BURLINGTON, N.C.—Two Julys ago, the Yankees opened their wallets and made a huge splash in the international market. Of Baseball America’s top 30 prospects for that period, New York snatched up 10, including four of the top 10 available.
The Yankees’ haul was so big, in fact, that they added a second short-season team to accommodate the influx of players in their system. During the minors’ annual affiliation shuffle, New York took control of the Appalachian League’s franchise in Pulaski, Va. The addition gave the Yankees eight domestic teams in the minor leagues: Triple-A Scranton, Double-A Trenton, high Class A Tampa, low Class A Charleston, short-season Staten Island, Pulaski and two teams in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. They also have two teams in the Dominican Summer League.
Of their group of international signees, all but one were 16-year-olds from either the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. The outlier is Hoy Jun Park, a 19-year-old shortstop from South Korea, whom the Yankees inked for a $1.2 million bonus. Already, Park is showing the skills that warranted that bonus and the No. 18 spot on our international list.
Standing at a lithe 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Park shows off tremendous athleticism at shortstop, a discerning eye at the plate, and surprising power for someone at his position and with his build. And, if you watch him closely enough, you can tell he has a tremendous amount of fun playing the game.
“He’s fun to watch,” Pulaski manager Tony Franklin said. “I was just watching him at the batting cage and he was going through some antics (in the field). … He was out making unusual plays and unusual throws and just kind of reenacting the play as it happens, and I think that takes a lot of imagination and I think that’s what he’s got. I think he’s got a lot of imagination. I think he can see things before they happen and I think that bodes well for him playing the shortstop position. He’s very instinctive, and I like every bit about him out there at shortstop.”
Overall this season, Park is hitting .257/.362/.408 with four home runs, 22 RBIs and 11 steals in 18 chances. In 11 games in August he’s got an .868 OPS, and went 5-for-11 with a home run in two games at Burlington this past week. The home run was a no-doubt shot, struck loud and sent high over the wall in right-center field. Moreover, the blast came off of a 93 mph fastball from Burlington righthander Ashe Russell, the No. 21 overall pick in this past draft.
“He can juice a baseball pretty good right now,” Franklin said. “Once he gets a little stronger and can handle 160-some games, I think we’re going to have ourselves a heck of a player.”
As with any newcomer to the world of professional baseball, the life of a minor league can come as a bit of a shock to some. The grind is every day, with long bus rides, sketchy hotels and nonstop work the order du jour. That’s especially true when one leaves the controlled atmosphere of extended spring training, where games are almost exclusively played in the daytime and fans are scarce.
And that’s saying nothing of the massive uptick in competition level, which is what jumped out the most as Park made the transition.
“I’m trying to get as much experience as possible and trying to overcome any obstacles, but overall it’s been OK,” Park said about his entry into pro ball, with the help of his translator. “The main thing was adjusting to the pitchers at this level. It’s not so much the speed (of the pitch), it’s the movement that I’ve had to overcome and adjust to. Not many guys throw straight fastballs.”
Like most young, talented shortstops, Park has had to work on establishing and fine-tuning his internal clock. Earlier in the season he had a tendency to rush through plays, leading to unnecessary errors. His manager playfully calls him “One-Hand” because he rarely uses both hands to corral a ball, though he’s working on ironing that out, too.
The other part of the transition into pro ball in America, obviously, is learning English. Unlike players who come over from Latin America, who usually have plenty of teammates in the clubhouse to converse with in their native tongue, Park has only his interpreter as someone who speaks fluent Korean. He’s working hard to learn English, and he’s helping his teammate learn a bit of his language too.
“Writing and reading, it’s not bad,” Park said. “Speaking-wise, I’m still getting used to it. Guys will ask me certain words or phrases (in Korean) and I’ll teach them, just the basic phrases like ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?'” He added that in Korean, his name is Park Hoy Jun, and sometimes his teammates will call him that instead of the Americanized version to help him get more acclimated.
Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Park’s skill handling the bat came in the series’ first game. In one at-bat he swatted his home run deep to right field. In the next at bat, with the left side of the infield drawn in, he adjusted his swing and slapped a single into left field. In a league where most of the talent is extremely raw, such proficient barrel control is rare and stands out when it shows up.
“He’s one of the exceptional guys who can do that,” Franklin said. “But that’s what you look for in your frontline players. He’s got the ability to do that type of thing. … He can juice a ball and then come back and beat you in another offensively as well.”
Didi Gregorius is firmly installed as the big league club’s shortstop. Jorge Mateo, the minor league leader in stolen bases, is exploding at high Class A Tampa. Tyler Wade is an impressive 20-year-old at Double-A. Thairo Estrada is holding his own in the New York-Penn League, and Wilkerman Garcia is getting his feet wet in the Gulf Coast League.
It’s clear the Yankees are flush with shortstop prospects, but Park is doing all he can to make sure his name stands out from the pack.