Two weeks after being removed from the Twins’ 40-man roster, ByungHo Park reported to spring training in Fort Myers with an uncertain future. Despite being guaranteed $9 million over the next three years, Park was viewed as an underdog to even make the team this spring, with Kennys Vargas seen as the presumptive opening day DH and backup first baseman.
It was a precipitous fall for Park, who one year earlier entered spring training as a highly-touted Korean slugger whom the Twins paid nearly $25 million (if you include the $12.85 million posting fee paid to Park’s Korean club for the right to sign him) to acquire.
The initial hype for Park wasn’t without merit. In his final two seasons in the KBO, he hit well over .300 and mashed 105 home runs, many of which were tape-measure shots accompanied by bat flips that would make Jose Bautista blush. After a strong 2016 spring training, he began last season as a middle-of-the-order bat in a Twins lineup that was expected to score a lot of runs.
Given the disastrous start of the 2016 season, it’s easy to forget that Park raked through the first six weeks of the year. On May 15, he was hitting .257/.342/.581 with 9 home runs, one of which was estimated at the time to be the longest home run ever hit at Target Field. Park was the best hitter on the team through May, and was seen as one of the few legitimate bright spots in what had already become a lost season.
By the end of June, it had all fallen apart. Park struggled mightily in the season’s third month, and was in Rochester before the All-Star break. After 31 games with the Red Wings, he opted to have season-ending surgery to repair an injured hand.
Now, Park finds himself back with the Red Wings, despite a very strong spring training in which he hit .353/.414/.745 with six home runs. Even with Kennys Vargas nursing a foot injury, the Twins opted to send Park back to Triple-A and open the season with Robbie Grossman as their DH.
“It was bitter news for me,” Park said through his interpreter about not making the club. “Not surprising, but more like disappointing.”
Park, of course, was signed by former GM Terry Ryan. New Twins bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine seemed to make it fairly clear they differed with Ryan’s evaluation of Park when they removed him from the 40-man roster this winter and exposed him to waivers, and thus Park’s lack of surprise at being sent down is understandable.
When I asked Park whether Falvey had told him to work on anything in particular in Triple-A, he simply responded, “Not specifically.” Many who watched him last year, though, believe the biggest weakness in his game was an inability to catch up to mid and upper 90s fastballs. The pitching Park saw in the KBO paled in comparison to what he faced in the big leagues.
“Velocity and breaking balls, it’s totally different,” Park said of MLB pitching. “That’s why I was struggling a little bit at the beginning of the season. It was my first season. [I was] trying to acclimate and see and experience more of the pitchers in the big leagues.”
It’s easy to over-value spring training numbers, but even outside of the stats he put up this March, some in the organization believe Park is a much-improved player from what we saw last year.
“He’s a much better looking player than he was,” said Park’s Triple-A manager, Mike Quade. “He had such a good spring. It was obviously a tough year for him [last year]. He looked like a completely different guy to me in spring training. I thought he looked fantastic out of camp. I was really excited for the possibility of him having acclimated to baseball here.”
After starting the season 6-for-16 in Rochester with three doubles, Park missed a month with a hamstring injury, which he says is now fully healed. He struggled initially after returning from the injury on May 10, although he hit his first home run last Saturday and had a 3-hit game Wednesday.
“The beginning of the season I felt really good at Triple-A, it’s a shame I had to go through three weeks of rehab,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to get momentum at the plate so I can rebound and go up to the MLB roster.”
Park is probably going to have to have to mash Triple-A pitching for an extended period of time before the Twins him back to the big club. Although every player is different and thus it’s not an entirely fair comparison, the recent success of two former KBO players—Jung Ho Kang and Eric Thames—suggests superstars from the KBO can make the jump to MLB. Whether Park can experience similar success remains to be seen, but it’s clear he remains committed to making the necessary adjustments to succeed in the States. Quade, who’s now spent parts of two seasons with Park, believes he’s getting closer.
“There’s a maturation process, coming over here and getting accustomed to the way things are done and seeing the velo they’re featuring, even for a guy who’s a pretty mature human being and gets it,” said Quade. “But if he gets back to what we saw in spring and the first 10 days of the season, you’ve got to be excited for his possibilities.”