EDITOR’S NOTE: While Josh is no longer being paid by SB Nation/Vox Media, as he explained here at the end of March, former California contributors like Josh can remain as Community Insiders. He can write here when he wants to, I just can’t assign him to write anything. And so when he asked me if he could write something about the KBO, I said, “Sure!”
OK, so after seven weeks of sheltering in place, I’m desperate enough to write something for free. At least it means I can put off making a trivet out of all the wine corks I’ve gone through.
Last night the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) started their 2020 baseball season and thanks to ESPN, you can see the games live on American TV for the first time. I don’t pretend to be an expert on baseball in Korea, but I am an expert on who has played for the Cubs over the past dozen years or so. I’ve also said for years that “Baseball is better in Korean” in MLB Bullets, mostly because of all the crazy stuff that goes on with the fans and mascots and first pitches. Unfortunately, we won’t be getting any of that for a while since KBO will be playing without any fans for the time being. At least we may still get some incredible, Jose Bautista-worthy bat flips from the players. Some of them will be after a single.
Baseball was first brought to Korea by American missionaries in 1905. The KBO League started in 1982. Baseball is Korea’s most popular team sport, which isn’t something the United States can say anymore. They’ve also become much better at it over the past 25 years or so. Fifteen years ago, I remember experts saying that KBO is about the level of the Double-A minors. Now, most say it’s at Triple-A level and that is evidenced by the kinds of US-born players who compete there. Pretty much all of them have at least Triple-A experience and most of them have some major league experience. Players like Eric Thames and Josh Lindblom have gone to KBO to resurrect their careers and have returned to MLB.
Since there won’t be baseball anywhere else for a while, you may want to pick a KBO team to cheer for. And if you want to pick a team based upon their Cubs connections, here’s a guide for you.
If you want a more general guide on the ten teams, I’d suggest checking out this primer by Liz Roscher. And if you want to go more in-depth, there’s mykbo.net, which has news and stats in English for you. (And here’s an interview with Dan Kurtz, the creator of that site.) You can also go to the English-language version of KBO’s official site, but the information there is limited.
I have tried to catch every single player who played in the Cubs organization currently in KBO through the rosters on mykbo and the official team sites, which are in Korean but they at least also spell out the names of players in a Latin alphabet. But I can’t promise I didn’t miss someone. Also, I’m going with the western tradition of putting the family name last, since that is the way that most of you would know them. But if you go to those Korean sites, former Cubs pitcher Jae Kuk Ryu would be listed as Ryu Jae Kuk. (Ryu played for the LG Twins in 2019 before retiring this past offseason.)
Who: First thing you need to know is that like Japanese teams, Korean teams are named after the corporation that owns them and not the city they play in. If you’ve watched the MLB playoffs on TV last year, you know from their commercials that Doosan makes heavy machinery and construction equipment, among other things.
Also, Korean teams have English-language team nicknames for the same reason that American soccer teams call themselves things like Real Salt Lake, DC United and Inter Miami. It just sounds cooler and more authentic to mimic their more established MLB counterparts.
Doosan is one of three teams in Seoul. They are also the most successful team in recent years, having won the Korean Series last year as well in 2015 and 2016. They have six titles overall in their history. They’ve only missed the playoffs once since 2004. This is the team to cheer for if you’re looking for a winner or you’re a bandwagon fan.
Former Cubs?: None that I can find.
Who: The Eagles play in Daejeon, which is in the central part of the country. Hanwha is a conglomerate that makes explosives. They’ve branched out into chemicals and financial services and other things in recent years, but they’re mostly known for explosives. It makes for fun pre-game shows.
This is not a successful team. They’ve won the Korean series only once in 1999. They’ve only managed to make the playoffs once since 2008.
Former Cubs? Right-handed reliever Jin-Young Kim pitched for the Cubs in 2011 and 2012, mostly for the Cubs’ rookie ball team in Mesa. He did make nine appearances and two starts for Boise in 2011.
Who: You’ve heard of Kia. Maybe you drive a Kia. The team plays in Gwangju, which is in the southwestern part of the Korean peninsula.
The Kia Tigers have won more Korea Series title than any other team with eleven, although most of those came in the eighties and nineties. They’ve been more up and down this century, but they did win the Korea Series in 2009 and beat the Bears to take the title in 2017.
Former Cubs: Well-loved former Cubs first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, famous for his scary collision with Kerry Wood in 2003, is the Tigers’ hitting coach. In case you were wondering, former Nationals manager Matt Williams is the Tigers manager. He never played for the Cubs, but he did hit .300 with two home runs in the 1989 National League Championship Series against the Cubs. (Sorry for reminding you. At least he’s not Will Clark.)
Right-handed pitcher Aaron Brooks has just over 170 innings in the majors and none of them came with the Cubs. But they Cubs did trade Chris Coghlan to get him in 2016 and he pitched for the Iowa Cubs in 2016 and 2017. Had he not gotten hurt in 2016, there’s a very good chance he’d have a World Series ring.
Who: Kiwoom is the only team in KBO not owned by a corporation, but rather by a group of really rich people, just like American sports teams. They do sell the name of their team to Kiwoom Securities, an investment firm.
The Kiwoom Heroes are one of the three Seoul teams and they play in the Gocheok Sky Dome, which hosted first-round games of the 2017 World Baseball Classic. I remember the atmosphere of those games being pretty awesome.
The Heroes were an expansion team in 2008 and have never won the Korea Series, although they have qualified for the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons. They lost the Korea Series to Doosan last year.
Former Cubs: The big name here is left-hander Eric Jokisch, an 11th-round Cubs draft pick out of Virginia, IL and Northwestern in 2010. He pitched four games, including one start, for the 2014 Cubs. Jokisch was in the organization from 2010 to 2016. He had a great year as a member of the Heroes’ rotation in 2019, going 13-9 with a 3.13 ERA.
Jake Brigham came to the Cubs from the Rangers in 2012 in a mid-season trade for Geovany Soto. They traded him back to Texas after the 2012 season. He only pitched two games for Double-A Tennessee before he missed the rest of the year with an injury.
Who: The KT Wiz are an expansion team that joined the league in 2015. They’re owned by KT, or Korea Telecom. They play in Suwon, which is just south of Seoul.
The Wiz finished sixth last year, which was their best finish ever. They finished in last place in their first three seasons and got all the way up to ninth place in 2018. So they’re the team to cheer for if you want to cheer for a real underdog.
Former Cubs: Right-hander Dae-Eun Rhee wowed Cubs fans when he went 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in his first 10 professional starts with Peoria in 2008. Unfortunately, Rhee needed Tommy John surgery right after that. Baseball America ranked Rhee as the Cubs’ No. 4 prospect after that season despite the surgery, Unfortunately, he was never really the same. He pitched in the Cubs organization from 2008 to 2014 and made it as high as Triple-A Iowa in 2014, making eight starts and one relief appearance that year. (He also had 18 appearances for Tennessee that season.) Rhee could just never stay healthy for any extended period of time. If he could have, he likely would have had a major league future.
Rhee was 4-2 with a 4.08 ERA for KT last year, mostly as a reliever.
Who: One of the three Seoul teams and they share a stadium with the Doosan Bears. You’ve heard of LG. You may be reading this article on an LG phone or watching the games on an LG television set.
The LG Twins have won two Korean Series titles, in 1990 and 1994. They’re usually a middle-of-the-pack team in recent years.
Former Cubs: Right-hander Casey Kelly, a former Red Sox first-round pick under Theo Epstein, signed with the Cubs as a free agent in 2017. He threw 60 innings for the Iowa Cubs before getting released. He went 14-12 with a 2.55 ERA for LG last year.
Infielder Ho-young Son was in the Cubs’ organization from 2014 to 2016. He played 29 games for Eugene in 2015. He also tried converting to pitching in 2016, but he’s back playing the infield in KBO.
Who: Lotte is a conglomerate that is best known for their candy and fast food. They also own movie theaters and amusement parks and other assorted fun stuff. They also own the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan’s NPB baseball league. They are located in Busan, which is on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula and is also South Korea’s second-largest city.
The Giants have won the Korea Series twice, in 1984 and 1992. They’ve only made the playoffs once since 2012 and they finished dead last in 2019. They are likely to be a team on the rise for reasons explained in the next section.
Former Cubs: As noted in this article in The Athletic by Patrick Mooney and Eno Sarris, the new general manager of the Giants is Min-kyu Sung, who started as a translator for the Cubs’ Peoria Chiefs affiliate in 2008 and worked his way up the Cubs’ front office, eventually serving as the Cubs’ Pacific Rim scouting supervisor until just a few months ago. He’s been hired to turn around the Giants in the same way that Theo Epstein turned around the Cubs when he was hired.
Sung talks about the “Process” so much he’s been nicknamed “Process Sung” in Korea.
In that, Sung signed two players formerly with the Cubs organization. Right-hander Dan Straily pitched for the Chicago and Iowa Cubs in the 2014 season after he came over from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija/Addison Russell deal. He was later dealt to Houston for Dexter Fowler. While in Chicago, Straily pitched in seven games for Chicago in 2014, including one start. He did have some success with the Reds and Marlins from 2016 to 2018, but struggled with the Orioles last year.
Sung also signed Dixon Machado, the former Tigers shortstop who spent all of last season with the Iowa Cubs.
Left-handed hitting outfielder Kyung-Min Na played with the Cubs in 2010 and 2011. Na played 66 games with Boise in 2010. He played 28 games for Peoria in 2011, hitting .258/.333/.303 with five steals. He also played for Boise and got two games with Tennessee that season. He’s been playing for Lotte since 2016.
Who: The NC Dinos are owned by NCSoft, a video game and software company. They are located in Changwon, a planned city on the southeast coast of Korea. They were an expansion team in 2013 and while they’ve never won the Korea Series, they’ve made the playoffs in five of their seven years of existence.
Former Cubs: Right-hander Drew Rucinski made 28 starts with the Iowa Cubs in 2016. He has 54 innings in the majors, most of them coming with Miami in 2018.
Who: You’ve heard of Samsung. You might be reading this on a Samsung phone or watching the games on a Samsung television. The team is technically owned by Cheil Worldwide, a marketing firm that is a subsidiary of the Samsung conglomerate.
The Lions are located in Daegu, which is in the southeastern part of the country, a bit inland from Busan and Changwon.
The Samsung Lions have eight Korea Series titles, the second-most of any team. They won the title in four-straight years from 2011 to 2014. However, they’ve fallen on hard times since then and haven’t made the playoffs since 2015.
Former Cubs: Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee signed with the Cubs for a huge $1.15 million bonus back in 2008. Lee played for Boise in 2009 and made the Futures Game in 2010 as he hit .282/.354/.351 with 32 steals as a 19-year-old for Low-A Peoria. He was the Cubs’ No. 4 prospect after the 2010 season, according to Baseball America. However, the Cubs dealt him to the Rays as part of the Matt Garza deal that winter. He was a top 100 minor league prospect before suffering a bad knee injury from a collision at second base in 2013. He never really recovered from that and never made it above Triple-A.
Lee hit .262/.332/.369 in 118 games for Samsung last season, his first in KBO.
Outfielder Dong-Yub Kim played in the Cubs organization in 2011 and 2012. He hit five home runs in just 33 games in Boise in 2012, which was great. The .288 OBP and the 33 strikeouts to 4 walks he had that year wasn’t so great. He was terrific with the SK Wyverns in 2017 and 2018, but he struggled badly last year in his first year with the Tigers, hitting .215/.268/.338 with just six home runs in 60 games. I assume he was battling injuries.
Who: SK is owned by SK Telecom, Korea’s largest wireless communications company. They are located in Incheon, which is a port city located just west of Seoul.
The Wyverns were an expansion team in 2000 and have won four Korea Series titles with the last one coming in 2018.
Also, a wyvern is a dragon that walks on two legs, flies and has a long tail. It’s probably the coolest team nickname in all of baseball.
Former Cubs: Jae-Hoon Ha was a popular outfielder in the Cubs minor league system from 2009 to 2015. He even made the Futures Game in 2012 where he homered off of Gerrit Cole. His hitting stalled out in Triple-A Iowa, so he converted to pitching in 2015. He was the Wyverns closer last season, notching 36 saves and a 1.98 ERA.
I’m cheering for . . .
This poll is closed