How would Jung-ho Kang fit with the Pittsburgh Pirates?


Last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates emerged as the mystery team in the bidding war for exclusive negotiating rights with Korean shortstop  Jung-ho Kang. With a bid reported to be around $5 million, the Pirates now have an exclusive 30-day window to negotiate a contract with Kang.  The pursuit of the middle infielder raises a lot of questions among Pirates enthusiasts about how exactly he would fit into the 2015 club and what kind of production is to be expected.

Kang, 27, batted .356/.459/.739 while hitting 40 home runs in just 501 plate appearances last season in the Korean Baseball Organization.  Kang’s batting average ranked fifth in the KBO, while his home runs and OBP ranked second and he led the league in slugging.  However, it should be noted that Kang also ranked fifth in the league in strikeouts against pitching that is near-universally seen as inferior to Major League Baseball’s. It is difficult to estimate how those numbers will translate over to the United States, but FanGraph’s Dan Szymborski recently projected Kang’s line to be a less-than-stellar .230/.299/.389 – numbers that would rank below incumbent shortstop Jordy Mercer‘s 2014 production.

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The KBO is viewed to be comparable to somewhere between Double-and-Triple-A level competition and this comparison is justified when considering stadium size and how it factors into Kang’s home run and power numbers.  Victory Field, the home of the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians, is closer to the dimensions of Mokdong Baseball Stadium in Seoul, Korea where Kang played his home games.  Although PNC Park is relatively similar to those stadiums down the lines, it is also considerably deeper to left, straight and right-center.  Kang is viewed as predominately a right-handed pull hitter – which could hurt him at PNC Park with the spacious left field that will result in many of his KBO home runs being nothing more than long fly-ball outs.

Another question mark surrounding the talent centers around whether or not Kang can make the adjustment to Major League pitching.  Kang would be the first KBO position player to make the transition to the MLB and, therefore, there is no precedence for what to expect.  However, several former big league players have found a home in the Korean Baseball Organization.  A name Pirates fans are familiar with, Felix Pie, is one of those players.  Pie, who filled in as a reserve outfielder for the Bucs during the 2013 season, spent 2014 in the KBO where he hit .326/.373/.524 with 17 home runs.  It took Pie 425 games to hit 17 home runs over six MLB seasons while holding a career average of .246.

Despite the KBO being a hitter-friendly league, Kang is undeniably the best position player of the KBO and at just 27, he is entering the age that many players reach the peak of their careers.  It has been reported that Kang is looking for a three-to-four year deal worth an estimated $4 to 5 million per season, which would seemingly cover the prime of his career. Defensively, Kang may not be best suited for shortstop at the Major League level and may instead fill a utility role or be better served as a corner infielder.  While his power potential is certainly intriguing, the next issue is where would he play?  While the Pirates appear to have their infield set, there is underlying question marks with all projected starters.

The Pirates’ haul, should they manage to sign Kang, is a major question mark moving forward.

Shortstop Jordy Mercer appears to be the most likely to be supplanted.  Even though his numbers don’t jump off the charts, Mercer posted a 2.8 WAR last season and a 2.0 WAR in 2013.  Mercer, like Kang, also appears to be entering the prime of his career and it would not be wise to insert an unproven commodity for someone who has shown marked improvement in each of the last two seasons.

The Pirates may very well be viewing Kang as more of an insurance policy for third baseman Josh Harrison or second baseman Neil Walker.  Harrison burst onto the scene last season and filled in admirably for an ineffective Pedro Alvarez, but the Pirates may not yet be convinced that Harrison’s stellar year was not a fluke.  In Walker’s case, he has dealt with recurring back issues and is primed for free agency following the 2016 season and it is fair to speculate that he will test free agency in search of a more lucrative deal than the Pirates will likely offer.

If the returning infielders can produce to expectations, the Pirates can afford to proceed with patience with Kang and groom him to eventually take over for Walker. If Kang can show he can make the necessary adjustments to produce sooner rather than later, it may give the Pirates the option to shop Walker to fill other areas of need.

The contract that Kang is expected to command represents an inherent risk for the cost-conscious Pirates.  Should the Pirates fail to sign Kang, the $5 million posting fee will be returned to them.  But, if they chose to make the financial commitment, Kang could cost them around $9 to 10 million this season when including the fee.  This would be a considerable leap for a team that is often criticized for failing to open up the wallet (Pittsburgh’s 2014 Opening Day payroll came in at $71 million), even more so if Kang turns out to be nothing more than an average utility infielder on a decent-sized contract.

For a team that has made an early exit in the postseason in each of the last two seasons, posting the fee and opening up the negotiations with Kang shows a willingness to spend.  Signing Kang would show a willingness to win.

Despite the question marks that surround him, Kang has shown the potential to develop into a threat.  For a playoff-caliber team that lacks depth, the Pirates could just be one offensive weapon away from making a deep playoff run.  Kang represents the best free agent option for the Pirates to fill that missing link, and failing to sign him would signify that the payroll still trumps winning for this organization.

Next: What are the Pirates getting in A.J. Burnett?