JUPITER, Fla. -- Seung Hwan Oh had heard, secondhand, about the run on Cardinals merchandise in his home country of South Korea last season. He had been told stories about folks who had to resort to online shopping to buy Cardinals gear because stores no longer had any in stock.
And then, during an offseason autograph signing in Korea, Oh got a glimpse of that buzz. As he looked out on the line that had formed in front of him, nearly everyone, Oh said, was wearing a Cardinals hat.
But just as Korean baseball fans have learned to love the Cardinals, Oh has endeared himself to St. Louis' own. He became an instant asset upon making the move to the Majors last year, thriving as a setup man for three months and not disappointing when the Cardinals slid him into the closer's role midseason.
All signs point to Oh retaining the closer job to open the 2017 season.
"I'm just trying to replicate what I did last year," Oh said, speaking through a translator. "I try not to focus too much on stats, but a lot of people say I did a good job last year. I'll take it as a compliment."
If Oh were to look at the stats, he'd discover plenty to like. Oh led the team with 19 saves, second-most in franchise history by a Cardinals rookie. His 76 appearances ranked seventh-most among NL relievers, and he finished fourth in that group with 103 strikeouts. Oh's 1.92 ERA (third) and 0.92 WHIP (fifth) were also among the NL's best.
No South Korean-born pitcher had ever posted an ERA that low with a minimum of 70 innings pitched.
The success led to the team's easiest decision this offseason, which was to exercise Oh's contract option for 2017. After earning $2.5 million in '16, Oh is set to make $2.75 million this year. It could be a bargain for the Cardinals if Oh replicates his rookie-year success.
Oh is slated to make his Grapefruit League debut in the team's spring opener against the Marlins on Saturday (12:05 p.m. CT, live on MLB.TV). After that, however, he'll be getting his work in elsewhere. Oh will depart for Korea on Sunday in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. Depending how deep Oh's Korean team advances, he may not return to Cardinals camp until the final week of spring.
That's of little concern to the Cardinals, who, after watching Oh make a seamless transition to the Majors in 2016, trust that he'll be ready when the big league season opens.
"This guy is a pro -- the way he prepares, the way he competes, it's something that we didn't necessarily want to mess with [last year]," manager Mike Matheny said. "And I'm glad we didn't."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.