4 S. Korean players set for 60-game sprint in Major League Baseball

July 23, 2020

After a monthslong pause brought on by the global coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is finally upon us, with the new Opening Day scheduled for Friday morning in South Korean time.

Four South Korean players in the bigs will begin their truncated, 60-game season the following day.

Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Ryu Hyun-jin, as expected, will toe the rubber to open the season against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, at 6:40 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, or 7:40 a.m. Saturday in Seoul. As the biggest free agent pitching signing in Blue Jays’ history, Ryu will begin his four-year deal, worth US$80 million, with his second career Opening Day start.

The 33-year-old left-hander also opened the 2019 season for the Los Angeles Dodgers and went on to finish second in the National League (NL) Cy Young Award voting after leading all of baseball with a 2.32 ERA.

The abbreviated season may be in Ryu’s wheelhouse. Throughout his career, he has had trouble staying healthy. But this year, Ryu may only be asked to make about a dozen starts. In his first 12 starts of 2019, Ryu was 9-1 with a 1.35 ERA.

The Rays also feature a South Korean player in first baseman Choi Ji-man. Ryu and Choi both attended Dongsan High School in Incheon, about 40 kilometers west of Seoul, though they didn’t play together, with Ryu being four years older.

Still, it would be a neat moment for the school with a long baseball tradition to see two of their alums in the same major league game. Choi, who bats left-handed, may not get the start against Ryu, given his struggles against southpaws.

In 2019, Choi batted .210/.309/.321 against left-handers, compared to .274/.377/.492 against right-handed pitchers.

In the new schedule designed to minimize travel during the pandemic, MLB teams will only face opponents in their same regional divisions. For instance, the Blue Jays and the Rays, both in the American League (AL) East, will only play teams in the AL East and the NL East.

Ryu could make a few more starts against the Rays later in the season, but he will not face another South Korean batter in the AL, Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers, as the Rangers are in the AL West.

Choo, the elder statesman in the Korean contingent at 38, is entering the final season of his seven-year contract with Texas.

He hasn’t slowed down. Choo belted a career-high 24 home runs last year and also added 15 steals, his most since 2013. Choo led the Rangers with 93 runs scored, 31 doubles and 78 walks in 2019, and the team will once again count on him to provide some spark near the top of the lineup.

St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun is the lone NL player and the only big league rookie among South Koreans. After a stellar 13-year career in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) that included a regular season MVP in 2008, Kim signed a two-year, $8 million contract with the Cardinals last winter.

Kim, who had been a starter in his native country, was given a chance to earn a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation during spring training. Before the hiatus, Kim was impressive in his four spring outings, including two starts, as he tossed eight shutout innings with 11 strikeouts against one walk.

Then in a surprise decision announced earlier this week, Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt sent Kim to the bullpen as the new closer, despite Kim’s lack of closing experience in the KBO. The left-hander had zero regular season saves and only two postseason saves here.

But Kim looked just fine in his closing debut Wednesday in St. Louis, as he struck out the side to lock down a 6-3 win over the Kansas City Royals in a summer camp game.

Kim played in his home city, something that Ryu won’t be able to do with the Blue Jays this year.

The Blue Jays, the only MLB team in Canada, still don’t know where they’ll play their “home” games this year. Over the weekend, the Canadian federal government rejected the Blue Jays’ plan to host regular season games at Rogers Centre, with U.S.-based clubs flying across the border otherwise closed to nonessential travelers during the pandemic. Those U.S. teams would also have been exempted from the mandatory 14-day quarantine, but Canada, which has done a better job managing the COVID-19 crisis than its neighbor in the south, cited public health concerns in turning down the proposal.

The Blue Jays had an agreement in place to share PNC Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Pennsylvania Department of Health said Wednesday it will not permit that arrangement, also out of concerns about added health risks.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, is one remaining possibility. Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York, the Blue Jays’ Triple-A park, may be the last resort. Toronto players have already demanded they play at a major league stadium, with Sahlen Field lacking sufficient lighting and other amenities to hold big league games.

Toronto’s spring training home, TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida, is a brand new stadium with upgraded lighting. But it’s no longer considered an option given recent spikes in COVID-19 cases in Florida.