With less than 24 hours to go until the first pitch is thrown out on one of the earliest opening days in KBO history it’s about time for some predictions for the 2018 pennant race.
1: Nexen Heroes
Even though Nexen finished in seventh place last season, 17.5 games behind the champions, KIA, the Heroes lost 26 of their games last season by just one run. In the offseason they have dug deep and invested in two free agents who will likely be pivotal to the success of this campaign: Esmil Rogers, and Park ByungHo. In the season following Lee DaeHo’s return to Sajik, the Lotte Giants saw a resurgence in confidence, wins, and team spirit. While there will be less home runs than back in the glory days of Mokdong, the added firepower of ByungHo will provide a massive boost to the Heroes offense and Nexen will likely follow suit and grow in strength and confidence as a result. Last season, 26 of the Heroes’ 73 losses were decided by a single run. With Park ByungHo, and Michael Choice both very capable of 30-40 home run seasons, the final result of many of those games should change this season. Given their lack of depth following the departure of Chae TaeIn to Busan however, any injuries to their starting rotation or to any of Kim HaSung, Park ByungHo, or Michael Choice, then the resulting loss in power could see Nexen drop to third behind KIA and Lotte.
2: KIA Tigers
The defending champions have retained all of their foreign players (Hector Noesi, Pat Dean, and Roger Bernadina) and have added some depth to their batting order during the off-season by picking up Jeong SeongHoon from the LG Twins. With Bernadina, Choi HyeongWoo, Na JiWan, and An ChiHong all capable of 20-30 home runs a season, few teams in the KBO can boast the same offensive capabilities. Assuming everyone stays healthy KIA could take top spot comfortably, but one or two injuries to their pitching rotation or any signs of rust after the month-long Asia Games break and things could go horribly, horribly wrong for the Tigers’ bullpen.
3. Lotte Giants
After losing two of their best power hitters to free agency – a decision that cut 39 grounders into double plays between them – Lotte acquired two excellent FA contact hitters, and a promising young catcher. Lotte are now a team of contact hitters that look capable of threatening every team at any stage of the game. They are also enjoying a level of depth that they haven’t had since the 5-4 trade with kt that brought Park SeWoong to Sajik. Felix Dubront and Brooks Raley have both looked stellar in preseason, and it can be argued that Lotte have some of the best bullpen pitchers in the league, including closer Son SeungLak who will be attempting to best his lights-out saves tally from last season. With the exception of third base and pitching, Lotte will not have to worry about injuries stifling the team’s productivity. With Son AhSeop, Lee DaeHo, Andy Burns, and free agent acquisitions Min ByungHeon and Lee ByeongGyu all capable of driving in crucial runs, the Giants on paper look capable of having their strongest season since the days of Jerry Royster.
4: NC Dinos
Last year NC struggled with their bullpen – not because they were poor, but because they were tired and overutilised throughout the season. Combine that with the lack of a regular first team catcher for the season and there are a couple of underlying issues that will damage the team’s chances this season. Despite the disadvantage of a bullpen that ran on fumes for the latter half of the season, and numerous injuries to their lineup, the Dinos managed to finish 6.5 games off of first place. The Dino’s batting order is still dangerous and following the retirement of Lee HoJun, the Dino’s have maintained offensive depth with the acquisition of Choi JunSeok. If NC are going to make a push for the top three they will need one of their back-up catchers to step up, and their starting pitchers to consistently go deeper than 5 innings. If NC’s starters can average 6 innings per game a piece this season then third or possibly second are not out of their reach.
5: Doosan Bears
Doosan are a fantastic team that cannot be ignored when it comes to playoff potential. The issue for Doosan this season is a lack of investment in the free agent market while every team that finished in the top 6 last year has made significant investment in bolstering their squad depth. Disappointing preseasons from various members of the Bears infield likely haven’t helped the team’s confidence. For their part, Yoo HeeKwan, and Jang WonJun have impressed over the past two weeks, but without run support from a batting order that lost Min ByungHeon, and exchanged Nick Evans for Jimmy Paredes who has looked underwhelming and impatient in his preseason at-bats, Doosan will likely not enjoy as many victories from losing positions as they did last season. Given their current roster, the Bears are still a strong team capable of beating anyone on their day, but with Doosan working on developing younger talent including Kwak Bin, Ham DeokJu, and Ryu JiHyeok, it may be another couple of seasons before they push for another pennant.
6: SK Wyverns
With the return of Kim KwangHyun to the SK Wyverns rotation the Incheon team will be a solid contender for the playoffs. Where SK struggle is with a lack of depth that was helped, but not fully remedied by a trade with KIA Tigers last season. Given the average age on his roster, Trey Hillman has done a fantastic job of building a quality team of power hitters. With Angel Sanchez, Merrill Kelly, and Kim KwangHyun all firing in preseason the Wyverns starting rotation seems to be in a solid position. Given the nature of Kim KwangHyun’s previous injury however, it is likely that his starts and pitch count will be severely limited for the first couple of months. This combined with the lack of a fourth nailed-on starter who can be depended on to pitch more than 5 innings will raise concerns over a lack of depth in the Wyverns aging bullpen will likely be their achilles heel this season. Given the Asia Games break this season however, it is possible that the Wyverns pitching will get the rest they need at a crucial time, and maintain a push that could see them compete in their third wildcard series.
7: LG Twins
After a disappointing finish last season that was marred by poor offense, the LG Twins have vastly improved their playoff hopes this season following the additions of Adonis Garcia and Kim HyunSoo to their batting order. New management and a stronger focus on fundamental baseball will benefit the already defensively stable Twins organization greatly. Retaining the services of Henry Sosa, and bolstering their starting rotation with Tyler Wilson following the departure of David Huff will help this season, but the issue with the Twins when compared to their peers, is that they are a team with very little offensive depth following the release of several franchise stars such as Jeong SeongHoon and Lee ByungGyu. The players that remain are very talented, but still young. Despite this being a rebuilding season however, LG will make progress on last season’s record and be part of the playoff picture until the last two or three weeks of the season. Without injury for the whole season, it is not unimaginable for them to be a strong consideration to steal the wild card spot from neighbours, Doosan.
8: Samsung Lions
Samsung are still in rebuild mode, much as they were last season They are desperately in need of depth in their starting rotation following the dismantling of their multi-title winning team, and several failed attempts over the last two seasons to sign quality foreign pitching. Adleman has shown some promise, but not inspired as of yet, and Bonilla seems to be having difficulty adjusting during preseason. With the renewal of Darin Ruf, and the return of Kim SangSoo from military service, Samsung boast a number of fast players to top out their order. The loss of talisman, Lee SeungYeop however will be sorely missed, as there are few players in the winds who look set to replace his role in the lineup. Unless Bonilla and Adleman can find their stride and join Yun SungHwan at the core of the Lions’ rotation, then Samsung will likely end up using this season to continue to bolster their younger players and prepare for what will likely be a strong playoff push next season following some investment in the free agent market.
9: kt wiz
Until the fundamental flaw in kt wiz’s roster is addressed they will remain near the bottom of the pile, unable to push for a playoff spot. Relief pitching. The introduction of Dustin Nippert, Kang BaekHo, Hwang JaeGyun and the flourishing bats of some of their younger players is a huge step in the right direction for the Suwon team, kt still lack the depth required in their bullpen to remain competitive over a long season. The added offense may tip the balance in their favour in a few isolated games, and next season may pay dividends as their younger bullpen arms develop further, but over this season it’s a bottom 2 finish for the wiz. At least they’ll enjoy their first season away from the bottom spot.
10: Hanwha Eagles
Hanwha are in full rebuild mode right now and are making positive steps in developing their younger talent. The revolving door of imported players continues to spin however, and despite promising pre-seasons from Keyvius Sampson and Jared Hoying, Hanwha have the same issue as kt – lack of pitching depth. Over time they will develop under their new management, but it will take more than one off season to get the team to where they need to be. This year, like last will be a year of rebuilding and developing strong young talent for a playoff push in a season or two’s time.
As an added bonus here’s some bold predictions for opening day.
1. The first home run of the season will be hit by Kim TaeGyun of the Hanwha Eagles.
2. The first pitcher to be pulled will be Keyvius Sampson.
3. The fastest game will be Lotte Giants vs SK Wyverns.
4. There will be two total batters hit by pitches in all 5 games.
5. There will be 7 total errors across all 5 games.
6. The highest scoring game will be Hanwha Eagles vs Nexen Heroes.
7. There will be 12 stolen bases across all 5 games.
8. The starting pitcher to record the most strikeouts will be Tyler Wilson.
9. Two games will involve walk-off RBIs.
10. There will be a lot of chicken, beer, and fun.