Less than an hour after they announced that Byung Ho Park had agreed to a four-year, $12 million contract to become their designated hitter next season, the Twins received a timely reminder of why they gambled on the South Korean slugger. The Red Sox on Tuesday committed $217 million over seven years to lefthander David Price, only the latest example of how expensive — or in the Twins’ judgment, mostly unaffordable — elite veteran talent can be.
Power hitting is another pricey commodity, and in Park, who has crushed 105 home runs in the past two seasons, the Twins hope they have added a significant run producer at a bargain price. Nobody knows if his home-run stroke in Korea will translate to the major leagues, but if he can produce even half as many home runs as he did for the Nexen Heroes, he will be one of the most cost-effective free agents in Twins history.
Of course, that’s a critical “if.”
“If he can hit with that type of power, it could end up being a home-run type of sign for [Twins General Manager Terry] Ryan,” said Jim Bowden, former general manager of the Reds, Expos and Nationals, and now a baseball analyst for ESPN. “But for that type of money, both in posting [fee] and in salary, this is a huge gamble for a midmarket team.”
Park, 29, will earn $2.75 million in each of the next two seasons and $3 million in 2018 and 2019. The Twins will have the option to pay him $6.5 million in 2020, or buy him out for $500,000. The $12 million guaranteed to Park is on top of the $12.85 million the Twins must pay to Park’s former team, the Nexen Heroes, as compensation for losing him.
Total investment: $24.85 million, or an average of $6.2 million per season. It’s an incredible discount for a middle-of-the-order slugger, particularly for a team like the Twins, which has not ranked in the top half of the AL in home runs since 2004. But it’s a severe overpay if Park’s 161 strikeouts last year, and not his 53 home runs, prove more predictive of how he will adapt to better pitching and bigger ballparks.
“Signing these type of players is the highest risk of any move a GM makes, because you don’t know how these players will react to facing top-level pitching on a nightly basis,” Bowden said. “They’ve never seen this type of velocity or secondary stuff on a consistent basis.”
Few pitchers in the Korea Baseball Organization throw harder than 90 miles per hour, scouts say, so the adjustment to MLB is significant. The Twins understand the risk, given their experience with Tsuyoshi Nishioka five years ago. The Japanese infielder came to the Twins through a similar posting system from the Chiba Lotte Marines, but was a bust in the U.S., batting only .215 in 71 career games before asking to be released from his contract.
But Ryan said earlier this month that Twins scouts, who have followed Park’s progress for several years, believe he can handle it. “We like the bat. He can drive a baseball,” Ryan said, citing his .343 average, 53 home runs and 146 RBI last season. “We wouldn’t have made this commitment if we didn’t believe in his ability.”
Park, who will be introduced at a Target Field news conference Wednesday morning, sounded confident as well upon his arrival in Minneapolis on Sunday. “I have been preparing to face high-velocity pitchers,” he said through an interpreter. Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, Park’s teammate with Nexen, told him that “after a month, you’ll know what to do,” Park said.
Kang, the Twins hope, is proof that KBO players can adapt and thrive. He hit 15 home runs, batted .287 and finished third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last year, a performance that many observers believed would cause Park’s price to be much higher. It was — but the difference went to Nexen, not the player. Pittsburgh paid only $5 million for the rights to Kang, then signed him to a four-year contract for $11 million.
• Wednesday is the deadline for teams to offer 2016 contracts to arbitration-eligible players, who become free agents if the teams decline. The Twins have six such players — Trevor Plouffe, Kevin Jepsen, Tommy Milone, Casey Fien, Eduardo Nunez and Eduardo Escobar — and are expected to tender contracts to each.
• The Twins’ minor league managerial staff will remain unchanged for 2016, the team announced Tuesday, though most will welcome new members of their coaching staff. Mike Quade will return for a second season at Class AAA Rochester, while Doug Mientkiewicz, who led Class AA Chattanooga to the Southern League championship in 2015, will be back for a second season there as well. The Class A managers will be Jeff Smith at Fort Myers for a second season, and Jake Mauer at Cedar Rapids for a fourth, while Ray Smith will manage the rookie-level Elizabethton Twins for a 23rd consecutive season. Ramon Borrega returns as manager of the Twins’ Gulf Coast League entry, while Jimmy Alvarez manages the Twins’ Dominican Summer League team.