FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins’ decision not to keep ByungHo Park was a puzzle to most everyone with an interest in the team, including the players who will open the season on Monday afternoon at Target Field.
Paul Molitor came off as being fully rattled on Thursday, as the news on Park circulated and the manager was about the get on a bus to Port Charlotte for the last official exhibition game.
Derek Falvey was hired last fall with the title of chief baseball officer, and Thursday’s quotes from him came with the political twist that would be expected:
The Twins were appreciative of the obvious effort Park had put in to improve himself from a poor first season in American baseball and also impressed with the results of his slugging in this exhibition schedule: .353, with six home runs and 13 RBI.
Falvey’s excuse for not opening the season with Park was the need for an eighth reliever because of extenuating issues with the starters: Hector Santiago’s time in the WBC, Phil Hughes’ return from surgery and Adalberto Mejia’s rookie status.
There’s a degree of truth in that, but what we didn’t give proper attention with the Park news was this:
Falvey and his front office dropped Park from the 40-man roster on Feb. 3 for a reason. It was more than bookkeeping. He was not seen as a serious candidate to make the opening roster or to have much of a future with the team.
He was in the same category as J.B. Shuck, Ben Paulsen, Matt Hague: a nonroster invitee destined for assignment to Class AAA Rochester, except with three years and $9 million left on the contract that brought him from the Korea Baseball Organization.
It was never an open competition between Kennys Vargas and Park to be the designated hitter and backup first baseman. It was supposed to be Vargas, but Big Kenny made the misguided decision to join Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic and mostly sat on the bench. Worse, he came back to Florida and the rush to get him ready was halted with a foul ball off his foot.
There are eight relievers to open this season because Vargas did not claim the job that was waiting for him.
We old-time baseball watchers are trained to look at the small picture: The Twins don’t have an established DH. Park and Vargas were given shots in the past. So, Park vs. Vargas in spring training … best man wins.
That’s the narrow lens that has provided sports writers with stories from Florida and Arizona for decades.
Forget ’em, colleagues. Baseball operations are big picture now, surely with the Twins, and most everywhere.
Whatever the keys to projecting a player in the Falvey operation — bat speed, pitch recognition, more exotic stuff — it’s apparent the new Twins saw Vargas as the DH requiring a final answer in 2017.
Park did open eyes in the Falvey universe with his hammering in exhibitions. This did get him back in the conversation as perhaps having a future in a big-league lineup. But here’s the deal:
The new Twins see value in having Park off the roster. If they had put him back on the 40-player list, and then the preferred candidate, Vargas, started slugging in Rochester, Park would be back in the minors and taking up a spot on the big-league roster.
“Short term, short term,” Molitor said Thursday, when asked about having eight relievers and a three-man bench of Eduardo Escobar, Danny Santana and Chris Gimenez.
At the time, I took “short term” to mean that Park would be in Class AAA only until the Twins could go through the rotation a couple of times and hopefully lessen the need for an extra relief pitcher.
There was a new conclusion reached Friday:
Molitor’s “short term” was not a timetable for the return of Park or the need for eight relief pitchers. It was about Vargas.
Big Kenny was taking at-bats as an extra hitter for Rochester in Friday’s unofficial exhibition. He has not yet been optioned to Rochester.
Vargas will continue to play in minor league games over the weekend in Fort Myers. Asked about Vargas still being officially on the Twins active roster, Molitor said the Twins were “trying to get him ready for Rochester.”
Fair enough, although it does appear that when the “short term” of eight relievers expires, it won’t have to be a knockout over Park for Vargas to be the DH/1B promoted from Rochester to the Twins.