INCHEON, Jan. 13 (Korea Bizwire) – South Korean relief pitcher Oh Seung-hwan, fresh off signing his first big league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, was in a contrite mood on Wednesday, apologizing for his recent gambling scandal.
Oh returned home a day after the Cards announced their one-year contract with the right-hander. The deal includes a club option for 2017.
The 33-year-old, who is the career saves leader in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) with 277, became the third South Korean to sign with a Major League Baseball (MLB) club this offseason.
The Cardinals acquired Oh even as he faced illegal overseas gambling charges at home. He was summarily indicted last month with Seoul prosecutors also seeking a fine of 7 million won (US$5,800). Oh quickly issued a written apology then, and made his first public statement on the scandal Wednesday after arriving at Incheon International Airport.
“I’m truly sorry that I’ve disappointed the fans with this unsavory incident,” Oh said. “It’s 100 percent my fault. I don’t know how I can make it up to my fans. I think I must do the best I can on the field.”
Oh earned 277 saves in nine seasons with the Samsung Lions, and had 80 more saves with the Hanshin Tigers in the Central League of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) over the past two seasons. He became a free agent after the 2015 season.
Oh had a 28-13 record in the KBO with a 1.74 ERA and 625 strikeouts in 510 1/3 innings. Oh then led the NPB’s Central League in saves in each of his two seasons there. In 2014, he recorded 39 saves with a 1.76 ERA while striking out 81 in 66 2/3 innings. Then last year, he tied Tony Barnette with 41 saves, despite a leg injury that prematurely ended his season in September, along with a 2.83 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings.’
Last week, Oh received a half-season, or 72-game, suspension from the KBO for his gambling charges. The ban will only come into effect if he returns to the South Korean league, and it didn’t affect his ability to sign with a major league club as a free agent.
Turning his focus to baseball, Oh said he’s pleased to have joined “a strong club that can reach the postseason every year.” The Cards led the majors with 100 wins in 2015 to win their third straight National League Central title.
“During the negotiations, I had the impression that they needed me, and I think I got a good deal,” said Oh, whose deal is reportedly worth up to US$11 million with incentives if the club exercises its option next year. “I’d like to play well on his club and experience the World Series.”
Oh said he is trying not to feel the extra pressure to perform well in his first season, since only the first year is guaranteed, saying he is healthier now than he was during injury-plagued 2015 season.
“My goal is to play the entire season without getting hurt, and to hold down whatever job I am assigned,” he said. “I read articles that I am projected to post an ERA above 3.00. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied with it. I’d like to keep it in the 2.00 range.”
Oh is the second South Korean in the NL Central, joined by Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho. The two clubs will face each other 19 times during the regular season, and Oh said he’s looking forward to getting reacquainted with his old KBO foe.
“I played in Japan the past two years, and I am sure Kang Jung-ho has become a better player over that stretch,” Oh said of the hitter who went 4-for-13 with a home run against him from 2007 to 2013 in South Korea. “I will try to make it a good showdown (if we meet).”
Though he has been a top-notch closer in Asia, Oh will not receive the same duties right away in the majors. All-Star right-hander Trevor Rosenthal is firmly entrenched as the closer, and he ranked second in the NL last year with 48 saves while posting a career-low 2.10 ERA and striking out 83 in 68 2/3 innings.
Jonathan Broxton and Jordan Walden are two other relievers with big league closing experience.
Left-hander Kevin Siegrist was the primary setup man for Rosenthal last year, and went 7-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings. He led the majors with 81 appearances.
The Cards have said they’re counting on Oh to add depth and flexibility to an already powerful bullpen, which had the second-best ERA in the NL with 2.82 last season.
Oh said he hadn’t heard much from the Cardinals about his job in the bullpen, but did say he doesn’t think he will get the closer’s job with Rosenthal in tow.
Oh added he’s looking forward to working with All-Star backstop Yadier Molina, who has won eight consecutive Gold Gloves starting in 2008, saying Molina is “the best catcher in the majors.”
“I haven’t thought about adding a new pitch,” said Oh, who has built his career on what scouts and opposing hitters have said is a “heavy” fastball. “I think I will use my splitter more often.”
The Cards’ spring training will be in Jupiter, Florida, and pitchers and catchers are to report on Feb. 18. Oh said he will travel to Florida “as soon as my visa is issued.”