The Twins sent several scouts to South Korea last season to see Byung Ho Park play. But Park has been scouting the major leagues, too.
In addition to watching highlights of MLB games every day, Park has spoken to the trio of his countrymen in the major leagues: Rangers outfielder Shin-soo Choo, Dodgers lefthander Hyun-jin Ryu and especially Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, his former teammate with the Nexen Heroes. Choo and Ryu, he said, didn't give him advice as much as encouragement.
Choo told me, 'You can play here, absolutely,' " Park said. " 'You have the talent for the top level.' "
Park said he is confident that's the case. Speaking Sunday, shortly after arriving in the Twin Cities to meet with Twins officials and negotiate a contract to become the new Twins designated hitter, Park said he has tried to face the best pitching he could in international tournaments, in preparation for the generally faster pitching he will see in the U.S.
He is also relying on the experience of Kang, who finished third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting this fall. He batted .356 with 40 home runs in his final season with Nexen, then hit .287 with 15 homers in 126 games for the Pirates. Park is hoping for a similarly fast adaptation to the new league, after hitting 105 home runs over the past two seasons.
"I asked Kang what the major leagues are like, and he told me, 'It's the best baseball, the best players in the world. You will enjoy it,' " Park said through interpreter Jae Woong Han. "He said, 'You play here for a month, and you'll [be fine]. You'll know what to do.' "
Kang and Park are close friends, and like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with the Twins, they even shared an apartment early in their careers.
Park said he is excited to play in Minnesota, but understands that not every fan back in Seoul is happy to see him go. The reaction to Kang's departure last year was mixed, he said, and he expects it to be the same for him. It's not easy for a team to lose a player who batted .343 last season with 146 RBI, after all.
"Fans liked Kang going to the major leagues, and also at the same time, they were not happy to send him. It's a mutual feeling at once — they're happy but not happy," Park said. "It's the same for me. People are happy I can play at the biggest level, but they're also sad that they have to send me to another league."
Monday was Park's first full day in Minnesota; he and the Twins have one more week, until Dec. 8, to reach a contract agreement before the Twins' negotiating rights, won with a bid of $12.8 million to Nexen, expire. Park was careful Sunday to say that no deal has been struck yet, though both sides are clearly hopeful that it won't take long.
New faces in '16
The Twins added a few more players for next year's training camp, signing outfielder Joe Benson, lefthander Aaron Thompson and catcher Juan Centeno to minor league contracts, Class AAA Rochester announced.
Twins fans should be familiar with the first two names. Thompson earned a spot in the Twins bullpen last spring and posted a 2.11 ERA in his first 17 games, encompassing 21⅓ innings. He grew less effective as the season wore on, with a 10.64 ERA in his last 24 outings, and he was sent to Rochester on July 6, then outrighted off the 40-man roster last month. But he likely will be given another shot next spring.
Benson was a Twins second-round pick in 2006 and spent seven seasons in the organization, reaching the majors for 21 games in 2011. He was eventually claimed on waivers by Texas and has spent the past three seasons bouncing around. He turns 28 in March, hit .248 for two minor league teams last year and is considered a solid defensive outfielder.
Centeno, 26, adds to the Twins' organizational catching depth. He has played 24 games with the Mets and Brewers over the past two seasons, and though he was just 1-for-21 in 10 games with Milwaukee last year, he is a career .280 hitter in the minors, where he threw out 39 percent of base-stealers.