The Nexen Heroes will post first baseman Byung-ho Park on Monday, according to Yonhap News Agency (via MLBTR). This news isn’t a surprise, as Park was expected to be posted this off-season after the huge success that Jung-ho Kang had with the Pirates in 2015.
The Pirates were linked to Park back in August, with two high level front office members scouting him. Technically they could have been scouting anyone, including a few other players who are expected to be posted this off-season (they’ve also been linked to a Korean closer), but their aggressiveness last off-season with Kang suggests they’d be looking at everyone, Park included.
One big issue with the Pirates going after Park is that he would require a multi-year deal, and they’ve got a first baseman of the future in Josh Bell, who projects to arrive by the middle of the 2016 season. Bell made the transition to first base in 2015, and while the defense still has some work to be done, the offense saw some big strides with Indianapolis at the end of the year. That coincided with an adjustment Bell made to his leg kick, leading to a .946 OPS in Triple-A over 145 plate appearances.
Bell is still going to need some work at the start of the 2015 season. The primary work will be with his defense, although he’s going to need to show that his late season hitting was legit, and he’ll need to continue to work on his swing from the right side of the plate, which often is awkward looking and leads to some poor results compared to his numbers from the left side.
This all means that the Pirates will be looking for a first baseman at the start of the 2016 season, assuming they don’t keep Pedro Alvarez, or go with Michael Morse as their starter. And with the success that Kang had last year, it would certainly be appealing to try and get Park to fill that role, and provide some insurance in case Bell isn’t ready by mid-season. However, that would be an expensive insurance policy.
Back in September I wrote about how Kang has opened up the market for KBO hitters to make the jump to the US, and how he has opened up the market. The Pirates won the bidding to negotiate with Kang for just $5 M. They paid $11 M more to get him under a four-year deal, with an option year. All things combined, $16 M paid for four years of service is incredibly cheap, and would mean Kang only needed to be a good bench player to justify his deal.
After Kang’s success, Park will almost certainly cost more. Travis Sawchik had a good look at the possible cost in a recent article, with Park’s posting fee possibly doubling Kang’s cost. There’s also the contract, which might go up, although Park wouldn’t have much leverage, only being able to negotiate with one team.
Let’s just say that Park costs double what Kang ended up costing, which would be a total of $32 M when you include the posting fee. Let’s also say that he gets the same four-year guaranteed deal. That would make him an $8 M a year player. On the open market, you’d need about 1.3 WAR per season to justify that deal. That’s not much, and an average first baseman could easily put up that production.
The problem is that it would be difficult for Park to match that going forward if he’s replaced by Bell. Kang had the advantage of versatility, meaning that even if he didn’t become a starter, he could provide value off the bench as a utility infielder. Park is stuck at one position. If it turns out that he’s a decent first baseman — worth his contract value, but someone you’d upgrade over — then the Pirates would be stuck with a very expensive bench player who would receive very little playing time.
The flip side to this is that if Park broke out in a big way, the Pirates would then have an excess of first base talent. Josh Bell could always move back to the outfield in that case, although he put on weight in his move to first to add more power, and would have to reverse that to play the outfield again. The Pirates also have their long-term outfield in place, and a few top prospects in Double-A next year (Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez), so there’s not a big need for Bell in the outfield either. They could also opt to trade either Bell or Park following the 2016 season if this happened.
If the NL added the DH after the 2016 season, that would solve either problem. It would provide Park a place to hit if Bell turns out to be a better option, and would provide room for both hitters if Park breaks out. The possibility of a DH being added seems to be increased with all of the recent pitcher injuries at the plate, but is nothing to bank on yet.
If the Pirates did sign Park, they’d be setting themselves up for a potential high risk/high reward situation. There’s no guarantee that Park will hit the same way as Kang, and if he doesn’t, then the Pirates will waste a lot of money when they’ve got a top first base prospect in Triple-A. With other needs to fill this off-season, that approach might not make sense. If it did work out, they’d have an excess of top talent for the position, which is never a bad thing, and something they haven’t experienced for a long time at first base.
All we know now is that the Pirates have scouted Park. Whether they’re aggressive enough to win the bidding this time around, especially after the price will go up due to Kang, remains to be seen. They don’t necessarily need Park, at least in relation to their needs at other positions. But getting him could pay off in a big way, just like Kang last year, although with more risk involved in this situation.