Doosan Bears.

Choi was integral in the Bears' recent postseason run and will add punch to the Giants lineup that had been short a power bat or two.

It could be argued that the Giants' have a better pitching staff than what was shown in 2013 and their starting rotation will get a shot in the arm next season with All-Star lefty Jang Won-joon returning from national military service.

The biggest offseason losers seem to be the Bears, now facing a winter of uncertainty after failing to retain any of their free agents.

Starters Lee Jong-wook and Son Si-heon have committed to the Masan-based NC Dinos. The loss of Choi is significant as it leaves Kim Hyun-soo and Hong Sung-heun as the team's only proven bats at the heart-of-the-order.

The Bears are hoping that young players like Oh Jae-il and Kim Jae-ho can fill in for the departed veterans, but it's questionable whether they could be considered elite talents. The team's starting rotation is shaky after Dustin Nippert and Noh Kyung-eun, and their bullpen is below-average.

The Bears made a surprise run in the Korean Series this year before losing to the Lions in seven games. It wouldn't be entirely surprising if they fail to make the playoffs next year.

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