Long, cold winter: 6 free agents remain unsigned in KBO

SEOUL– After some big dominoes fell with a bang early in South Korean baseball free agency, six players remain unsigned as the market has ground to a halt.

As of Friday morning, three pitchers, two outfielders and one infielder were still looking for a place to play in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in 2023.

Of the unsigned players, only former KT Wiz infielder Shin Bon-ki has even received an offer, with the Wiz hoping to keep Shin in the fold.
The Dinos entered the offseason with three free agents: pitcher Lee Jae-hak and outfielders Lee Myung-ki and Kwon Hui-dong. Lee Jae-hak re-signed for two more years, with an option for the third season, on Friday, but the two other players are unlikely to return.

Lee Myung-ki, who turns 35 on Dec. 26, is the oldest remaining free agent. Kwon isn’t too far behind, as he turns 32 on Dec. 30. The Dinos are playing some hardball, saying they won’t have room for either player in the outfield. That both players had disappointing 2022 season isn’t helping.

“We have some options in their positions,” a Dinos official said. “We’d like to give opportunities to young prospects.”

Shin, 33, has been sitting on an offer from the Wiz for nearly two weeks.

“He told us he’d like to take his time, and all we can do at this point is to wait,” a Wiz official said. “Basically, we’d like to bring him back. If there’s anything he wants, we’re open to negotiating. But we’re not going to press him to make his decision.”

Shin is a utility player who can handle three infield positions but doesn’t move the needle with his bat. He hit only .182/.254/.231 in 138 plate appearances in 74 games in 2022.

Kang Yoon-goo, a former hot-shot prospect who has never lived up his hype, hasn’t heard anything from the Lotte Giants after pitching to a 5.48 ERA for them this year.

And then there are two right-handers who started for the Kiwoom Heroes this year but who seem to have fallen completely out of favor: Han Hyun-hee and Jeong Chan-heon.

Both have enjoyed varying degrees of success in the KBO either as a starter or as a reliever, though both had down years in 2022. Jeong, 32, had a 5.36 ERA, his worst since 2017, while making 20 starts. Han put up a 4.75 ERA in 14 starts and seven relief outings. They were both left off the Heroes’ Korean Series roster in November, even though they could have used some extra arms in a six-game loss to the SSG Landers.

The Heroes have not made offers to either player and they have all the leverage now, since Han and Jeong have not fielded offers from other teams, either. The Heroes appear willing to wait until January to open talks with the two pitchers.

One major sticking point for Han is the hefty compensation required of whomever other than the Heroes that signs him.

Free agents are split into three classes depending on their salaries, and different compensation rules apply to each class.

Players ranked in the top three in salary on their team and top 30 in the league are in Class A. If a team signs a free agent from that class, the team must pay his previous club twice the amount of that player’s previous salary and send a player not on its protected list, or pay the team three times the amount of the player’s previous salary. Han is the only one among the seven unsigned free agents in Class A.

Players whose salary placed them between fourth and 10th on their clubs, and 31st and 60th in the league end up in Class B. The compensation rules for acquiring these free agents are as follows: the same amount of the player’s previous salary and a player, or double the amount of that salary without a player. Lee Jae-hak, Kwon and Jeong are in this category.

Finally, Class C features players whose salary put them below 11th on their teams and 61st in the league. Players who elect free agency for the first time at age 35 or older automatically end up in this group. Teams signing a Class C free agent only have to pay up to 1.5 times the amount of the player’s previous salary, with no need to send any player the other way.

The Heroes can get creative and pull off sign-and-trade deals, something they have done with a couple of players in the past.

These transactions happen when teams don’t want to bring back their own free agents but still want to get something out of the situation. In 2019, the Heroes signed and then traded infielder Kim Min-sung to the LG Twins for 500 million won (US$381,510). Last year, they inked free agent pitcher Kim Sang-su to a new deal and immediately shipped him to the SSG Landers for 300 million won and a fourth-round draft pick.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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