Pitchers and catchers report next week and the Seattle Mariners 40-man roster appears to be set. Still, one thing we’ve learned about Jerry Dipoto during his 16-plus month tenure as general manager is that he’s always looking for ways to improve his club.
With that in mind, there’s a new name potentially on the market who may be enticing to the Mariners and other ball clubs — power hitting first baseman Byung Ho Park.
You see, the Minnesota Twins unexpectedly designated Park for assignment last week. Just 14 months earlier, the club paid a $12.85 million posting fee to the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and inked the right-handed hitter to a four-year/$11 million deal.
During his last four seasons in the KBO, Park averaged 43 home runs annually and was league Most Valuable Player in 2012 and 2013.
Now, interested clubs can acquire Park, if they make a waiver claim on him and can agree to a deal with the Twins. There’s one big catch though. Potential suitors would be on the hook for the remaining $8.75 million on his deal, plus they’d either have to pick-up a $6.25 million club option or pay a $500 thousand buyout after the 2019 season.
If Minnesota can’t find a trade partner by the end of this week, they can either outright Park to the minor leagues or simply release him. Regardless of their decision, the Twins would be responsible to pay the rest of his contract, unless Park opted out of the deal in order to return to professional baseball in Korea.
Considering the relatively low financial commitment associated with the first baseman, he should be a hot commodity, right?
Maybe, maybe not.
To understand why Dipoto and other team executives may be reluctant to make a move for Park, look no further than the slugger’s rookie production.
During his debut season in the Twin Cities, Park slashed just .191/.275/.409 with 12 homers and a 32.8-percent strikeout rate in 244 plate appearances prior to his demotion to Class-AAA Rochester in July. As a Red Wing, he had a robust .526 slugging percentage, but still struggled to reach base and struck out during 25.8-percent of his 128 plate appearances.
Yet, some clubs might consider taking a chance on Park. The nine-year veteran of Korean baseball struggled with a wrist issue before finally having surgery for the problem in August. Perhaps, his injury was the root cause of his problems.
During his first 32 games, Park hit nine home runs with a .917 OPS during 124 plate appearances. Sure, that’s a small sample size. But, playing through an injury might explain the dismal .444 OPS and three homers during his next 30 games and 120 plate appearances prior to his demotion.
Even if Park is only league-average at the plate, his contract isn’t cost prohibitive, especially if his struggles were actually the result of a balky wrist. In that case, adding a slugging first baseman set to average $2.91 million over the next three seasons would be a coup for the general manager who lands him.
Does that mean Dipoto should be on the phone with Twins general manager Thad Levine to swing a deal?
Perhaps, but not for Park.
The Mariners are committed to giving 24-year-old Dan Vogelbach every opportunity to win the first base job during Spring Training. As insurance, they acquired right-handed hitting Danny Valencia during the offseason
While Park has more power, Valencia is a proven commodity capable of playing multiple positions in the infield and outfield. This matters for a team in a “win-now” mode.
Conversely, Park is much like Seattle’s first basemen from last season — Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee. Both were one-dimensional power hitters who couldn’t play another position other than designated hitter. With Nelson Cruz set to be a nearly full-time designated hitter, Park would provide the kind of roster inflexibility Dipoto wants to avoid.
While he probably won’t make his home in the Emerald City this season, taking a chance on Park could make sense for a couple of clubs in the American League West division. As noted in the recent Prospect Insider hot stove reviews, both the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers could be in the market for a first baseman.
I expect Byung Ho Park will find himself on a club’s 25-man roster this coming season. Barring unforeseen circumstances though, that roster won’t be Dipoto’s.