I have to come at it to live

Sohn Hyuk, head of the Hanwha Eagles, said, “When I envisioned the starting lineup for the new season in Korea, I expected the growth of pitchers who had consistently secured top nominations in recent years. There are several prominent candidates, and among them, Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-jung mentioned Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong. Right-hander Nam Ji-min was named eighth in the first round of the second rookie draft in 2020, and left-hander Kim Ki-joong was named second in the first round of the second rookie draft in 2021. Hanwha expressed high expectations by attaching the modifiers “next ace candidates” to the two players. Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong should enter the race for starters in the new year, and help them build a stronger starting lineup than last year.

Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong have a golden opportunity ahead of the season when they need proof. They will join a mini camp in Okinawa, Japan with Ryu Hyun-jin, a left-hander who left for the Major League after posting monstrous performance in the KBO League. When he stayed in Korea during the off-season after the 2015 season, he set up a mini camp in a warm country for training and joining the spring camp with Jang Min-jae, a younger brother whom he had become close with during the Hanwha season. The number of camp members changes every year, and this year Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong will join Lee Tae-yang for training.

Ryu is a veteran pitcher who played for 10 seasons until last year since his debut in the big league in 2013 as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has won 78 games (48 losses), 1,055 ⅓ innings and an ERA of 3.27, recognized as ace pitchers in the Major League as well. As Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong had a valuable opportunity to work with Ryu, they should prepare for this season even more fiercely. It would be helpful to just watch Ryu’s training, but if he learns by asking questions proactively, it will be highly valuable time that can be priceless.

Considering Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong’s first-team performance, it is true that they have not met the club’s expectations yet. Nam Ji-min pitched in 41 games for three seasons from 2021 to last year, recording 3 wins, 19 losses, 134 innings and 6.45 ERA, while Kim Ki-joong also pitched in 57 games for three seasons from 2021 to last year, recording 3 wins, 9 losses, 122 innings and 4.80 ERA.

While his performance is too early to be satisfied, he has displayed sufficient possibilities so far. Nam has elevated expectations by becoming a fireballer who can throw fastballs exceeding 150 kilometers per hour. “He has shown improvement in performance in every game, not just in numbers,” said Carlos Subero, a former Hanwha coach who witnessed Nam’s rookie days.

As he gradually took starting classes in the Futures League, Kim approached Hanwha’s goal of developing him into a next-generation left-handed ace. When he was serving as the Futures League coach last year, Hanwha coach Choi Won-ho even raised his thumb while watching Kim’s ball control and speed improve.

If Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-jung spend the winter and spring well, Hanwha will be able to utilize a large number of young ace pitchers. It is also a dream moment, and if all the prospects grow well together, we can face a season that will serve as a springboard for the leap to the top after the days of staying at the bottom.

Last year, Moon Dong-ju (21), a promising first-round pick in 2022, revealed his potential and eased Hanwha’s major concerns. Moon won the Rookie of the Year award with 23 games, eight wins and eight losses, 118 ⅔ innings and a 3.72 ERA. He was the first Korean pitcher in KBO history to exceed 160 kilometers per hour, and pitchers who watched Moon’s pitch in person said, “He is a player of a different dimension. He will grow into a bigger player this year.”

As Korea’s ace, Moon Dong-ju will endure this year in his second full-time year, and if Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-jung break out, Hanwha will also have a fairly solid starting lineup. While keeping veteran Jang Min-jae, who was an internal free agent, he has prepared to enable young players to take the center stage when they falter, whether as starters or bullpens, and Hwang Joon-seo, 19, the No. 1 left-hander in the 2024 rookie draft, will also join the race to elevate the mound further. If Kim Seo-hyun, 20, who is the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2023, is included along with Hwang, Hanwha will have a pitching staff that does not have to worry about for the next 10 years. To that end, Nam Ji-min and Kim Ki-joong should spend this season showing their numbers. It is curious how Ryu and Kim’s mini-camp will turn out.

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