As expected, the Twins opened the offseason Monday by addressing their logjam at the corner infield positions.
They added to it.
Byung-ho Park, a 29-year-old power-hitting first baseman from South Korea, will join the Twins next season if the two sides are able to agree on a contract over the next 30 days, the team announced. The Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization accepted the Twins’ bid of $12.85 million, higher than any other major league organization, for the exclusive right to negotiate with Park.
“We went out and got a guy who’s got some pop in his bat, as long as we can reach an agreement” on a contract, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, but he’s someone we think could give us more length to our lineup, another power guy in the middle.”
Park hit 53 home runs for Nexen last season, and 52 the year before that, so there’s no mystery about the Twins’ sudden aggressiveness, not for a team that has ranked in the lower half of the AL in home runs for every year since 2004. They tried to sign him out of high school a decade ago, actually. “We’ve had a lot of eyes on him for a long time,” Ryan said.
The Twins pounced when Park made himself available last month, even though Park only adds to their crowd of corner infielders. Joe Mauer, with three more seasons remaining on his $23-million-a-year contract, is the incumbent at first base, Trevor Plouffe has established himself at third base, and Miguel Sano, the designated hitter during his breakout rookie season, is too young and talented to limit himself to hitting.
Room for one more
Ryan, speaking from the general managers’ meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., said he has no intention of trading away one of those hitters. “We’re not looking to move anyone, we’re looking to add to what we’ve got. And we think [Park] can do that,” he said. “He can give Joe an occasional break at first, but he’s suited to the DH role. We like him to hold that spot down.”
If he can, Ryan already has sketched out a solution: Sano moves to the outfield, and Park inherits his spot as the DH.
Sano, who hit 18 home runs in 80 games as a 22-year-old rookie, has been informed of the Twins’ thinking, Ryan said, though they’re not insisting that he learn the new position in winter ball in the Dominican Republic. “We just want him to get his legs under him for now. Third base is fine; it’s where he’s comfortable,” the general manager said. “We’ll sort it all out in spring training.”
That’s where they’ll get a good look at the South Korean slugger, who has batted .300 or better in each of his past three seasons, including .343 with 35 doubles, a .436 on-base percentage and a .714 slugging percentage last year. Ryan said the team expects Park’s transition to American baseball to be slow at first, “so I don’t want to guarantee too much.” Still, after years of watching Park blossom into a star in South Korea, “we’ve got a lot of confidence he can drive a baseball over here.”
Two scouts who have seen Park play agree that he’s an exciting gamble for the Twins. “The power is real, there’s no question,” said one scout for an AL team. “It all comes down to making the adjustment to [major league] pitching. KBO hitters see a lot of guys throwing mid- to high-80s, so we’ll see. … He’s got big upside.”
Added another AL scout, “he’s a big bat, and a surprisingly solid fielder, too. He strikes out a lot [161 times in 140 games last year], in part because he’s looking to go deep a lot of the time. The baseballs are pretty lively over there, so don’t expect him to hit 50. But he can crush a mistake.”
It’s the second venture into the Asian market for Minnesota, which won the bidding for Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in late 2010. Nishioka played only 71 games over two seasons, batting .215 with no home runs, before deciding to return to Japan.
Under international rules, when Asian players under contract in other countries declare their intention to play in the major leagues, teams make undisclosed bids for the players, and their team accepts the high bid. Upon acceptance, the high bidder has 30 days to reach a contract agreement; if unsuccessful, the player remains with his original team and the posting fee is returned.
Ryan said he’s not sure when negotiations will begin with Park’s American agent, Alan Nero, but “we don’t want to wait. You never know, when you start talking dollars, what’s going to happen.” The Twins were mildly surprised, in fact, that their posting-fee bid was higher than anyone else’s.
Korean players have become increasingly common in the major leagues over the past two decades, with Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, a 10-year MLB veteran, the best-known current player.
Dodgers righthander Hyun-jin Ryu and Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang came to the U.S. via the posting system, and each has established himself..