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(LEAD) (News Focus) Guessing game begins on S. Korean slugger ahead of posting

All Headlines 15:39 November 02, 2015

(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 17-18)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 2 (Yonhap) -- Now that his South Korean club has formally asked the league office to post him, the guessing game has begun on just which big league club will go after Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes.

The Heroes said Monday they have asked the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to post their slugging first baseman. The KBO will later inform Major League Baseball (MLB) of Park's status, and MLB clubs will have four business days to submit bids in a silent auction.

If the Heroes accept the highest bid, the winning bidder will have 30 days to exclusively negotiate a contract with Park. Yet predicting who will win the bid -- let alone with how much money -- is an inexact science.

Here are some facts: more than a dozen MLB clubs sent their scouts to watch Park in action in 2015, when he set career-highs in Triple Crown categories with a .343 average, 53 home runs and 146 RBIs in 140 games. He is the first KBO player to lead the league in home runs and RBIs in four consecutive seasons and has increased his totals in both categories in each of those four years. Park has also been among the league leaders in walks, runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage over that span.

The Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics were among the earliest clubs to show interest in Park. After Park signed on with the U.S.-based agency Octagon last winter, scouts from the two teams went to see Park at the Heroes' training camp in Surprise, Arizona.

Then in August, the Boston Globe quoted Alan Nero, Park's agent, as saying he expected plenty of interest from big league teams in his South Korean client, saying, "Major league teams certainly covet right-handed power." The paper noted that the Sox had been scouting him for most of the 2015 season.

The Red Sox do have some existing options at first base. Left-handed prospect Travis Shaw hit .270/.327/.487 with 13 home runs in 226 at-bats as a rookie in 2015, while the club also may move defensively challenged left fielder Hanley Ramirez to first base to keep his bat in the lineup. General manager Dave Dombrowski said last month the Red Sox were "committed" to playing Ramirez at first.

If they still decide to pursue Park, it could be a cheaper route than going after free agents Chris Davis or Justin Morneau.

Park is trying to follow in the footsteps of his former Nexen teammate Kang Jung-ho, who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in January via posting. Kang is the first South Korean position player to jump from the KBO to MLB.

Park could well be reunited with Kang in Pittsburgh, which has taken interest in the first baseman. The Bucs' current first baseman, Pedro Alvarez, is in his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent next year.

Alvarez does bring some pop -- 27 home runs and 77 RBIs this year -- but his defense remains suspect. He began his career at third before switching to first base this year, and he wound up making 23 errors at his new position. By advanced metrics, he was the worst defensive first baseman in all of baseball.

Alvarez, 28, made US$5.75 million this year and could be in line for about $8 million in 2016. Given his low batting average and high strikeout totals -- he's a career .236 hitter and led the NL with 186 Ks in 2013 -- the Pirates may seek to trade him. In-house alternatives at first include underachieving Michael Morse and Sean Rodriguez, who is a free agent.

The San Francisco Giants also appeared to have interest in Park. A source privy to MLB transactions told Yonhap News Agency, however, that the Giants have become a bit more careful lately.

"The Giants recently convened an organization meeting and discussed Park Byung-ho," the source said. "I understand his status wasn't discussed with a great interest. They appear to be taking more of a wait-and-see approach on Park."

The Giants don't have a pressing need at first base. Brandon Belt hit a career-high 18 home runs in just 492 at-bats, and has been nominated for Gold Glove at the position for the first time.

At third, Rookie of the Year candidate Matt Duffy quickly established himself with 12 home runs, 77 RBIs, 12 steals and a .295/.334/.428 line in his first full season.

The Texas Rangers may also consider bidding for Park, according to the source. Their incumbent first baseman, Mitch Moreland, is coming off the most productive season of his career, matching his career-high with 23 home runs and setting a personal best with 85 RBIs, 27 doubles and a .278/.330/.482 line. However, the Rangers may not see the injury-prone player -- eligible for salary arbitration for the last time this winter -- as a viable option at first for the long term, the source added.

The Rangers also have a South Korean player in right fielder Choo Shin-soo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million deal as a free agent before the 2014 season.

Another source said the San Diego Padres were interested in Park early in the season but added, "I am not sure if any of their higher-ups came to see him. They might have lost interest later in the season."

The Padres won the bidding for a KBO left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun last winter, but the two sides failed to come to an agreement. Their primary first baseman last year, Yonder Alonso, missed a big chunk of the 2015 season with a back injury, and ended the year with a .282/.340/.392 line and five home runs in 103 games. He hasn't reached double figures in home runs in his six big league seasons.


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