Jung Ho Kang was a part of a fantastic offseason for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This past winter, the organization was hard at work, acquiring assets to improve upon two consecutive winning seasons. While everyone was paying attention to the San Diego Padres, who picked up players such as Matt Kemp, James Shields, Will Myers, and Justin Upton, the Pirates were having the most underrated offseason in Major League Baseball. As the Pirates continue their quest to win a division title, they can look to the acquisition of Francisco Cervelli and the signing of A.J. Burnett, among other moves, that have proven to have paid major dividends. However, one offseason addition seems to stand out amongst the others.
In mid January, the Pirates were one of many teams who were heavily involved in the sweepstakes to acquire former Korean baseball star Jung Ho Kang. After winning the rights to negotiate with the 28-year-old shortstop, the Pirates had 30 days to come to terms with him, which they eventually did. Kang ended up signing a four-year deal with the Pirates worth $11 million, becoming the first player from the Korean Baseball Organization to transition directly to the Major Leagues.
This was a deal that was only thought to have benefited the Pirates in a positive way due to Kang being one of the best players in the KBO, and the relatively inexpensive contract that he signed. Last season, Kang hit .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs in 117 games for the Nexen Heroes. At the time of Kang’s signing, there was little doubt that he could compete at a high level, but questions surrounded his ability to translate his stellar play from the KBO to Major League Baseball.
Following spring training in which Kang hit .200 in just 18 games, Jordy Mercer was named the starting shortstop to start the 2015 campaign. Kang, who did have an advantage of never facing Major League pitching before, started the season in a bench role, serving as a player capable of starting at shortstop, second base, and third base as needed. As the season has progressed, Kang has provided the Pirates with way more than just another bench option. He has provided insurance for a team that has experienced their fair share of injury woes.
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In the absence of Mercer and Josh Harrison, who both landed on the disabled list in July, Kang helped to fill voids in the infield, playing solid defense at third base (65 games this season) and shortstop (54 games this season). However, the one thing that has impressed me more than anything else is his prowess at the plate. In 110 games with the Pirates this season, Kang is hitting .288 with 12 home runs, 48 RBIs, and a .362 on-base percentage, which ranks second on the team. He has become a vital presence in the middle of the Pirates lineup and has made a huge impact no matter where he is hitting in the order. When hitting in the fifth spot in the lineup, which he has done when Aramis Ramirez has hit cleanup, Kang is hitting .312 with 7 home runs and 25 RBIs. He has spent time hitting everywhere in the lineup besides the leadoff spot, and it seems like there is one thing is in common: his consistent ability to come up with clutch hits and be an anchor in the everyday lineup.
Now with Mercer and Harrison healthy, the Pittsburgh Pirates are loaded with an incredible amount of depth. Kang, who was not in the lineup in game three of the Pirates’ series against Colorado, has provided the Bucs with a good problem to have. Continue to start Kang at shortstop or allow Jordy Mercer to continue on as the starting shortstop. The versatility of Kang and Harrison allow the Pirates to have options within the infield to give guys occasional days off. Now that the Pirates are battling for a National League Central title, having everyone this healthy and having this type of depth is crucial.
It’s safe to say that the risk that was taken on Jung Ho Kang in the offseason has paid off. Not only has he established himself as a player who belongs at the Major League level, but he has also established himself as a legitimate National League Rookie of the Year candidate. I understand that Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs and Matt Duffy of the San Francisco Giants are big name possibilities to win the award as well, but Kang’s season should not go unappreciated.
The uncertainty surrounding Jung Ho Kang playing at the Major League level is a thing of the past. He may not hit 40 home runs in a season like he did in Korea, but he has proven to know what he is doing at the plate. It seems as if he has adjusted well to playing baseball in America and has become a huge part of this Pirates’ team both on the field and in the clubhouse. If the Pirates hope to make a deep postseason run in 2015, there is no doubt that their star shortstop is going to have to play a pivotal role in their push for a World Series championship.