2020 was arguably the year of Mel Rojas Jr. Sure, he’s been recognized as a good top-of-the-league hitter since he broke into the KBO in 2017, but 2020 was the year he took it to the next level. He was the undisputed Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the league. He won an impressive four titles, including home runs.
In 142 games in 2020, Rojas Jr. batted .349 with 47 home runs, 135 RBIs, and a career-high 1.097 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He also became the first switch-hitter in KBO history to lead the league in home runs. Not surprisingly, there was an offseason scramble for Rojas Jr. Major league clubs, Japanese clubs, and even his original team, KT, battled it out with maximum bets. The winner was Nippon Professional Baseball’s Hanshin.
KT bet big on Rojas Jr’s retention, offering him a multi-year contract at the time. However, Hanshin outbid them. Nippon Professional Baseball does not disclose salaries, but media reports suggested that the deal was in the range of two years and $5 million. This was higher than KT’s bid. Rojas Jr. had dreams of returning to the major leagues with a big offer from Japan. But the world didn’t work out in his favor.
Rojas Jr. struggled for two years in Japan and failed to earn his keep. Despite being the highest-paid player in the Hanshin organization at the time, he struggled to get a regular spot in the first team. There were times when he played in the second team. The team gave him several chances, but Rojas Jr.’s batting average never improved. In Korea, he was an accurate and long-hitting hitter, but in Japan, the ball basically didn’t come off the bat. After two years of struggling, his contract was up.
There was nowhere else to call Rojas Jr. The first thought was KT, who held his rights, but KT had just signed Anthony Alford as a replacement foreign player in 2022 and he was performing well. At the time, KT weighed Alford and Rojas Jr. and ultimately chose Alford. Rojas Jr. was coming off a two-year slump, and Alford was younger. Whereas Rojas Jr. was on the decline, Alford believed he had more upside.
But this year, Rojas Jr. and KT are being linked again. This is because they need to find a new foreign hitter. In 133 games this year, Alford hit .289 with 15 home runs, 70 RBI, 17 doubles, and an OPS of 0.812. The absolute numbers weren’t terrible, but they didn’t meet KT’s expectations. On top of that, his defense was a problem. His weak corner outfield defense was one of his Achilles’ heels. In the end, the team removed him from the disabled list. He was ruled non-tendered.
KT is still in contract talks with two existing pitchers, William Cuevas and Wes Benjamin. The general consensus is that they are not the kind of players that would be available in the United States or Japan, so there is hope that a deal will eventually be reached. On the other hand, foreign hitters will have to be found. Rojas Junior, who still has a holdout, could be one option. “For now, we are observing Rojas Jr. playing,” said a senior KT official.
Rojas, who did not return to the major leagues this year after spending a year in the Mexican League, is playing in the Dominican Winter League. Winter league players can be divided into two categories: those looking to stay healthy and those looking for a job, and Rojas is the latter, but he’s doing well. He’s one of the best hitters in the Winter League this year. It depends on how you look at the level of the winter league, but the body itself is not in bad shape. KT will continue to observe him. If the results are positive, KT could be in trouble.