By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 13 (Yonhap) -- The Hanwha Eagles have been a laughingstock of South Korean baseball for several years. They finished dead last in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in each of the past three seasons. They have made the postseason just once in the last 15 years. Since the KBO expanded to 10 clubs and teams started playing 144 games per season in 2015, the Eagles have finished with a winning percentage of over .500 just once.
The list goes on and on for the perennial doormats. Can these Eagles finally turn things around in 2023 and fly back to respectability, if not the postseason?
Brian O'Grady, the team's new American hitter, wants to give it a shot.
"I feel like things in baseball can turn pretty quick. So hopefully, this is the year that we can start winning some games," O'Grady told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview from Pensacola, Florida, on Thursday. "I'm definitely not going there to lose. It's cool to think about being the team that everybody thinks might not be good and then going out there and kicking some butt and winning some games. I think that could be a lot of fun."
O'Grady, a former Cincinnati Reds draft pick, spoke from experience after playing for the Saitama Seibu Lions in Japan last year.
In 2021, the Lions had ranked sixth and last in the Pacific League of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) for the first time since 1979. But they made the postseason in 2022 after finishing third in their league.
O'Grady was second on the Lions with 15 home runs and third with 46 RBIs in 123 games last year. He posted 112 in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a catch-all stat that measures a player's offensive value based on the outcome of each plate appearance, adjusted for ballparks. The league average is set at 100, meaning O'Grady was 12 percent better than the league average despite batting only .218.
The Eagles, who ranked last in every meaningful offensive category last year, are counting on O'Grady to provide some much-needed pop in the middle of their lineup. The 30-year-old said he will embrace that challenge.
"There's always pressure in baseball, but especially being an American going into Korea, there's definitely that extra pressure," O'Grady said. "And it is what it is. You've just got to do what you do and play your game and not have to worry about that."
O'Grady, who has 62 major league games for three different teams to his credit, said he chose the KBO because it presented the best financial opportunity for his family and also the best playing opportunity for himself. His one-year deal can be worth a maximum US$900,000, with a guaranteed salary of $700,000 and an incentive of up to $200,000.
After 228 games in Triple-A, O'Grady said, "I don't really have anything left to prove" in the highest level of the minor leagues.
"I just haven't gotten a great opportunity in the major leagues. So for me to go back to Triple-A and play really well doesn't really help me at all because I've been doing that," O'Grady said. "I would play a few more years in Korea, if they wanted me and everything worked out and the money was good. So it's definitely something that interests me, not just for the year, but long term too."
O'Grady said the key in the first year here is to enjoy himself more on the field, something he regrets not doing last year in Japan. In 2022, O'Grady's wife gave birth to a daughter, but he couldn't be with them while playing baseball in Japan. That took a huge mental toll on O'Grady.
His family will be joining him in South Korea this year, at least for some parts of the season, but that will be enough to lift "a huge weight off my mind," in O'Grady's words.
O'Grady also said having played in Japan should help him with the transition he will have to make in South Korea.
"In my opinion, the NPB doesn't get the respect that it should get just yet. The pitching over there was really much better than even I thought it would be, top to bottom," he said. "I think Korea kind of has a similar style of pitching as Japan does, which is different than the United States. The splitters are definitely something that is not as prevalent over here. I think just facing pitchers of that style will definitely help me in Korea."
As for his off-field adjustments, O'Grady said: "Just living in a different country, a totally new culture, not speaking the native language perfectly and dealing with a translator, and all the changes that happen when you go international, I've already done it in Japan. It should be easier for me to figure everything out now."
Having a familiar face by his side should also help. On Dec. 18, three days before O'Grady's deal was announced, the Eagles said they'd acquired pitcher Burch Smith, O'Grady's teammate with the Lions.
They are the first pair of teammates to sign with the same KBO team in the same offseason after playing together in a different country the previous year.
O'Grady said he knew he was going to sign with the Eagles when he found out Smith was also going to the KBO. O'Grady texted Smith to ask his Seibu teammate which KBO club he was joining. When the answer came back, "Hanwha," all O'Grady could do was laugh.
"We got along very well in Japan," O'Grady said. "We talked last year that obviously, playing in a major league game (together) would be nice, but at the same time, we were enjoying playing in Japan. Playing internationally, in Japan or Korea, we could see ourselves doing that moving forward.
"It's just another opportunity for us to go out there and play. And it makes it a lot easier when you go somewhere with somebody that you're already familiar with, you're already friends with," O'Grady continued. "You feel like you have somebody else you can figure stuff out with."
The Eagles are entering their third season with Venezuelan manager Carlos Subero, whose staff includes other English-speaking coaches. O'Grady, a self-proclaimed "talker" in the dugout during games, said he was looking forward to doing something in the KBO that he couldn't do it in the Japanese league.
"When you can actually communicate with somebody and speak the same language, it's just so different than even with the best translators working through that," O'Grady said. "During the game, I'm a talker. I am always talking to my coaches about at-bats. I couldn't really do that in Japan. And it's just a lot easier when you have someone else who's watching and who can give you something little if you're not feeling right."
Coming into a new country for the second straight season, O'Grady said he was looking forward to exploring South Korea and its food -- "I've heard nothing but good stuff about the Korean food," he said -- and also to forging new connections in the new league.
"Just going out there and playing as hard as I can, enjoying the game, as well as meeting my teammates, and being with them and learning stuff from them," O'Grady rattled off a few things, when asked what he most looked forward to about 2023. "I really had a great time with my teammates in Japan. So I'm looking forward to the same thing in Korea with those guys. And, hopefully, I can teach them some things, and I'll learn some stuff from them. And we can put together some good games and win more games."