Though baseball has been underway in Asia for weeks with Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League well into its season, the spring got a little brighter and warmer this week as the 10-team Korea Baseball Organization kicked off its 2020 campaign. Though the KBO is playing in empty stadiums, its Opening Day on Tuesday marked a major step in South Korea’s return to normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the league produces more than its fair share of international baseball phenoms from a domestic talent pool in a country of just over 50 million, its clubs welcome overseas players every year. The KBO allows three foreign players per team on their rosters, and this year each squad is carrying two such pitchers and one hitter. Many are former top prospects in the Minor Leagues. Below are some of the most notable on each KBO club.
Raúl Alcántara, RHP: The Red Sox signed Alcantara out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, but he quickly wound up heading to the A’s in the 2011 trade that sent Andrew Bailey to Boston. He thrived once he got to Oakland, though, landing at No. 9 on the team’s top prospect list by the end of 2012 and as high as No. 6 a year later. He made it to The Show in 2016, allowing 18 runs in his first five starts. He went back and forth between the Minors and the Majors in 2017 and spent his final season in the States with Triple-A Nashville in 2018. Altogether, the big-framed right-hander logged a 3.87 ERA in American pro ball, largely a result of a plus fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s. He also throws an above-average changeup and slider that he’s refined since MLB Pipeline described them as works in progress when he was first coming up. This isn’t his first taste of KBO ball, as he logged a 11-11 record and a 4.01 ERA in 27 appearances with the KT Wiz last season.
Chris Flexen, RHP: Selected by the Mets out of Newark (California) Memorial High in the 14th round of the 2012 Draft, Flexen climbed as high as New York’s No. 14 prospect in 2017 and made his big league debut that year. His Minor League numbers were solid in eight seasons. Flexen made 105 starts in the Minors, posting a 3.42 ERA and 1.28 WHIP, even though injuries hampered his climb. The righty underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and missed more than a month of the 2017 season following knee surgery. Still, his fastball touched the mid-90s and propelled him to the Majors that season as Pipeline declared he looked “like he could be a workhorse,” thanks to his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame. Last season, Flexen pitched nine times in the Majors (one start) and made 26 appearances (14 starts) for Triple-A Syracuse, going 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA for the International League club. Health is obviously key and though his career ERA at the Major League level sits at 8.07, Flexen embarks on the challenge of tackling the hitter-friendly KBO at just 25. He signed a one-year deal with the reigning champions in December.
Other notable players: Jose Miguel Fernandez
Notable players: Jake Brigham, Eric Jokisch, Taylor Motter, ByungHo Park
Nick Kingham, RHP: The 6-foot-5 right-hander made 25 big league appearances last year between the Pirates and Blue Jays, going 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 11 relief outings for Toronto, but was designated for assignment three times, went on the injured list once and was released in August. That cleared the way for the 28-year-old to sign with the Wyverns in November. Kingham was the Bucs’ fourth-round pick in 2010 out of a Las Vegas high school and climbed the ladder steadily. By the end of the 2014 season, he was the No. 58 overall prospect, but injuries slowed him down. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, making 16 starts between that season and the next, but reached the Majors by 2018. Kingham got the Opening Day nod for the Wyverns, allowing three runs on six hits over seven innings, but took the loss to former Tigers righty Warwick Saupold, who carried a no-hitter into the seventh.
Jamie Romak, OF: The Ontario product is one of the best traveled players in the game. Romak played all three outfield positions along with both corner infield spots and second base in 14 Minor League seasons, then took his versatility [and a power bat] to Korea for the past four years. A fourth-round pick of the Braves in 2003, Romak also spent time in the Pirates, Royals, Cardinals, Dodgers, D-backs and Padres systems. Romak made his big league debut in 2014 with Los Angeles and played in the defunct Hawaii Winter Baseball, the Arizona Fall League, Dominican Winter League, Venezuelan Winter League and Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. One of his best Minor League campaigns came in 2015 when the then-29-year-old batted .284/.363/.549 with 27 homers and 100 RBIs for Triple-A Reno, earning D-backs Organization All-Star accolades. Before heading to Korea in 2017, Romak mashed with Triple-A El Paso, batting .347/.392/.800 with 11 homers, eight doubles and 25 RBIs in 25 games en route to being named Pacific Coast League Player of the Month for April. In his first three KBO seasons, the slugger belted 103 long balls while posting an OPS north of .925.
Other notable players:Ricardo Pinto
Tyler Wilson, RHP: Wilson was drafted by the Orioles out of the University of Virginia in 2011. The 10th-rounder logged a 1.91 ERA in eight starts as a rookie and was equally sharp as he climbed the Minor League ladder. As he ascended, his status within the Baltimore organization also rose; Wilson entered the list of the club’s top prospects in 2013 and cracked the top 10 in 2015 around the time of his big league debut. He spent parts of the next three years in The Show, bouncing back and forth between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk to finish his affiliated career with a 3.85 ERA in the Minors and a 5.02 clip in the Majors. Wilson’s best pitch is his fastball, which rests in the low 90s with good sink, and he possesses a solid slider and changeup. But his best trait has been his makeup, which Pipeline once described as “off the charts.” Those skills have carried over to the KBO, where Wilson has been a rock-solid starter for the Twins for two years. He finished second in the league with a 3.07 ERA in his first season in 2018 and followed with a 2.92 figure last year. He wound up in the top 10 in strikeouts in both KBO campaigns, fanning 149 (10th overall) in 2018 and 137 (seventh) in 2019.
Casey Kelly, RHP: Together with Wilson, Kelly helps form one of the league’s top pitching rotations in Seoul. It’s been a long road to the KBO for the former first-round pick, whom Boston chose with the 30th overall selection in 2008. He hit the ground running with the Red Sox, appearing in the 2009 Futures Game during a stellar first full season, but was traded to the Padres two winters later as the centerpiece of the Adrian Gonzalez blockbuster. He was coveted as a trade piece for his plus fastball, while his effective curveball and changeup made him even more attractive. He entered 2011 as San Diego’s top prospect [No. 14 overall], but an injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2013 halted his progress. He made it to the big leagues in 2015 but was traded to the Braves that December. Next came one season with the Cubs followed by one with the Giants, spending most of his time in Triple-A. He signed with the KBO’s Twins in the winter of 2018 and lived up to his billing. In 29 appearances last season, Kelly was fourth on the circuit with a 2.55 ERA while striking out 126 across 180 1/3 innings. The bar will be even higher in his second season.
Roberto Ramos, 1B: There was a time when Ramos looked like he might provide an answer at first base for the Rockies, who have struggled to find a long-term solution there since the retirement of Todd Helton. Now the “Mariachi Masher” is taking his power bat to a league that loves homers. Colorado’s former No. 23 prospect was a 16th-round pick in 2014, born in Mexico and a product of College of the Canyons in California. Ramos feasted on California League pitching in a breakout 2018 season with Class A Advanced Lancaster, posting a .304/.411/.640 slash line with 17 homers in 60 games. Though his bat struggled after a midseason promotion to Double-A Hartford, the power remained present with 15 dingers in 61 Eastern League contests. Last year, Ramos was named a midseason PCL All-Star on the way to a .309/.400/.580 line with 30 blasts and 105 RBIs in 127 contests with Albuquerque. The lefty-hitting, righty-throwing first baseman profiles perfectly for the offense-heavy circuit, though LG’s ballpark is probably the league’s least friendly to bats.
Mike Wright, RHP: Wright is a KBO rookie, but he’s got plenty of professional experience. He was picked by the Orioles in the third round of the 2011 Draft and shot up to Triple-A by the end of his second full season, becoming the sixth-best prospect in the Baltimore system. His growth tapered off, though, as he straddled the border of Triple-A and the Major Leagues for several seasons. In 2016, he spent more time in The Show than in the Minors, and 2018 was the first season he pitched exclusively in the bigs. It also was his last real year with the Orioles, as he was traded to the Mariners less than a month into the 2019 season. He finished his Minor League career with a 3.85 ERA, but left the States after posting a 6.00 clip in in the Majors. With the Dinos, Wright will be counted on to utilize his plus fastball and solid off-speed pitches to get batters out on the ground. He ended his time in American ball as a reliever, but his 6-foot-6, 215 pound frame might give him the opportunity to impact the rotation in Changwon.
Aaron Altherr, OF: It’s somewhat fitting that Altherr has gone to play overseas, as the 29-year-old was born in Landstuhl, Germany. Most of his life has been spent in the United States, though, a considerable amount of it in professional baseball. He entered the Minors in 2009 as a ninth-round pick of the Phillies and cracked the top five of the club’s prospect ranks in 2011. He stumbled a bit over the next two seasons but found his way back into the top 10 in 2014, the same year he made his big league debut. He began to see substantial time in 2015, but his momentum stalled after a wrist injury in the spring sidelined him for much of the 2016 campaign. He had his best showing in 2017, batting .272 in 107 big league contests, but began to decline after that, culminating in brief stints with three different organizations last season. He brings a solid bat to the KBO, with hopes that a more solidified role will allow him to return to the level he played at a few years ago. If so, a homecoming to the States isn’t out of the question. After all, former Phillie Darin Ruf signed with the Giants in January after a three-year stint with the Samsung Lions.
Other notable players: Drew Rucinski
Dae-eun Rhee, RHP: One of the few Korean players who signed overseas to begin their careers rather than staying on the domestic track, Rhee joined the Cubs system and made his Minor League debut with Class A Peoria in 2008. As a 19-year-old, the righty went 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 10 starts for the Chiefs, limiting opponents to a .194 average while posting a 1.10 WHIP. Over the next six years, Rhee bounced around the Chicago system, establishing himself at Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa between 2012-14 but never reaching the North Side. In seven Minor League seasons, the Seoul native pitched in 135 games (121 starts) and was 40-37 with a 4.08 ERA. Rhee spent the 2015-16 season with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan and was out of baseball from 2017-18 while completing his compulsory military service. Selected by the Wiz with their first pick in the September 2018 KBO Draft, he served primarily as a reliever in his first season in his home country last year, making 36 relief appearances and eight starts and picking up 17 saves while registering a 4.08 ERA.
Mel Rojas Jr., OF: A serviceable player through eight seasons in the Pittsburgh and Atlanta organizations, Rojas found a home in South Korea in 2017. Having never posted an OPS above .794 for a Minor League season in the U.S., Rojas sported marks of .911, .979 and .910 in his first three KBO campaigns. Selected by the Pirates in the third round of the 2010 Draft out of Wabash Valley College, the son of the 10-year big league pitcher reached Triple-A in his fourth full season but never cracked the Majors himself. The 2014 campaign was the younger Rojas’ best in the Minors as he posted a .288/.370/.423 slash line with 10 homers and 66 RBIs in 130 games between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. Traded to Atlanta for cash in May 2016, he put up a .270/.349/.491 line with 10 homers in 64 contests for Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves released the outfielder the following June, enabling him to sign in Korea, where he’s seen action at all three outfield spots and even three innings at first base.
Other notable players: William Cuevas
Preston Tucker, OF: While brother Kyle has stolen the Tucker family headlines in the U.S., it wasn’t long ago that older brother Preston was the one crushing his way through the Houston system. The Astros’ No. 17 prospect following the 2014 campaign, Tucker made his big league debut the following year, capping a stretch in which he earned consecutive Organization All-Star nods from MiLB.com, midseason All-Star selections in the California and Texas leagues in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and an end-of-season Texas League All-Star spot in 2014. A 2012 seventh-round pick of the Astros out of the University of Florida, Tucker batted .281/.350/.483 in parts of eight Minor League seasons, but his bat never translated to the big leagues, where he hit .222/.281/.403 in 243 contests. The outfielder signed with Kia last May and took to the KBO quickly, seeing action in 95 games and putting up a .311/.381/.479 slash line with nine homers and 50 RBIs. He and his fellow imports are on one of the league’s most interesting rosters, thanks to the hiring of former National League Manager of the Year Matt Williams as the Tigers’ skipper.
Other notable players: Drew Gagnon, Aaron Brooks
Hak-Ju Lee, SS: Like Rhee, Lee signed with the Cubs out of high school and debuted professionally in his late teens. The shortstop quickly busted out with a .330/.399/.420 line in 68 contests with Class A Short Season Boise at age 18 in 2009. Lee was selected to the Futures Game the next two years and continued his climb up the Minor League ladder after a January 2011 trade sent him to the Rays. He was a Top-100 prospect each year from 2012-14 and reached Triple-A Durham in 2013. Knocking on the doorstep of the big leagues, he was beset by injuries and stalled at the Minors’ highest level. After electing free agency following the 2015 season, Lee signed a Minor League deal with the Giants that included an invitation to Spring Training. After playing only 47 games with Triple-A Sacramento in 2016, he was released that June. The Lions selected Lee in the 2018 Draft and put him in the lineup 118 times last year. At age 28 last season, Lee batted .262/.332/.369 with 15 stolen bases for Samsung.
Ben Lively, RHP: Lively left the D-backs organization last August to sign with the Lions, a decision that quickly proved to be a wise one. Over nine starts, he turned in a 3.95 ERA while striking out 58 across 57 innings. That was a step up from his last taste of Minor League ball, where he logged a 4.48 ERA between Triple-A Reno and Omaha after beginning the year in the Royals organization. It was a long way from where he started in the Reds organization after being drafted in the fourth round in 2013. He dazzled as a rookie, posting a 0.88 ERA in 13 appearances, then followed it up with a strong sophomore campaign. He was traded to the Phillies the following offseason and spent the next three years climbing toward Philadelphia. His low- to mid-90s fastball and above-average curve carried him through the ranks, culminating in his big league debut in 2017 after finding success with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. His numbers over the next three years were nothing to write home about, but his 3.15 career Minor League ERA bodes well for continued success in the KBO and a potential return to the U.S.
Other notable players: David Buchanan, Tyler Saladino
Notable players: Warwick Saupold, Chad Bell, Jared Hoying
Dixon Machado, IF: Machado offers the Giants a tremendous defensive presence after a long career playing all across the infield in the States. After signing with the Tigers out of Venezuela in 2009, Machado rose through the Detroit system on his glove and quick feet. He stole 88 bases over his first four seasons, including a career-high 27 as a rookie in 63 games in the Venezuelan Summer League. His bat was never anything special, as he hit above .270 just once in 11 years as a professional and never above .260 in the Majors. Nevertheless, his other skills got him rated as highly as the Tigers’ No. 12 prospect in 2015 and provided enough steam to get him to the big leagues for the first time later that year. He went back and forth between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo over the next four seasons, with his best big league showing coming in 2017 when he hit .259 in 73 games at three positions with the Tigers. Machado broke out some offensively last season with 17 homers and an .851 OPS for Triple-A Iowa in the Cubs system, but some of that can be attributed to the hitting environments in the PCL and the level in general. He’ll bring his versatility with him to Busan.
Dan Straily, RHP: A retooled Lotte team heads into 2020 with some hope to rebound from last year’s expensive and disastrous last-place finish. The Giants restructured their front office in the offseason and brought in additions like Machado and Straily, who earned the Opening Day nod. Straily was MLB.com’s No. 73 overall prospect following the 2012 season, making a swift climb to the Majors after being selected by Oakland in the 24th round of the 2009 Draft out of Marshall. Straily’s breakout season was 2012, when he pitched in 25 games between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. He went 9-7 with a 2.78 ERA, striking out a Minor League-best 190 batters over 152 innings, holding opponents to a .202 average and recording an even 1.00 WHIP. That season, he was named an MiLB.com Organization All-Star, MiLB.com’s Breakout Prospect of the Year and a midseason and end-of-season Texas League All-Star. Straily moved to the Cubs in a July 2014 trade, then to the Astros in a January 2015 swap. After being dealt to the Padres in March 2016, the Reds claimed him off waivers in April, dealing him to the Marlins the following January. Travel isn’t an issue for Straily. Most recently, the righty split 2019 between the Phillies and Orioles, making six Minor League starts in each organization and 14 appearances (eight starts) in Baltimore. He didn’t factor in the decision for Lotte on Tuesday, allowing two runs on three hits over 5 2/3 innings as the Giants rallied for a win over the Wiz.
Other notable players: Adrian Sampson
Tyler Maun and Jordan Wolf are contributors to MiLB.com.