Lotte Giants Na Gyun-an (25) had his best season in his fourth year as a pitcher. He went 6-8 with a 3.80 ERA in 23 games and 130⅓ innings pitched. He was a full-time starter for the first time this year. During the month of April, he went 5-4 with a 1.34 ERA in 33⅔ innings pitched, earning him MVP honors for the month of April.굿모닝토토
Since then, he has been sidelined by injuries, including hamstring and elbow inflammation, and has had some ups and downs. However, he was selected for the Hangzhou Asian Games, where he won a gold medal and received a special exemption from military service. It was the best season of his career and a solid foundation for his future.
As a pitcher, Na is just beginning to blossom. However, Lotte only has about three years left to lock him up. He is expected to become a free agent after 2026. Because he spent a lot of time as a catcher in the first team.
Na was drafted with the third pick in the second round of the 2017 rookie draft. At the time, he was known as Na Jong-duk and was a big catching prospect, earning the title of “post-Kang Min-ho” and being called Lotte’s future An Bang-manim.
However, before he could get his feet wet as a catcher, he was forced to take on the weight and pressure of a starting catcher. After the 2017 season, Kang Min-ho, who became a free agent for the second time, made a surprise move to Samsung, leaving Lotte’s position vacant.
Na Kyun-ahn, then in his second year, took over. He had the potential to be a big-time catching prospect, but he had to become a powerhouse right away without time to develop. Growing pains and trial and error came at the same time.
After playing just five games as a rookie in 2017, Na played 106 games in 2018 and 104 games in 2019. In effect, he took on the duties of a starting catcher. Despite being called a long-hitting catcher prospect, his batting average in the first team was at the bottom of the league. In 2018, he batted 1-for-22 with two home runs, 11 RBIs, 85 strikeouts and a .376 OPS in 106 games, and in 2019, he batted 1-for-23 with three home runs, 13 RBIs, 88 strikeouts and a .383 OPS in 104 games.
As Lotte suffered through a “catcher’s dark ages” after Kang Min-ho, Na took the brunt of the criticism and blame at the time. It was a harsh fate for the team, which was still challenging for fall baseball even without Kang Min-ho.
However, a turning point in his career came at the end of spring training in the 2020 season when he suffered a broken metacarpophalangeal bone in his left hand. The team asked him to switch to pitching, and he accepted. In 2020, he spent the season in the Futures League as a two-hitter.
In 2021, he switched completely to pitching and has since established himself in the first-team pitching staff with his variety of pitches and command. In 2022, he simplified to a fastball-cutter-forkball and later added a curveball as he tried to build up as a starter, and has been a full-time starter since this season.
Lotte would like to keep Na Gyun-ahn around for a while longer, as he has begun to develop into a top-notch pitcher in the league. However, as a catcher who has played a lot of games, he will inevitably reach free agency sooner than the pitcher will.
In his rookie season in 2017, he spent 55 days on the first team, but it was 172 days in 2018 and 183 days in 2019. In 2020, he didn’t spend a single day on the first team, followed by 90 days in 2021, 190 days in 2022, and 180 days this year when he fully converted to pitching. According to KBO rules, high school players who joined the organization after the 2006 season are eligible for free agency after eight seasons with at least 145 days of first-team active duty. With two seasons as a catcher in the first team, Na’s free agency is bound to come sooner than expected.
Na’s salary this year was 190 million won. Last year’s salary of 58 million won was 87.9 percent, which is a vertical increase and puts him in the billionaire class. However, as he performed better than last year, he is expected to increase his salary even more than last year. Breaking 200 million won is likely.
Given his service time, Lotte should take steps to plan for the future, such as signing him to a multi-year contract until he becomes a free agent. The pitcher has become a valuable resource for Lotte.