One of the top professional baseball leagues in the world, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), begins its 2020 regular season on Tuesday. All-Star left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, infielder Jung Ho Kang and others launched their careers over there before making the transition to MLB, but the KBO has also become a desirable option for veteran foreign-born players. This year’s rosters even include several former Marlins.
Players are grateful just to have a season at a time when all organized baseball in the United States remains shut down due to COVID-19. Moreover, fans here in the U.S. are expected to have more access to the games than in previous years thanks to the prevalence of livestreams and a potential television rights agreement with ESPN.
Before the KBO season opener, let’s catch up with some old friends.
- Odrisamer Despaigne (KT Wiz)—The Cuban right-hander was your prototypical swing man at the major league level. He made 32 appearances (nine starts) for the Marlins from 2016-2018, posting a 4.52 ERA, 3.95 FIP and 1.42 WHIP. Despaigne was stuck in Triple-A for most of last season (Reds and White Sox affiliates). Rather than settle for another non-guaranteed deal, he has made the trip overseas for a one-year, $900,000 payday.
- Drew Rucinski (NC Dinos)—Rucinski was very solid at times for the 2018 Fish, finishing with a 4.33 ERA, 3.81 FIP and 1.33 WHIP as a reliever. He signed with the Dinos the following winter and thrived in their starting rotation. After leading the team in virtually every significant counting stat, he earned a raise for 2020. This new interview with Kyle Glaser of Baseball America provides a fascinating look at what precautionary measures the KBO has taken to ensure everybody’s safety and how Rucinski and his teammates are adjusting.
- Dan Straily (Chiba Lotte Giants)—Straily’s career was turned upside down on the eve of 2019 Opening Day when the Marlins released him. The longtime MLB starter latched on with the Orioles, but simply couldn’t get anybody out. Like Despaigne, his options in the U.S. for this season were unattractive. Straily tells Swings and Mishes that he’s excited for the opportunity to re-establish himself, thanks to a modified breaking ball. The 31-year-old admits that his endgame is to make it back to the majors.
- Hee-Seop Choi (coach, KIA Tigers)—Determined to go younger (and cheaper) at first base coming off their 2003 World Series title, the Marlins traded Derrek Lee to the Cubs for Choi and prospect Mike Nannini. The South Korean slugger slashed .270/.388/.495 with 15 HR and an impressive 132 wRC+...and then was flipped to the Dodgers along with Brad Penny at the 2004 trade deadline. That would prove to be Choi’s MLB peak, but his playing career continued in his home country through the 2015 season. Now, he is on the coaching staff of arguably the most popular team in the league.