Last year, the Lotte Giants built a solid 1st to 3rd starting lineup, with Dan Strayley, Charlie Barnes, and Park Se-woong. As two foreign players have succeeded in renewing their contracts, three players are expected to take on the heavy responsibility of the 1st to 3rd starters this year as well. Strayley and Barnes have already completed verification, and ‘Glasses Ace’ Park Se-woong also predicted a big success this year, being the only pitcher from the national team who participated in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) to make a good pitch. Looking at these three pitchers alone, the height of the Lotte mound is at the top of the league.
The problem is the 4th and 5th selection. 안전놀이터Last year, Lotte’s 4th starter was Lee In-bok, a “good fortune.” Lee In-bok took a ‘career high’ with an average ERA of 4.19 in 26 games last year, 9 wins and 9 losses, and established himself as a sure 4th starter. However, Lee In-bok had to undergo surgery to remove a bone fragment in his right elbow before spring camp, and he was out of the team. He is expected to return in May or June at the earliest, but realistically, it is difficult to put him into practice immediately after rehabilitation. Even if he comes on the mound, he is expected to be used as a ‘one-point relief’ instead of a starter who has to digest long innings.
Among the 4 candidates to replace Lee In-bok, Na Kyun-an is the most likely player. Coach Larry Sutton said at the spring camp, “Na Kyun-an is the most advanced in the competition for the 4th starter.” Na Kyun-an, who joined Lotte in the 3rd overall in the 2nd 1st round in 2017, originally had a catcher position. However, he bet on a second baseball life by turning to a pitcher and even changing his name (previously renamed Na Jong-deok) in the process of rehabilitating from an injury in 2020. In the end, it was the right choice. In the 2021 season, his first year as a pitcher, Kyun-an Na showed potential by recording 23 games, 1 win, 2 losses and an average ERA of 6.41. Last year, he played the role of a ‘swing man’ between the starter and the bullpen, and posted a decent performance with an average ERA of 3.98 with 3 wins and 8 losses in 39 games.
Na Kyun-an was put on the test table from spring camp. On February 22nd, in a practice game against the Chiba Lotte Marines 2nd team of the Nippon Professional Baseball, he started and allowed no runs through 3 innings without giving up a single hit. His stable control and aggressive pitching were impressive. Na Kyun-an was satisfied, saying, “I tried to throw as many strikes as possible, but the result was satisfactory.” Even in his second practice game, he was in good form, giving up only three hits, although he hit one home run in four innings against SSG.
While Na Kyun-an was actually dropped as the 4th starter, the 5th starter is in the fog. Han Hyun-hee, Lee Min-seok and Kim Jin-wook were mentioned as candidates, but it is known that Sutton is pushing Han Hyun-hee the most strongly.
Han Hyun-hee has the advantage of being able to use both in the starting and bullpen. He’s an experienced free agent, but he’s still only 30 years old. Han Hyun-hee is a typical sidearm. He pitches with the power of rotating his waist, so weight management is more important than anything else, and he recently succeeded in losing 12 kg. He came as a starter in an exhibition game against Doosan on the 14th and gave up only two hits in four innings and blocked it with no runs. He also struck out five. However, in an exhibition game held five days later, he threw 71 balls in 3 ⅔ innings, allowing 4 walks and allowing 3 runs. In particular, after getting the first hit of the day, he gave up two hitters in a row, exposing the problem of rapid control anxiety, and his weak mentality remained as a homework to be supplemented.
Kim Jin-wook has an advantage in that he is a left-handed pitcher that Lotte lacks. With Kim Jin-wook as the starter, the Lotte starters can strike a balance between left and right-handers. But this season, his chronic lack of control has raised its head again. Kim Jin-wook recently appeared in four exhibition games and allowed 5 walks while throwing 3.1 innings. That means he gave up more than one walk per inning. As a result, he also overshadowed his appearance as a fire bowler who threw a fast ball that reached 150 km. Because of this, he is likely to start this season out of the bullpen.
Lee Min-seok is considered a ‘dark horse’ among the 5 candidates. Lee Min-seok, who wore a Lotte uniform as the first draft pick in 2022, is a second-year prospect who is only 20 years old this year. However, from his high school days, he quickly drew attention as a starting pitcher with a fastball that reached a maximum speed of 150 km/h.
In the first year of joining the team, he showed the disadvantage of rapidly slowing down his speed when he went over 3 innings in a game, but he boasts a stable pitch even if he throws a lot of balls in bullpen pitching recently. It is also being discussed as a way for Lotte to advance into fall baseball by adding an experimental element and entrusting many innings to Lee Min-seok.