Twins hit home run with addition of Park
We all should get out of our comfort zones more often. Terry Ryan did, and as a result, the Twins' general manager just made the smartest acquisition of the offseason, in the process closing the gap between them and the World Series champion Royals.
First baseman Byung Ho Park, a masher in the Korea Baseball Organization, is an ideal fit for a lineup that is becoming as dangerous as it was back in the era of Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau and the young American League batting champion, Joe Mauer.
Like the Pirates' Jung Ho Kang a year ago, Park will be greeted in Spring Training by skepticism. But so what?
Park is a right-handed slugger with top-of-the-scale power and, like Kang, is surprisingly athletic for a player in a big package (6-foot-1, 194 pounds). Park has been a prolific run producer in Korea, averaging 43 home runs over the past four years and delivering a 1.150 OPS last season, when he batted .343. This is a legit ballplayer, not a show pony whose value will be lost in translation.
Sure, there have been international busts, like Kosuke Fukudome and Kaz Matsui, to name a couple. But more recently, Jose Abreu and Kang have demonstrated that hitting is often still hitting, despite the language spoken.
Abreu was billed as one of the best hitters in the world when he tore up Cuba on a Cienfuegos team that included Yasiel Puig, putting up totals that made it look like Abreu was hitting off a pitching machine set at 85 mph. In his first two years with the White Sox, Abreu has hit .303 with 66 home runs and a .904 OPS. He's generated 9.3 WAR over two seasons -- pretty sweet return on a six-year, $68 million contract at a time when teams are paying about $8 million for every 1.0 of WAR in free agency.
Kang is a better comp for the 29-year-old Park, as they were teammates on the Nexen Heroes before the team posted the power-hitting shortstop. Kang wound up with Pittsburgh in a two-step process that will cost the team $16 million over four years (including the $5 million posting fee to Nexen), and was having a terrific rookie season before sustaining a broken leg on a hard slide into second base by Chris Coghlan on Sept. 17.
Pirates GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle had a detailed transition plan for Kang, who largely backed up shortstop Jordy Mercer and third baseman Josh Harrison early in the season but took off in July, hitting .379. Kang flashed the power he had used to hit 40 home runs for the Heroes in 2014 en route to a slash line of .287/.355/.461 over 467 plate appearances for the 98-win Bucs. His contribution was valued at 4.0 WAR.
This illustrates the template for success if Park can follow in Kang's footsteps, and there's no reason why Park shouldn't.
Some scouts point to how Park's swing path can become extremely uphill, forcing him to have perfect timing to make contact. He has been strikeout-prone in the KBO (161 in 528 at-bats last year) and will be facing much better pitching in the Major Leagues. But scouts say there's no question about Park's power, which rates 70-80 (on the 20-80 scouting scale), and his plate discipline. He'll work counts and make hitters challenge him.
Park could take some at-bats away from Mauer at first base (although Mauer's had little platoon differential last season), but Park figures to get most of his at-bats in the DH spot. Miguel Sano is expected to play left field some in winter ball and could get a long look there in Spring Training.
Ryan could create room for Sano to play third base, his primary position in his five Minor League seasons, by trading Trevor Plouffe for pitching. It's exciting to think about a full season of Sano, Byron Buxton and Park, no matter how manager Paul Molitor plays them.
The $24.85 million question (that's what the Twins are paying the Heroes and Park, who reportedly has agreed to a four-year, $12 million deal) is what numbers can he put up for Minnesota.
Kang's OPS with the Pirates last season was only 70 points lower than the career totals he put up in 902 games in the KBO. His Korean OPS (.886) is a step down from Park's .951 in 868 games. Those two facts alone suggest a high ceiling.
Let's say Park's OPS drops 100 points from his KBO total. That places him at .851, which last season would have ranked 26th out of 176 Major League hitters with at least 450 at-bats. He would have fallen between Ryan Braun and Abreu, both of whom are essentially one-dimensional players. They both generated 3.8 WAR last season.
And should Park's OPS drop 150 points from Korea to North America -- more than twice as big of a drop as Kang experienced -- he'll still come in at .801. That would have ranked 51st among those 176 hitters with 450-plus at-bats last season, putting Park between Todd Frazier and Justin Upton.
There's some risk here, sure, but with an annual cost of $6.2 million, it's a risk well worth taking. Park just might make 29 other teams look silly for letting the Twins win the bidding for his services.