FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Having watched the Pirates' Jung Ho Kang's slow but steady transition into being one of the better infielders in the National League as a rookie last year, the Twins wanted to be patient with fellow Korean slugger Byung Ho Park this spring.
The Twins saw Kang's development firsthand during Spring Training and two regular-season series with Pittsburgh last year, and noticed he had trouble adapting to the higher velocity in the Majors early on. Minnesota was expecting a similar experience for Park, but he's exceeded expectations this spring, as he's been one of their better hitters in Grapefruit League play. If he can carry that over into the regular season as the club's everyday designated hitter, it would go a long way toward solidifying the club's lineup, so in many ways, he's the team's X-factor.
"It couldn't have worked out any better, but obviously he's got to take it up north when the real games start," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "His work ethic is phenomenal. He's become a great teammate. He's been a threat in the batter's box with quality at-bats. And some of the things we talked about, like velocity, he's shown he's been able to handle those pitches."
Park, 29, has hit .283/.306/.543 with three homers, three doubles and 13 RBIs in 16 games heading into play Tuesday. His homers have come against pitchers with big league experience, such as Tampa Bay's Jake Odorizzi, Toronto's Gavin Floyd and Miami's Andre Rienzo. The Twins also wanted to see how he'd fare against hard-throwing Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi on Sunday, and he responded by going 1-for-3 with an RBI single.
So while the Twins believed they might need to hold Park out against tough right-handers early in the season, they've seen enough from him that he's likely to hit fifth or sixth in the lineup right out of the chute.
"My feeling after the spring he's had is, I'm not going to have to protect him as I thought," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "When the bell rings, you never know how it's going to go, [but] he's swung the bat well enough for me at this stage of camp where I think he's a guy who can contribute somewhere close to the middle of the lineup."
Park's success shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as he was a two-time MVP in the Korea Baseball Organization, and he combined to hit 105 homers and 270 RBIs over the last two seasons with the Nexen Heroes. The Twins won the rights to negotiate with Park after submitting a posting fee of $12.85 million, and they signed him to a four-year deal worth $12 million that could be a bargain if he produces the way the organization believes he can.
Park, though, remains humble and has fit in well in the clubhouse, even bonding with his teammates away from the field; they had a group viewing of the reality television show "The Bachelor" earlier in spring. Park admits he didn't quite understand the show, but has been doing what he can to adjust to American culture. He's also leaned on fellow Korean players such as Kang and Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo for advice heading into the season.
"They told me to try not to change too much," Park said through interpreter J.D. Kim. "They said, 'You're a good player. You're going to have to face a lot of new pitchers here. Once you get a feel of it, then start making adjustments that are needed.' They told me to stay confident, and I am."