KBO Update: Former Angels are excelling in Korea

Jose Fernandez, Los Angeles Angels (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Jose Fernandez, Los Angeles Angels (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

As we await word on the start of the Major League Baseball season, some former Angels are already in action in the Korean Baseball Organization.

If the long delay to the start of the 2020 MLB season has taught us anything, it is just how much we all miss baseball. But while Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association are in a war of words over who has to take the biggest hit financially when the game returns, baseball fans have turned their attention east to the KBO to get their fill.

The Korean Baseball Organization began its season on May 5th, and with ESPN partnering with the league to televise games to fans in the United States, there has been a growing interest in the league. From the bat flips to the faux fans in the stand, North American fans have been enthralled with the product they have been seeing.

Of course, the KBO offers more than just novelties. It also featured many former Major League players and prospects that are using the league to extend their careers. Some are even starring in the KBO, including some former members of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization. In all, there are four players with Angels ties on various rosters throughout the league.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the former Angels and how they’ve managed during the first month of their seasons.

Former Angels pitchers in the KBO – Odrisamer Despaigne

33-year-old Cuban import Odrisamer Despaigne is one player that didn’t make much of a memorable impression upon Angels fans during his time in Anaheim. With a rash of injuries to the pitching staff in August 2018, the Halos acquired Despaigne from the Miami Marlins in exchange for cash considerations. However, the acquisition failed to provide any relief to the team, as Despaigne struggled in eight appearances (four starts), going 0-3 with a 8.20 ERA and a 2.196 WHIP.

Things have been quite different for the right-hander during his first season with the KT Wiz. In four starts spanning 24 innings, he’s surrendered just six earned runs and two walks, while striking out batters at a 7.9 K/9 clip.

Former Angels pitchers in the KBO – Drew Gagnon

Drew Gagnon is another former Angels right-hander that has found his way to South Korea. The Halos picked him up as part of the deal that brought Martin Maldonado to Anaheim and sent Jett Bandy to the Milwaukee Brewers. However, Gagnon only spent one season in the Angels’ organization, appearing in 31 games (10 starts) and throwing 82.1 innings at Triple-A Salt Lake in 2017. After going 1-1 with a 6.25 ERA, and an 8.7 K/9 ratio, the Angels allowed him to become a minor league free agent at season’s end. He would spend two seasons in the Mets organization before washing out of affiliated baseball.

After signing with the Kia Tigers during the offseason, the early results have been favorable for Gagnon. The soon-to-be 30-year-old has made four starts and currently sports a 2-2 record with a 2.70 ERA and a 0.943 WHIP. His 31 strikeouts on the season rank third in the league.

Former Angels pitchers in the KBO – Drew Rucinski

Another Drew, this time Drew Rucinski, spent two years in the Angels organization after signing a minor league deal in the winter of 2013. He ascended through the ranks, starting at High-A Inland Empire and eventually made seven combined appearances for the Angels in 2014 and 2015. He would struggle in 14.1 innings though, going 0-2 with a 6.38 ERA and a 5.0 BB/9 mark.

He made his way to South Korea in 2019 and converted to a starting pitcher for the NC Dinos. In 30 starts last season, he held his ground with a 3.05 ERA, a 2.3 BB/9, a 6.0 K/9 mark, and a record of 9-9. He’s improved on that in 2020, going 3-0 in his first four starts with a 2.49 ERA, a 2.5 BB/9, and an 8.2 K/9.

Former Angels hitters in the KBO – Jose Miguel Fernandez

If there is one former Angel that is currently exceeding expectations, it is former infielder Jose Miguel Fernandez. Another Cuban import, Fernandez is an interesting case in that he seemingly hit well in both the minors and majors, but was cut loose by both the Angels and the Dodgers. Unlike the Dodgers, the Halos gave him an opportunity at the MLB level, wherein 2018 he made appearances at first, second, third, and designated hitter. In 36 games and 123 plate appearances, he would hit .267/.309/.388 with two home runs and 11 RBI. However, his lack of power, plate discipline, and a true defensive position likely led to his release in November 2018.

While baseball in California didn’t work out for Fernandez, he’s taken a liking to the game in South Korea. In 2019, Fernandez finished 2nd in the league in batting average (.344), first in hits (197), 2nd in total bases (276), 10th in RBI (88), and 9th in OPS (.892). He’s exceeded even those numbers in the small sample size of 2020. In 18 games for the Doosan Bears, Fernandez leads the league with a .470 average, is 2nd in RBI (18), 1st in total bases (59), and is 2nd in OPS (1.206).

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It remains to be seen whether any of these players can turn success in the KBO into a return to MLB, as some players have in recent years. However, it is apparent that they’ve all found good situations that work for their talent and allowed them to blossom into better ballplayers.