Not since Paul Molitor held the position in 1998 has any Minnesota Twin served as a designated hitter for more than 100 games in a season. With the signing of Byung Ho Park this week, it appears that could change in 2016.
But one interested party — Molitor himself, now the Twins’ manager — says that might not be the case. In fact, he pictures a scenario in which Park plays first base once or twice a week in order to keep Joe Mauer from wearing down.
“How much it would help [Mauer] to DH maybe 30 games, 40 games, instead of 10 to 15, that will be a conversation we will have,” Molitor said Wednesday at Park’s introductory press conference. “Park, if he’s actually pretty darn good defensively, those are the things you can do with him.”
Mauer actually served as the starting DH in 19 games last season, the same number as in 2014, his first season as full-time first baseman. When he was a catcher, he routinely stayed in the lineup that way more than 20 times a year, including a career-high 42 in 2012.
Mauer started 154 games altogether last season, second-most on the team behind Brian Dozier’s 157. He said Wednesday he had not talked to Molitor yet about whether he might share his position with the Korean newcomer more often than he has in the past, but didn’t rule it out, either.
“It’s a better question for [Molitor], but getting another right-handed bat is a good thing for us,” Mauer said. “I like what [Park] was saying, ‘anything to help the team win.’ That’s kind of our philosophy here.”
Molitor said he is looking forward to seeing Park field the position, in order to gauge for himself whether the idea would work without hurting the Twins’ defense. But with Mauer approaching his 33rd birthday, he believes more frequent days off from fielding might help the veteran extend his career as a hitter. It did for for Molitor, who played until he was 42, his last eight seasons spent mostly as DH.
“There are other guys you can put in there, but Joe’s the most likely candidate to me,” Molitor said. “We can take advantage of [Park’s] ability to go on the field and give Joe a chance to stay fresh.”
Park won three gold gloves in the Korean Baseball Organization, and Twins vice president Mike Radcliff vouches for his defense.
“He’s not just a slugger. He’s a competitive base-runner and he’s a good fielder at first. He can make all the fielding plays. He has a good arm,” Radcliff said. “He obviously needs to hit to have value, he knows that, we know that. But he’s a good baseball player beyond that.”
The Twins intend to stick with Mauer at first base most of the time, though. Advanced defensive statistics at fangraphs.com rate Mauer roughly in the middle of MLB players at the position; defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, in fact, rate Mauer closer to Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer, who won the gold glove.
“Joe makes all the plays now,” said Rob Antony, the Twins’ assistant general manager. “I think Joe has turned himself into a well-above-average first baseman.”