Plenty of Potential for Twins’ Park

The Minnesota Twins are not known for making big splashes over the winter months. Instead, they are typically content to build from within and sign the occasional mid-level free-agent who is more likely to offer the club a boost rather than the final or even a key piece to the puzzle for the approaching season.

However, the Twins shocked Major League Baseball when they posted the winning bid for Byung Ho Park, the slugging, two-time MVP of the Korean Baseball Organization in November. General manager Terry Ryan then closed the deal by inking the first baseman to a very low-risk, high-reward, four-year contract for just $12 million.

This won’t be an analysis of Minnesota as a whole, because there is a clear gap between its pitching staff and the defending World Series champion from Kansas City, but rather a theory on the type of production Twins fans could realistically anticipate from Park.

Jose Abreu defected from Cuba and has been a viable offensive threat in middle of the of the Chicago White Sox lineup over his two seasons in the big leagues. Abreu’s most impressive numbers were generated during his initial season when he blasted 36 home runs, drove in 107 and slugged .581 to pace the American League.

That said, Abreu’s stat line is certainly on the far end of any expectation spectrum and though Park could provide similar thump for Minnesota in 2016, it is unlikely.

However, when I first watched highlight reels of Park’s exploits at the plate, I was in awe. Incredible, mistake power to all fields that should translate to the major league game. What struck me most, however, was Park’s balance at the dish and an effortless swing that immediately conjured images of notorious Twins-killer Magglio Ordonez.

Again, to expect Ordonez-like production from Park would be foolhardy, but when ones approach with the bat is reminiscent of Maggs, that’s not a bad thing.

No, I pondered what player could be compared to Park, not only in ability but who was similar in age and had been an import to the majors.

Many have pointed to Jung Ho Kang, who had been a teammate of Park’s in the KBO and enjoyed a strong “rookie” campaign with Pittsburgh last year. Park was coming off of a 40-plus home run season, but when the power did not show early, some felt he may have been a bust.

At a glance, Kang’s numbers were solid, but not overwhelming. The 28-year old infielder finished with a .287 / .355 / 461 slashline with 15 homers and 46 runs batted in. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. At a closer glance, Kang batted .310 with a .369 on-base and .548 slugging percentage in the second half, and launched 11 of his 15 homers before suffering a season-ending injury in mid-September.

Once Kang grew acclimated with the league and felt more comfortable in the North American game, he took off and played as Pirates fans had hoped he would following his acquisition.

So what of Park? The right-handed run-producer will be 29 on Opening Day, and will split time between the designated hitter role and first base for Minnesota.

Park has hit 105 home runs over the past two seasons, including 53 a year ago to go along with a .343 average, 146 RBI and 10 stolen bases. Park has driven in over 100 runs in four consecutive seasons and averaged nearly 85 walks over that same span.

We’re not going to compare Park to Kang simply because they are both Korean. Instead, we are going to focus on a player who came to the majors at the same age and possessed a comparable skill set — Hideki Matsui.

Over Matsui’s first four full seasons with the New York Yankees, the left-handed hitting outfielder averaged 23 homers, 108 RBI, 37 doubles and 71 walks to go along with an .854 slugging percentage.

Scouts and pundits inevitably suspect that power from Japan and Korea, and even Cuba will not correlate to the majors, that it will be tempered. And let’s face it, it’s not just an assumption, it’s valid. With the exception of Abreu’s first season, no imported player has seen potential power equate to realized production.

With that said, when you have a player like Park, who like Matsui before him exhibits both plate discipline and propensity to hit for average, would it take a tremendous leap to think that what had been 53 round trippers in Korea last season could morph into 25 homers and 35 doubles in the majors in ’16?

Make no mistake, player comparisons can be dangerous. In Minnesota, fans have been listening to scouts rave that Byron Buxton projects to be a Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen type of player, but upon his call-up last summer, it almost felt like a letdown that the talented young outfielder was not the immediate savior some had come to expect.

With that in mind, it can be unsafe to toss around names like Abreu and Ordonez and Matsui, players who were or are proven at the major league level. When it comes right down to it, though, Matsui’s production lived somewhere in the median between Abreu and Ordonez, with average yearly statistics that would appear to be in keeping with numbers that seem not only reasonable for a hitter as talented as Park, but plausibly attainable.

Provided Park remains healthy, of course with power numbers skewed by the elevated pool of pitching he’ll face in his first season at Target Field, don’t be surprised if he provides Matsui-level production.

And should that prove to be the case, paired with Miguel Sano, the Twins will have one of the most feared heart-of-the-orders in the American League.

What’s Korean for Godzilla?

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