In the last decade, the mystery of ByungHo Park‘s major league career was one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Minnesota Twins organization. Despite the lack of clarity on the reasons behind his alleged downfall, Park had become a sensation in the baseball community and was highly coveted by many teams in the majors seeking a big bat. I vividly remember when Minnesota secured the right to negotiate with Park on December 1, 2015.
Minnesota’s $12.85 million bid was just under the $13 million the Seattle Mariners paid to negotiate with Ichiro Suzuki in 2000, making it the second-highest amount for an Asian position player. By Korean Baseball Organization rules, the Twins had a 30-day window to negotiate exclusively with Park for a major league contract. That was crucial for Minnesota because they were seeking a power bat to help them return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
The Twins signed the Korean first baseman to a four-year, $12 million contract with a $6.5 million club option ($500K buyout) for the 2020 season. Under the terms of the deal, Park would receive $2.75 million per year in the first two seasons and then $3 million in 2018 and 2019. If Park had waited until the winter of 2017-18, when he would have officially become a free agent with the KBO, he would have missed the opportunity to play in the majors during his prime years.
That was important for the 29-year-old seeking to make an impact in the MLB. Park had bashed 31 or more homers each of the past four seasons. Most surprisingly, the 6’4”, 194 lbs. slugger had slashed .343/.436/.714, 1.150 OPS, 53 homers, 35 doubles, and one triple in 140 games during the 2015 season for the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization.
Park was going to be Minnesota’s next big superstar. But the Twins already had Joe Mauer at first, Miguel Sanó as their designated hitter, and Trevor Plouffe was playing third. That left many fans and critics wondering what Minnesota would do with their power-hitting investment. At the time, the plan was to have the power at first who could also serve as a part-time designated hitter rotating between Mauer and Sanó.
A promising start silenced Park’s doubters early. He hit six home runs in April that year, the most by any Twins rookie other than Kent Hrbek. He was on pace to hit 42 home runs, which would have been the most by any Minnesota player other than Harmon Killebrew, who hit more than 35 home runs in a single season.
However, Park’s performance declined rapidly, and his plate appearances became concerning. He had a 32.8% strikeout rate, significantly higher than the league average (21.1%). He also had a .191 batting average in 2016, well below the league average (.255). His on-base percentage was also below the league average at .275. Park struggled to hit breaking pitches, with a batting average of just .111 against curveballs and .125 against sliders.
Something was wrong with Minnesota’s newest investment.
Later, the Twins discovered that Park had suffered a wrist injury, which caused him to struggle with hitting. The Twins demoted him to Triple-A in July 2016 to hopefully get more playing time. He continued to battle through the injury until August, when he underwent season-ending wrist surgery.
Byung-ho Park put in a lot of effort to make a comeback during the 2016-17 offseason. However, when he arrived at spring training, the newly-installed Twins Derek Falvey and Thad Levine front office informed him that he had been designated for assignment. To everyone’s surprise, he went through waivers unclaimed.
A FanGraphs writer posted a lengthy argument to keep Park until it’s clear his power won’t work in the big leagues and made a lot of convincing arguments. Despite this setback, Park remained a true professional and determined to make a comeback. He performed exceptionally well during that year’s spring training, hitting 14 home runs and slashing .253/.308/.415, one of the most surprising offensive performances for the Twins.
However, he was still unable to earn a spot on the major league roster due to a lack of space on the 40-man roster. Minnesota had too many right-handed bats, and Park would get limited playing time, given the Twins had filled the positions he plays.
Why did the Twins make such a headline move on a player they had no interest in developing, especially since he had recovered from his injury? Had there been internal discussions on possible moves from other Twins players during the 2016-17 offseason?
Maybe Mauer was contemplating retiring earlier, or Sano was the talk of trade discussions, who knows? Minnesota’s new front office acted accordingly, leaving Park as the unfortunate odd man out. The Twins and Park eventually worked out a deal that allowed him to return to Korea. The Twins essentially forfeited the remaining $6.5 million they owed, and he signed a $1.4 million contract with his former team.
The Huffington Post Korea, which is no longer available, circulated rumors that the new front office’s treatment of the Korean slugger led him to return home. There were other ridiculous rumors, such as claims that the training staff didn’t provide him with the same medical treatment as the other players. However, I’ve never believed these rumors once since the Twins organization has demonstrated rapidly to be one of the most diverse organizations in the MLB for years.
Park was an exceptional baseball player. Although he is not hitting as well as he did during his peak, he still performs admirably in the KBO, slashing .283/.357/.443 with 18 homers, considering his age. However, his stint with the Minnesota Twins may have been unnecessary for both parties. The MLB is faster, the lights are brighter, and the crowds are bigger in the United States, making it difficult for anyone to adjust to the lifestyle of a major leaguer.
The rumors people circulated at the time were not substantial. Park had never publicly addressed why he returned to Korea and left MLB stardom behind. You can’t blame either the Minnesota Twins or Byung-ho Park for giving him a shot in MLB. The Twins had their powerhouse hitter, no matter how brief, and it will always be something I will remember. There have been many players around the league that don’t work for whatever reason. The Twins saw Park as a big bat that could help propel them to another championship. Park saw it as an opportunity to show the world what he was capable of on the biggest stage.