Bullpen beckons for aging Park

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Bullpen beckons for aging Park

It’s true that many aging pitchers nearing the end of their careers have been able to find their niche in the bullpen. But accepting their fate and role on a team has led to even more desirable outcomes.

No player perhaps exemplifies this case better than Dennis Eckersley, who was converted from a worn-out starter into the most dominant closer toward the end of his career with the Oakland Athletics (1987-95). The most recent case is John Smoltz, who was converted to closer in 2001 after Tommy John surgery. But the player I’m alluding to here is Park Chan-ho. The 36 year old is coming off a solid season with the Philadelphia Phillies in which he ended the season as one of Charlie Manuel’s most trusted guys out of the bullpen. Having filed for free agency, Park has stated the Phillies have already shown interest in re-signing him. Several other teams, including New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians, have reportedly shown interest, too. However, Park again expressed his fixation with becoming a starting pitcher in the Major League at a press conference earlier this week in Seoul.

“I would like to find a team that’s willing to slot me in the starting rotation. It would be better if the team happened to be a team that can reach the World Series,” Park said on Tuesday at his Park61 Fitness Club in Yeoksam, southern Seoul.

That remains to be seen, but in all likelihood he’s not going to get offered a starting job. The current free agent pool is significantly weaker than last season’s crop and weaker still in comparison to the big names such as Roy Halladay, Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford and Derek Jeter that will hit the market next off-season. Despite hitting the free agent market at the right time, Park is not considered among the top pitchers available this offseason.

In the Elias Sports Bureau free agent compensation ranking which calculates player statistics over the 2008-09 seasons, Park received a grade of “B” and there are plenty of pitchers in the same class who can take the fifth spot on a starting rotation of a winning team.

In alphabetical order, I present to you the “B” rated free agent pitchers of 2009: Erik Bedard, Doug Davis, Justin Duchscherer, Jon Garland, Rich Harden, Randy Johnson, Braden Looper, Jason Marquis, Vicente Padilla, Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, and Joel Pineiro.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not rooting against the veteran pitcher. I saw Park debut with the Dodgers back in high school and like other Korean baseball fans, followed his starts and career closely over the years. Park was the first Korean player to break into the Major Leagues and, for me, put a stop to the perpetuation of the myth at the time that Korean baseball players could not make it in the league. Park had several solid seasons as a starting pitcher for the Dodgers early in his career but has been mediocre since and is past his prime at this point.

Here’s a quick recap of his career. Follow me now; read fast: After making his MLB debut on April 8, 1994, Park would go on to have five good seasons with the Dodgers between 1997 and 2001.

Things started to go bad for Park after signing a five-year $65 million deal with the Texas Rangers. After years of toiling in mediocrity, including several Triple-A stints with the New York Mets and Houston Astros in 2007, Park was able to resurrect his career by taking on a relief role in 2008 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team that signed him as an amateur free agent in 1994.

Park was able to parlay his efforts with the Dodgers into a one year, $2.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. In playing a key role out of the bullpen for the Dodgers, who eventually lost to the Phillies in the National League Championships Series, Park was in a good situation but he wanted a chance to start again.

He was given the chance but struggled as a starter early in the season and posted a 7.29 ERA in seven games. He would go on to shine as a relief pitcher in the latter stages of the 2009 season and had respectable outings throughout the postseason, appearing in four of six World Series games.

The question is, can Park put up six to seven quality innings per outing if given the chance?

I think he’s past that point in his career and would be better served tossing one or two innings out of the bullpen for a contender. Whichever team he signs with, I hope he finds a winning team and sticks to what works best for him.

By Jason KIM [jason@joongang.co.kr]

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