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6 months for rehabilitation – virtually out for the first half of the season

LG Twins left-handed reliever Ham Deok-ju, 29, who hit the free agent jackpot after the 2023 season, has already undergone elbow surgery. He has been removed from the spring training roster and plans to focus on rehabilitation. In effect, the first half of the 2024 season is now in doubt. It’s a blow to the defending champion LG Twins.

On the 16th, the LG Twins announced, “Ham Deok-ju underwent left olecranon pin fixation surgery at Sejong Sports Orthopedics due to a microfracture of the olecranon bone in his left elbow. The rehabilitation period is expected to be about six months,” explaining, “He is expected to return around June or July.” According to a club official, the injury was discovered during the medical check after signing the contract. After observing his condition for about three weeks, he debated between rehabilitation and surgery, and finally made the final decision to undergo surgery.

Ham Deok-ju was an integral part of the LG Twins’ bullpen in the 2023 season. After becoming a free agent for the first time in his career after the season ended, Ham signed a four-year, 3.8 billion won ($600 million down payment, $1.4 billion in salary, and $1.8 billion in incentives) contract with the LG Twins on March 24.

At the time, the LG Twins said, “He is a pitcher with a lot of experience, including national team experience,” and added, “In the 2023 season, he showed his best form while regaining his health. He also fulfilled his role in the team’s must-win group. We expect him to stay healthy and pitch for the team in the future.”

However, as mentioned by the club, Ham Deok-ju has always been a pitcher who has been plagued by injuries. A graduate of Ilsancho, Wonju Central, and Wonjuju, Ham Deok-ju was selected by the Doosan Bears with the 43rd overall pick in the fifth round of the 2013 rookie draft. He made the jump to the first team in 2015, appearing in 68 games with a 7-2 record, two saves, and a 3.65 ERA in 16 appearances. Since then, he has split time between the starting rotation and the bullpen, helping to build a Doosan dynasty.

The big change came in March of the 2021 season. In exchange for Ham Deok-ju and right-hander Chae Ji-seon from “next door” Doosan, LG made a two-for-two trade that sent infielder Yang Seok-hwan and pitcher Nam Ho to Doosan. It was also the moment when he left the team where he had played steadily since his rookie year.

After undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow after the 2021 season, he spent most of the 2022 season rehabbing. In 2023, he had his best season yet. He went 4-0 with four shutouts, 16 saves, and a 1.62 ERA. The breakdown: 32 hits (1 HR), 22 walks, 59 strikeouts, 12 runs (10 earned) in 55⅔ innings, a WHIP of 0.97, and a batting average of 0.165.

Most importantly, Ham Deok-ju anchored the bullpen as a “Plan B” when the original LG trio of Lee Jung-yong, Jung Woo-young, and Woo-seok were shaken by injuries and poor performances early in the season. Although he was sidelined with an elbow injury at the end of the season, he was named to the Korean Series roster and shared in the championship glory. In the Korean Series, he appeared in four games, going 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 3⅓ innings pitched. It was a happy ending for Ham Deok-ju, who won his fourth Korean Series title in his career after winning the title in 2015, 2016, and 2019 while playing for Doosan.

Ham Deok-ju, who was a free agent at the time, said through the club, “I feel lighthearted that I was able to finish my contract before the year ends. The team did its best work this season. I’m glad that I was able to help the team a little bit by pitching without injury. I’m happy to be able to pitch healthy once again, and I will do my best to stay healthy and continue to help the team become a strong team.”

As he said in his comments after signing his free agent contract, he wanted to pitch in 2024 as healthy as possible. “I went to spring training for the first time with LG before the 2022 season,” he told reporters at Jamsil Stadium. “At that time, I had surgery and wanted to throw well, but I pushed myself too hard, and I think it led to bad results until the regular season.” “In 2023, I slowly brought my body up to the point where I was worried about myself, but it worked. This year, I’ll build myself up for the start of the regular season. I’m not touching the ball right now. I’m focusing on rehab and weight training.”

The most eye-catching part of Ham Deok-ju’s contract was the incentives. Just under half of the 3.8 billion won deal, 1.8 billion won, was an option. An option is literally not a guaranteed amount of money. It is an amount of money that can only be earned if the player performs well enough to fulfill the conditions of the option. In a way, it’s a safeguard for the club to prevent ‘cheating’. In the past, teams would give players large sums of money based on their past performance, regardless of whether they would perform in the future, or on name recognition alone. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the atmosphere of treating free agents is changing. “I performed so well last year that it’s an option that I don’t have to go that far to get it,” said Ham Deok-ju. As long as you’re healthy and can pitch in the first team, you can get enough. There’s not much to it,” he said emphatically.

“The incentive will motivate me,” he said. It’s true that I’ve always had an injury risk, and I’ll be motivated to eliminate that. With this, I can prepare for the season without being complacent just because I signed a free agent contract. I was able to finalize my contract with a good mindset.” “I don’t worry about injuries at all. I’ve been playing professionally for more than 10 years, and I actually took two years off due to injury, and then I became a free agent. I don’t consider myself an injury risk.” With such good health, Ham Deok-ju was preparing for the 2024 season by openly expressing his desire for incentives. However, that dream was dashed when he ended up on the operating table.

At this rate, it’s unlikely that Ham will be able to take home all of his incentives from the first year of his contract. Furthermore, LG lost closer Ko Woo-seok to the San Diego Padres of the Major League Baseball. While Yoo Young-chan was selected as the closer, the more experienced Ham Deok-ju could have been used in some situations. When asked about the closer position, Ham said, “That’s something the manager decides. I don’t have any regrets. If I thought it would change because I was sad, I would have said I was sad,” he laughed, and then said, “If I do my job, I will have a good chance.” He was determined. However, once the first inning was effectively over, the LG bullpen had another problem.

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