The most high-profile season in Korea Baseball Organization history begins its full charge toward the Korean Series on Sunday. With the start of the KBO playoffs, the spotlight will be on many of the league’s biggest stars — some of whom might be playing in the major leagues as early as next season.
The KBO playoffs are a bit different than MLB’s format. The top five teams in the standings qualify, but the first-place NC Dinos get an automatic bye to the best-of-seven Korean Series — the KBO’s version of the World Series — and the rest is a ladder bracket to decide who faces them. The second through fifth seeds: the KT Wiz, Doosan Bears, LG Twins and Kiwoom Heroes, respectively.
Here are five players to watch in the KBO playoffs (starting at 1 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPNews and the ESPN app) who might be making their MLB mark sooner rather than later.
Ha Seong Kim, shortstop, Kiwoom Heroes
Kim is in his sixth full season as a starter with the Heroes, the same organization that produced former major leaguers Jung Ho Kang and Byung Ho Park, and appears destined to pursue opportunities in MLB after the season. Scouts believe Kim can play shortstop every day, but could also man second or third base, and he’s expected to rank in the top half of ESPN insider Kiley McDaniel’s upcoming free-agent rankings.
In 137 games this season, Kim hit a career-high 30 homers with 109 RBIs while batting .308/.399/.526 with 24 doubles and 23 stolen bases.
“I would say he’s the best player in KBO right now, all around,” said KBO reporter Daniel Kim. “He’s only 25, but he has a ton of experience. So he’ll be ready for the postseason. But he hasn’t had his moment yet in KBO in terms of doing like Mookie Betts in the World Series type things.”
Kim has previously expressed his interest in making the jump to the major leagues, though he noted at the time that some KBO fans were questioning his ability to thrive there.
“[Byung Ho Park] told me that not many players can actually do it,” Kim told Korea’s JoongAng Daily last December. “He encouraged me by telling me that I should give it a try if I can get that chance, and that helped me gain confidence. Even if it’s not an easy path, I’m the one going down that path, so I’m going to care less about [the negative comments] and go my own way.”
Sung Bum Na, outfielder, NC Dinos
The 31-year-old Na is one of the most complete players in the KBO, hitting .318/.385/.543 over the course of his eight seasons, and hitting .330/.397/.604 with 32 homers and 108 RBIs in 124 games this season. The left-handed-hitting Na has long been the subject of speculation over a leap to the bigs.
“The players that have played with him and against him that have major league experience, they feel he could hold a roster spot at the major league level,” said Daniel Kim. “He’s had some hamstring issues late in the season, but the NC Dinos are going to get a big break here because as [the] first place [team], they got an automatic bid to the Korean Series.”
Raul Alcantara, pitcher, Doosan Bears
The 27-year-old Alcantara has had experience in the majors with the Oakland Athletics in 2016 and 2017, posting a 7.19 ERA in 46 1/3 innings over 13 games and nine starts, but the right-hander has spent the past two seasons in the KBO, pitching for the Wiz in 2019 and the Bears in 2020.
After posting a 4.01 ERA in 27 starts in his first KBO season, Alcantara took things to another level in 2020, with a 2.78 ERA and a 1.056 WHIP in 29 starts. The signings of former KBO pitchers Josh Lindblom, by the Milwaukee Brewers, and Merrill Kelly, by the Arizona Diamondbacks, might have opened a path for Alcantara to turn his KBO success into a spot on an MLB roster.
“I know teams are looking at him right now,” said Daniel Kim. “He’s a name out there this offseason [to follow Lindblom and Kelly].”
Baek Ho Kang, outfielder, KT Wiz
The 21-year-old left fielder is one of the brightest young stars in the KBO. Born in Seoul, he won the KBO’s Rookie of the Year award in 2018, setting a rookie record for homers with 29. He continued mashing in 2020, when he hit .324/.407/.533 with 22 home runs, 82 RBIs and 32 doubles in 124 games.
Mel Rojas Jr., outfielder, KT Wiz
The 30-year-old Rojas — whose father pitched in the majors for 10 years — never reached The Show after the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the third round in 2010. Instead, he has spent the past four seasons of his career with the Wiz, becoming one of the KBO’s premier sluggers. In 2020, the outfielder nearly won the Triple Crown, hitting .349 — good for third in the KBO — while leading the league with 47 home runs and 135 RBIs.
After the playoffs, Rojas will likely need to decide whether he wants to pursue a job in MLB or accept a raise from the Wiz.
“I hear some mixed reviews and lukewarm interest, despite his gaudy numbers. He’s going to get probably a huge raise, close to $2 million guaranteed, from KT Wiz,” said Daniel Kim. “I don’t foresee a major league organization guaranteeing him that. [But] he wants to go to the majors — he’s never played at the major league level.”