By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- As the 2016 Major League Baseball (MLB) season nears its Sunday opening, four South Koreans are entering their first U.S. seasons with a mixed bag of performances from spring training.
Slugging first baseman Park Byung-ho signed with the Minnesota Twins in December after getting posted by his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) club, the Nexen Heroes. Later the same month, outfielder Kim Hyun-soo left the KBO's Doosan Bears via free agency to join the Baltimore Orioles.
Two more players followed in the new year. Reliever Oh Seung-hwan, who has pitched in both the KBO and Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in January. First baseman Lee Dae-ho, another former KBO star, was the last on board, reaching a deal with the Seattle Mariners in February after four seasons in the NPB.
Of the quartet, Park has made the strongest impression so far -- and not just with his offensive performance, either.
The 29-year-old has done his part at the plate, with a .269/.291/.500 line and three home runs and 13 RBIs in 52 at-bats. He is tied for third on the Twins in home runs and second in RBIs. All three of his homers came off pitchers with major league experience: Jake Odorizzi of the Tampa Bay Rays, Gavin Floyd of the Toronto Blue Jays and Andre Rienzo of the Miami Marlins.
The two-time KBO MVP launched 52 homers in 2014 and 53 more in 2015, becoming the first KBO player to hit 50 or more long balls in back-to-back seasons. He led the league in that category in each of the past four seasons.
Though he's played first base all his KBO career, Park is expected to be the Twins' primary designated hitter. He will also spell veteran Joe Mauer at first base. Park gives the Twins another right-handed power bat alongside Brian Dozier (28 homers last year), Trevor Plouffe (22) and Miguel Sano (18 in 80 games as a rookie).
The Twins knew they were getting a power hitter who can contribute from the middle of the lineup. Yet what they likely didn't expect to get was a player who could blend in well in the clubhouse so quickly, despite the obvious language barrier.
Park, who chatted often with his American teammates while playing for the Heroes here, has improved his English to the point that manager Paul Molitor can discuss strategies.
"It couldn't have worked out better," general manager Terry Ryan said Monday. "His defense has been good. His work ethic has been phenomenal. He's become a tremendous teammate. He's been a threat in the batter's box. He's taking quality at-bats for the most part."
As for Park's time in the clubhouse, Ryan added, "He's got a thick skin, and he's not afraid to dish it back."
Another hulking first baseman, Lee Dae-ho, has also impressed observers, though expectations might have been admittedly lower for the 33-year-old since he signed a minor league deal with the Mariners.
He was a non-roster invitee to spring training, and was vying for the right-handed, backup first baseman job behind Adam Lind, with former top prospect Jesus Montero and long-time minor leaguer Stefen Romero also in the mix.
Lee won the 2015 Japan Series MVP for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, after hitting 31 home runs in the regular season. The former KBO MVP didn't exactly light things up in spring training -- a home run and four RBIs to go with a .235/.304/.353 line in 51 at-bats -- but Lee likely benefited from his contract status and a dismal camp by Montero.
Lee had an opt-out clause in his deal that would allow him to declare free agency if the Mariners didn't keep him on their active roster by March 27. Rather than risk losing him for nothing, the Mariners decided to add him to their 25-man roster despite a so-so spring.
Montero's struggles perhaps made things easier for the M's. Once among the game's top youngsters -- Baseball America rated him No. 3 on its 2011 prospects list, behind only Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels -- Montero batted just .237/.289/.546 in 39 at-bats with no home runs and four RBIs.
Montero was out of minor league options, which meant the Mariners had to put him on waivers before sending him down to Triple-A. The Mariners did just that, and the Blue Jays claimed him and decided to give Montero a shot.
Romero made the competition interesting with his hot bat, producing a .357/.372/.476 line in 42 at-bats. Romero still have minor league options left, and the Mariners sent him down earlier this week, leaving Lee as the backup to Lind.
Oh Seung-hwan, the KBO's career saves leader with 277, who added 80 more in two NPB seasons, will step in as a setup man for All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal. The stoic pitcher famous for keeping his cool under pressure, Oh has been solid in his new role. In 9 2/3 spring innings, Oh has allowed two earned runs on five hits and one walk for a 1.86 ERA, while striking out four. Opponents are hitting .152 off the right-hander.
Manager Mike Matheny, a former Gold Glove-winning catcher, said he knew Oh was a solid pitcher when he saw him.
"He has got a real idea how to use his stuff," he said after Oh's first outing on March 2. "Because he can do so many different things, those are all weapons, and if you start to add and subtract and start to count how many different pitches it is, it'll be fun. He's the type of guy that's a joy to catch, because guys should never see the same sequence twice."
Baltimore's Kim Hyun-soo is the only one of the bunch on the roster bubble. Though he'd once been considered a safe bet to make the Opening Day roster, he has struggled mightily at the plate in spring, with a .182 average and no extra-base hits in 44 at-bats. It has forced manager Buck Showalter to reconsider his decision to wait patiently for the 28-year-old to adjust to his new surroundings.
Under the terms of Kim's two-year, US$7 million contract, the Orioles must have the player's consent before assigning him to the minors. Showalter and Dan Duquette, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, have been telling local media that Kim won't be placed on the 25-man roster and will likely begin his season in the minors.
Kim, however, has refused the minor league assignment, according to his Seoul-based management firm Leeco Sports Agency. The Orioles may either keep him on the 25-man roster or release him outright, in which case they will still be on the hook for the remainder of Kim's contract.
The Orioles put outfielder Joey Rickard, a Rule 5 pick who is batting .387 in the spring, on their 25-man roster Wednesday. The Orioles' depth chart on their website no longer lists Kim in any of the outfield positions, but he's the fourth player at first base behind Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Ryan Flaherty.
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