How many days will we be able to see Kim Won-joong (31) and Koo Seung-min (34), one of the most powerful bullpen duo in the history of the Lotte Giants.
Koo Seung-min and Kim Won-joong set significant records last year. Set-up man Koo Seung-min achieved his career-high 100 holds at the Doosan Bears in Jamsil on July 26, and 20 holds at the Hanwha Eagles in Daejeon on August 31 for four consecutive years. Closer Kim Won-joong recorded his career-high 100 saves at the match against Sajik SSG on August 16.
The record is quite unusual in the club’s history. Only 14 players achieved 100 holds in total ahead of Koo, and none of them were achieved in Lotte alone. The 20-hold game was also the first in the club for four years in a row, and the second in the league following Ahn Ji-man (formerly Samsung, for five years in a row). Kim Won-joong also became the first player to have 100 saves in Lotte alone.
The two players, who have built milestones step by step, played indispensable roles in the team in the 2023 season. Koo pitched in 67 games this season and played 63 ⅔s, recording 2 wins, 6 losses, 3 saves, and 22 holds with an ERA of 3.96. He led his team to victory from the beginning despite consecutive games, and was also selected as an All-Star. He faltered due to fatigue in his shoulder at the end of the season, but overall he performed well.
Kim Won-joong has also firmly secured the back door of Lotte throughout the season. He pitched in 63 games (63 ⅔ innings), recording five wins, six losses and 30 saves with an ERA of 2.97. He faltered due to an ERA of 3.95 for the month in April, but the ERA significantly decreased to 2.13 for the next four months from May. As a result, Kim Won-joong earned an ERA of two runs in the first division for the first time since joining the pro league in 2012. He is also tying for third in the save rankings after Seo Jin-yong (42 saves) and Kim Jae-yoon (30 saves).
In particular, the fact that the two players hold high values within the team is their steadiness. Both Kim Won-joong and Koo Seung-min kept the mound without major injuries for four years from 2020, and deleted the eighth and ninth innings. During this period, Koo pitched in 265 games, the most in the league, and Kim Won-joong pitched in 225 games, ranking 12th. The fact that there are two must-winners who can be considered “constant” in a season helps the team greatly.
Until now, Lotte had been disgraced as a team with loose bullpen. Since its inauguration as a pro in 1982, the Korean team has had only two saves, John Akins (26 saves) in 2009, Son Seung-rak (37 saves) in 2017, and Lim Kyung-wan (22 holds) in 2004 and Oh Hyun-taek (25 holds) in 2018. It had never had a relief pitcher who was one of the best in the league for a long time. This is why Kim Won-joong and Koo Seung-min are bound to exist.
Now, Lotte has a new task to tackle after the end of this season. They need to catch Kim Won-joong and Koo Seung-min, who are entering the free agent (FA) market. Both players will become FA players for the first time after the 2024 season. They are likely to be the bullpen pitcher to pay attention to in the next Stove League along with Seo Jin-yong (SSG).
Of course, there is also a method similar to a non-FA multi-year contract. If the two players are included in the contract even before the market, Lotte can have a comfortable winter as there is no noticeable internal FA except for the two players. However, Lotte has to be cautious about everything yet.
In particular, the salary cap problem emerges. Most clubs have not actively entered the FA market to comply with salary cap, and Lotte will also be close to the salary cap limit if it catches both Kim Won-joong and Koo Seung-min. From Lotte’s point of view, which cannot pay only the two players, it has to come up with a complicated strategy.
On top of that, bullpen pitcher is another cause for concern. In the KBO league, some view that relievers cannot afford to run long except for the best, and for this reason, chances are relatively low that other teams will reach out. Considering the salary cap, neither Lotte nor other teams can rush to the plate.
Of course, Lotte’s coach Kim Tae-hyung said to Koo Seung-min and Kim Won-joong, who attended the inauguration ceremony in October last year, “Of course, I want to ask them to stay with me and help me. The more players a coach has, the better he is and the more greedy he is. I told him he is a necessary player.”
Lotte grabbed Jeon Joon-woo (38) for four years and 4.7 billion won (3.7 million U.S. dollars) among the two in-house FA resources that came out this off-season, but its captain Ahn Chi-hong (34) gave up to the Hanwha Eagles. Will Lotte catch both the rabbits in the next Stove League, or will Lotte inevitably let someone go like this.