Terry Ryan wasn’t satisfied with the Twins’ streaky offense last season, and when 22 home runs and 81 RBI were subtracted by Torii Hunter’s retirement, the general manager knew he needed to do something this winter to add power to the lineup.
But even Ryan was surprised by his solution.
Ryan welcomed South Korean slugger Byung Ho Park to the Twins at Target Field on Wednesday, all the while admitting that “it’s not like we were sitting around in June, saying ‘we’ve got to go get this guy.’ But when you do get him, you say, ‘Well, I’ll be — this is a good thing.’ ”
That’s the hope, anyway, though nobody can be certain that the transition from the Korea Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball will be a smooth one, even for a two-time MVP who hit 105 home runs in the past two seasons. But the Twins, through Seoul-based scout David Kim, have tracked Park since he was in high school more than a decade ago, and have staked $25 million on their belief that he will eventually crush big-league pitching just as he did in Korea.
“We have a lot of conviction and belief that Byung Ho is going to be able to integrate into our organization and be a very productive player,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel. “He’s a confident, convicted young man. He has a lot of ambition, and though the vetting process, we’re very confident he has excellent makeup, that he will be a good teammate.”
He already is. Joe Mauer showed up to welcome Park to the Twins, and said he is impressed by his new teammate’s commitment to being a success at the highest level.
“We had a good visit. I’m excited for him. [I offered to help with] the challenge he has to go through, because the game is hard enough,” Mauer said. “I know there are a lot of questions about how the transition will go, but I was trying to think [whether] I’ve ever hit 50 home runs at any level. That’s impressive.”
So is his willingness to do whatever it takes to help. Park is a huge star in his home country, performing as a designated hitter only 10-15 times in his career, and he won three Gold Gloves in the KBO. But he’ll be asked to give up defense, mostly, with his new team.
“Whatever job is given to me, I’m willing to play,” said Park, already sporting a Twins uniform with his No. 52 on the back. “I’ll be ready for any position. … Baseball is baseball.”
The Twins will do what they can to ease the adjustment, particularly off the field. Park went house-hunting this week, and will do so again when he returns to Minnesota for TwinsFest in January. Park’s agency, Octagon Baseball, will help provide a full-time translator to travel with him, and his wife Ji Yun and 16-month-old son Seung will move to Minneapolis next spring.
“The template [for his move] is [Jung Ho] Kang,” Park’s former teammate on the Nexen Heroes and now an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Radcliff said. “It took him some time to adjust to the talent [Park will] be facing daily, but I don’t think the transition process will be long and rigorous.”
Park, in fact, leaves for Florida on Thursday to visit Kang near the Pirates’ Bradenton complex for a few days, another move the Twins hope will make him comfortable with his new surroundings. But pitchers who throw mid-90s fastballs are rare in Korea, so that’s what he will have to get most comfortable with.
The Twins say Park’s size, bat speed and lack of any leg kick make him a good bet to adapt to seeing them in the U.S., though it’s probably going to take a month or two, at least. The Twins have the option to send him to Class AAA Rochester if he needs more time, but “we brought him over to help this team in 2016,” Ryan said. “He’s 29. It’s not like he’s 19.”
That’s why manager Paul Molitor, who also attended Wednesday’s event, can speculate about where Park might bat — fifth, behind Miguel Sano? Further down, to avoid too many consecutive high-strikeout righthanded hitters in a row? “If he makes the adjustment, and can prove to be a guy who produces runs, we’ll have to see how it all balances out,” Molitor said. “The transition is going to be a real thing for him, but we think he has the talent to do it.”
So does Ryan, which is why the Twins outbid other MLB teams for the rights to sign Park, spending $12.85 million on a posting fee and another $12 million guaranteed to Park over the next four seasons.
“I’m very satisfied with the contract,” Park said, though he acknowledged some fans in South Korea believe he deserved a bigger salary. “I’m trying to achieve my goal here.”
With a final flourish, Park made it clear what that goal is. Grabbing the microphone and speaking in English, he said, “I want to win championship.”