By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 25 (Yonhap) -- A fourth-round draft pick by the Minnesota Twins in 2017, Charlie Barnes had his major league cup of coffee with the Twins in 2021. He made nine appearances, including eight starts, and went 0-3 with a 5.92 ERA over 38 innings.
Then just before Christmas that same year, Barnes decided to take his talent to South Korea, signing with the Lotte Giants in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). He had turned 26 just a couple of months earlier, making him one of the youngest foreign pitchers in a league that has seen many 30-somethings opening new chapters of their careers.
Barnes had a solid first season here, with a 3.62 ERA and a 12-12 record. The left-hander ranked third in the league with 186 1/3 innings and fifth overall with 160 strikeouts.
He is still young enough that he could have charted a path back to the majors right away and given the big show another shot. Take, for instance, Chris Flexen, a former New York Met who pitched one KBO season with the Doosan Bears and then signed with the Seattle Mariners before the 2021 season. Flexen is one year older than Barnes.
For now, however, Barnes is trying to stay in the present.
"At this point in time, my goal is to have a successful 2023 season with the Lotte Giants and hopefully be pitching in the playoffs," Barnes told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview. He re-signed with the Giants for US$1.25 million in November.
"The KBO has given me opportunities to pitch at the highest level, and I don't take that for granted, no matter what my age is," he said. "It's an honor to be one of 20 foreign pitchers in the KBO. At the end of the season, I will decide what is the best path for myself and my family."
And the postseason is what the Giants and their famously passionate fan base are after. Their last playoff appearance came in 2017, and since then, they have not finished above seventh in the 10-team league where the top five qualify for the postseason.
The Giants kept things interesting late into the season before finishing in eighth place, 5.5 games out of the last playoff spot. Barnes said he believed the Giants, the biggest spenders this winter with three veteran free agent signings, have "the talent to make a run into the postseason."
The Giants will bring back veteran right-hander Dan Straily to pair with Barnes at the top of the rotation, and outfielder Zach Reks is returning after a successful half-season. The three free agent arrivals are infielder No Jin-hyuk, catcher Yoo Kang-nam and pitcher Han Hyun-hee, all of them with playoff experience.
"We have a great group of foreign players as well as some new additions through free agency that will be able to help our team," Barnes said. "We already had one of the most talented rosters in the KBO, so I think this is the year we can put it all together."
For Barnes, the 2022 season was a tale of two halves.
In his first 20 starts, Barnes went 9-6 with a 2.74 ERA in 124 2/3 innings. He struck out 110 and walked 26.
Over his 11 starts post the All-Star break, however, the left-hander only went 3-6 with a 5.40 ERA. He struck out 50 in 61 2/3 innings but also walked 21.
Barnes held opponents to a .621 on-base plus slugging in the first half, but the number ticked up to .681 in the second half.
In particular, he had an up-and-down August. He shut down the Kiwoom Heroes for 7 1/3 innings and gave up just two hits on Aug. 11, but was touched up for six runs on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Doosan Bears in the next start six days later.
He followed that up with eight scoreless frames against the NC Dinos on Aug. 24. In another rough outing on Aug. 30, Barnes served up six runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings against the Heroes.
That carried into a poor September, with Barnes allowing 15 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings across the first three starts of the month, as the Giants faded away from postseason contention. Barnes finished strong with six shutout innings against the LG Twins on Sept. 22.
Barnes didn't think fatigue was a main factor, though he pitched more innings in 2022 than he had in any of his previous seasons in the majors or the minors.
"Every season, there are a handful of outings you wish you could get back. Mine just happened to all fall after the All-Star break," he said. "As a competitor, it is always frustrating when you go through a rough patch, but all you can do is learn from it. This offseason, I have been following a routine similar to past offseasons but definitely made some adjustments to help my body get ready for the workload of a full KBO season."
When asked about adjustments he'll have to make for Year 2 in the KBO, Barnes wouldn't tip his hand.
"Baseball is a game of adjustments, so it is tough to say how I will have to adjust," he said. "I take it hitter by hitter and game by game, so I will make my adjustments when I see how the hitters have adjusted to me."
With the first year of finding his footing on and off the field now behind him, Barnes said he couldn't wait to get back on the mound for another go.
"I think the overall experience (in the KBO) was one of a lifetime. It has made me a better pitcher and person from learning different perspectives and cultures from around the world," he said. "I think I will look back on this when I'm older and be extremely grateful that this opportunity came along."