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Signed 1B-R Byung-ho Park to a four-year, $12 million contract [12/2]
The talk over the past 24 hours or so since Park officially inked with the Twins has mostly centered around the (un)fairness of the posting system that led to the reasonably-priced contract he’s now under. This isn’t a surprise to anyone given the experiences that we’ve had with the system. When Yu Darvish signed, nearly half of the $111 million the Rangers ponied up went to him ($51.7 million went to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. When Daisuke Matzusaka signed before that, the numbers were strikingly similar. MLB has done a reasonable job of fixing this rule for the future superstars that come over—allowing the player to negotiate with all teams that meet the maximum $20 million posting fee.
Yet where this problem remains unsolved is with the middle class of Korean and Japanese imports, like Park. The more money that’s in this for the KBO and NPB teams, the more likely they are to post these players prior to reaching international free agency. But the more postings there are, the lower the earning potential is for each of these players. If Jung-ho Kang is as good as he showed in his rookie year, the first time he’ll reach free agency is his age-33 season (the Pirates hold a $5.5 million option on him for 2019). Park will be at least a year older than that. There may not be a perfect solution to any of this, but we’ve certainly found the player who is hurt most by the system’s current iteration.
But let’s talk about who Park is as a hitter because, frankly, that’s more fun that talking about the millions of dollars he was probably screwed out of because of the power that the Nexen Heroes hold in this case. The calling card here is the power, as Park has true easy plus raw. However, he has a very steep swing, which helps him hit the ball a long way when he makes contact, but prevents that contact from happening as much as you’d want to see. The elevated strikeout rates he’s showed in Korea are more a function of this than the propensity to chase pitches all over the place. He’s selectively aggressive, as he’ll wait out pitchers well without being afraid to jump all over a pitch he likes. On defense, he should be an easy above-average defender on day one, with the potential to be plus.
The translation between MLB and the KBO has been attempted by a few, but there’s still such a small sample that there is no reliable way to accurately predict what a player is going to when making the switch. So instead, I like to view these players on what I call the Eric Thames scale. Former Blue Jays 1B/OF flameout Eric Thames has been playing in the KBO for the last two years, and we have at least a decent idea of his talent level since we’ve seen it first-hand. Here’s how Park fared in 2015 on the Thames scale:
Thames: .381/.497/.790 (1.288 OPS) in 595 PA with 47 HR, 40 SB and 91 K
Yes, that’s right. Eric Thames is the Barry Bonds of the KBO. Well, on paper at least. Two years ago, the KBO began using a new ball, which sent offensive production through the roof. The Nexen Heroes as a team in 2015 hit .296/.370/.484. In fact, this makes the 1.039 OPS that Park put up in 2013 more impressive than anything he did in 2015.
Despite the gaudy stats, the lack of high-end pitching in Korea is startling. Four of the top five starting pitchers in Korea last season were former MLBers, and they’ll all jog your memory in a very unhealthy way. Andy Van Hekken got five starts for a terrible Tigers team in 2002 before he was never seen again. Josh Lindblom is a career reliever with a 3.82 ERA between four teams. He led the KBO in innings pitched while putting up a 3.56 ERA. Henry Sosa was a former Top 100 prospect (in 2008) who got 10 starts for a bad Astros team in 2011. Eric Hacker got three cups of coffee in Pittsburgh, Minnesota and San Francisco—and nothing he did prevented you from needing to look up his player page to remember him.
The Twins already had Miguel Sano in place at designated hitter prior to this signing and it looks as though they’re moving forward with playing him in right field next year, a position he’s never played before. And with Joe Mauer stationed at first base more often than not, even the defensive value Park has is unlikely to have much of an effect. Beyond that, the Twins already have a few defensively challenged hitters with power, who are both younger and cheaper than Park in Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas. Contract and performance aside, this is just not a very good fit organizationally.
What this will do, however, is open the doors for more KBO stars to come to the United States—and that’s a great thing in the macro sense. Growing the game internationally was a phrase often used in Latin American before it was used in Japan, but with an increasing number of players representing countries generally not associated with producing MLB talent, it means much more today. This next wave of Korean talent may not be making what they deserve, but they’re at least now getting the attention they deserve, which is at least something. Of course, this also leads to the most important question of the day: what would a team pay the NC Dinos if they posted Eric Thames?
Not only is the fit poor from a baseball sense, it’s also poor from a fantasy sense. The Twins play in a park that won’t help right-handed power (though it’s not as bad as it is on lefties), and the American League is a tougher transition from the KBO than the National League would be. Eligibility-wise, there will likely be some leagues where he is DH-only (Yahoo especially, though we don’t know that for sure yet) and with the bulk of his time coming at DH, he’ll be slow to gain first base eligibility in leagues where he doesn’t already have it. He’s going to be a very polarizing player in drafts and auctions this March (along with dynasty drafts in the coming months), but in a redraft league, I’m not interested unless he’s available in the late rounds of a mixed league draft (which he won’t be), or until the back of the first round in dynasty drafts (which he likely won’t be). My initial projection for him is a .240 average with 20-25 homers—which isn’t too far off from what Ryan Howard did last year on his way to being the 38th most valuable first baseman in mixed leagues. Buyer beware.
Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas
Realistically, neither of these two were going to start the 2016 season with a job unless Arcia could prove that he could play adequate corner outfield defense. What this does mean is that both become slightly less interesting players in AL-only formats, where they probably could have been had for a couple of bucks each. Both Arcia and Vargas still have 20-plus homer potential, even in a platoon (of which they would be the good side), yet the Park signing is also a signal that it’s probably going to come for another organization, if it comes at all.
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