The endless parallels between the Doosan Bears and internal free agent pitcher Gun-hee Hong continue into the new year. That’s because the 2024 Doosan salary cap is about to hit the roof. If no changes to the salary cap system are decided at the mid-January meeting of the general manager’s executive committee, the negotiations will continue to be quite lengthy.

In the free agent market this winter, Doosan has made plans to retain infielder Yang Seok-hwan and pitcher Hong Gun-hee. Doosan first made an aggressive move to retain Yang. On November 30, Doosan officially announced the signing of Yang to a 4+2 year, up to 7.8 billion won free agent contract.

However, the Hong Geon-hee negotiations have not made much progress as we move into the new year. Doosan met with Hong’s representatives twice, once at the beginning of the free agency period and again after the New Year, but no significant conclusions were reached. After the new year, the agent in charge of Hong’s negotiations changed.

In 2023, Hong appeared in 64 games (61.2 innings), posting a 1-5 record, 22 saves, five holds, a 3.06 ERA, 62 strikeouts, and a 1.48 WHIP. Despite his late-season dip, Hong has proven his durability as a bullpen arm with four consecutive 60-inning seasons since joining Doosan in 2020.

Despite recognizing his value, Doosan is sticking to its salary cap limitations. In fact, Doosan has the tightest salary cap in baseball. In 2023, Doosan had just $244.63 million in salary cap space.

At the end of last year, the KBO announced the combined salaries of the top 40 players by club in 2023. The KBO introduced a salary cap system that will be implemented in 2023 to level the league’s power and continue to develop, and the salary cap was set at 11.426 billion won, or 120% of the average annual salary of each club’s top 40 salaried players (excluding foreign players and rookies) in 2021-2022, based on the sum of their salaries, option payments, and average annual FA contracts.

By club, Doosan recorded the highest amount among the 10 clubs with 11.081 billion won. It was followed by SSG with 10.846 billion won, LG with 10.797 billion won, Lotte with 10.667 billion won, Samsung with 10.047 billion won, and NC with 10.081 billion won, with six of the 10 clubs recording more than 10 billion won.

If a team signs a contract that exceeds the salary cap, it must pay a sanction of 50 percent of the excess for the first time. For the second consecutive time, the team must pay 100% of the excess as a sanction, and the team’s first-round pick in the following year will be reduced by nine spots. For the third consecutive time, the team must pay a penalty equal to 150% of the overage, and the team’s first-round pick in the following year will be reduced by 9 spots.

Doosan has added to the club’s payroll in recent years by signing big free agents. In the 2024 season, the team still has big free agent contracts left to sign, including Heo Kyung-min (4+3 years totaling 8.5 billion won), Jeong Soo-bin (4+2 years totaling 5.6 billion won), Kim Jae-hwan (4 years totaling 11.5 billion won), Yang Ji (4+2 years totaling 15.2 billion won), and Yang Suk-hwan (4+2 years totaling 7.8 billion won).

In addition, Hong’s position in the free agent market is narrowed by the compensation barrier of being a Grade A player, which means less interest from other teams. If there are no meaningful offers from other clubs, Hong will have no choice but to accept the salary cap-bound offer from Doosan.

A baseball insider said, “I heard that if Doosan signs Hong Gun-hee to a free agent contract on the terms they proposed, the salary cap space for the 2024 season will be much larger than the 2023 season, which is a red flag. It would be a first-time sanctions violation. It’s something that will have a big impact on the general salary agreement.”

However, the salary cap system could change at the bargaining table if the General Manager’s Executive Committee meets in mid-January. The executive committee is known to be split between maintaining the current salary cap system and partially supplementing the system, and if a change is made to partially supplement the salary cap system, Doosan will have more room to maneuver at the negotiating table. It will be interesting to see how the negotiations between Doosan and Hong will play out in January.

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