Everything About the Jung Ho Kang Situation Is Difficult

The Pittsburgh Pirates enter play today at 17-13, just a half-game behind the division-leading Brewers and Cubs, and a similar distance from a Wild Card spot. Surprisingly, their Pythagorean record basically supports their record to date, as does BaseRuns. By whichever measure one uses, the Pirates have been good — which is no small surprise in light of preseason expectations that characterized this as a rebuilding club.

Still, the Pirates’ start, whilst evidently supportable by the play on the field, has nonetheless been the product of some good fortune. There was the Rays’ decision to offload Corey Dickerson, who has authored a 136 wRC+ and is second on the team in WAR. There’s been the sudden breakout of Francisco Cervelli, who has gone from a poor man’s Russell Martin to something more like prime Jonathan Lucroy. The pitching staff has also helped, with Ivan Nova refusing to walk anyone and Nick Kingham emerging for an excellent debut. With the Dodgers and Nationals off to slow starts and a dogfight emerging in the NL East, there’s at least a plausible path to the postseason in Pittsburgh: they have a 12% chance at a playoff spot after being in the single digits in the preseason.

And that’s why Jung Ho Kang is suddenly relevant again.

Once upon a time, the Kang signing represented a major a coup for Pittsburgh. Back in 2015, Kang flashed power and speed, posting a 128 wRC+ while playing all over the infield. A year later, he added plate discipline to his repertoire, recording nearly a double-digit walk rate to complement his .258 ISO, en route to a better wRC+ than Nolan Arenado or Justin Turner and one of the best hitting performances in the National League. It was lost, perhaps, given where he played, but Kang was legitimately one of the best-hitting infielders in baseball and one of the better ones overall, accruing more than 6 WAR in just 837 plate appearances.

Things went poorly after that, however. In the 2016 offseason, Kang was arrested for driving under the influence, his third DUI in under seven years. He then lied to authorities about whether he was driving the car, which didn’t help matters. It all added up to a two-year suspended prison sentence for Kang. As a result of the conviction, he was denied a work visa to enter the United States, was placed on the restricted list, and missed the 2017 season. The Pirates didn’t expect Kang back.

And then Kang was granted a work visa. This week, he issued a public apology, and yesterday, he reported to extended spring training.

But Kang’s arrival on the scene has manifest and manifold repercussions for the Pirates. Although the team has already said they won’t discipline him further, his legal issues aren’t limited to South Korea and may not be over at all. Back in June 2016, Kang was accused of sexual assault by a Chicago woman while the team was playing there. While she didn’t cooperate with police, and he wasn’t charged, the case is technically still open. And as women stand up against sexual assault through the #MeToo movement, one wouldn’t blame the Pirates for wanting to keep Kang at arm’s length. And that seems to be the plan, at least for now: the team isn’t rushing him back into action.

Per manager Clint Hurdle:

“The process is to get him as complete as we can within 30 days,” Hurdle said. “That’s being mapped out as we can speak right now. There will be no game activity until we get his arm in shape, his legs in shape, get him swinging, get our people to look at him and evaluate him and then go from there.”

It’s telling that the Pirates have still not taken him off the restricted list.

But Kang’s situation is more complicated also because nobody knows just how good — or not — he’ll be against major-league pitching. The list of major league hitters since 2000 who missed a full season not due to injury, didn’t play in the minors, and returned to the major leagues thereafter is a pretty short one: Jim Edmonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, and, if he’s successful, Kang. The problem is that none of them is really a good comp here. Edmonds returned in 2010 after sitting out a year and had his best offensive season since he was 35. He also only played in 86 games and was a part-time player at age 40. Sosa sat out 2006, returned in 2007, and hit 21 homers for the Rangers, who ran him out as arguably the league’s worst DH (0.3 WAR) solely so he could get to 600 homers at age 39. Rodriguez was suspended for a year, was coming off of surgeries on both hips, and still mashed 33 homers and produced a 129 wRC+ as the Yankees’ full-time DH in 2015. And, while he was 40 by then, Rodriguez might also be one of the five best players of all time. Kang doesn’t have the pedigree of A-Rod, Edmonds, or Sosa. At 31, though, he’s also a lot younger.

Kang did get some time in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, where he managed just 17 total bases in 96 plate appearances, “good” for a .421 OPS. That doesn’t bode well, obviously. And while it might just be rust, there might be other factors, too. Manny Acta, his manager, said he “wasn’t adjusting.” And that’s worrisome for a player who, while not a bad defender (-2.4 UZR/150 career at third base), derives most of his value with his bat. Steamer, at least, thinks that he can be a productive major-league hitter again, forecasting a 113 wRC+. The Bat is more bullish, adding five points of wRC+ and nearly 20 points of ISO. And maybe they’re right: after all, 96 plate appearances is a tiny sample size, and Kang was seeing live pitching for the first time in a year. Perhaps he can recapture his old form, or some semblance of it.

And that would force the Pirates into a difficult position. Kang’s not an option at shortstop; a -7.4 UZR/150 in just 426 innings, plus the fact that he hasn’t played there since 2015, pretty much guarantee that. Third base is occupied by Colin Moran, a 50 FV prospect who is bettering a 120 wRC+ in his first full big-league season. Perhaps Kang could play second base, where he might be an offensive upgrade over Josh Harrison, but Kang has never played the position in the major leagues and might give back those gains on defense. And while he might make some sense as a platoon partner for Moran, whom the Pirates have hidden from lefties this year, David Freese is already doing just fine in that role. The potential public-relations headache might not be worth it for a guy on the short side of a platoon.

Nor can the Pirates really trade him, because Kang won’t have any value unless he shows he’s healthy and effective at the big-league level. He would make an interesting fit for the Twins, allowing them to DH Miguel Sano and bench Logan Morrison, or he could make sense at third base for the Braves if they maintain their strong start. The problem is, he wouldn’t likely net all that much from either team in return. But maybe just being rid of Kang would be worth it for Pittsburgh. Of course, the other team would have to be willing to take on the headache. Still, something like Kang for Julio Teheran could make a lot of sense for both sides.

If there is good news for the Pirates regarding Kang, it’s that this isn’t a long-term problem. Kang’s in the final guaranteed year of his four-year, $11 million contract, which has a 2019 team option for $5.5 million. If Kang doesn’t show anything in extended spring training, they can simply cut him and his $3 million salary. But if he does show flashes of his old form, and the Pirates remain in contention, this could be an interesting decision, if for no other reason than a prime-form Jung Ho Kang is probably better than any bat the Pirates could land at the trade deadline. He’d also potentially allow the team to trade Harrison for pitching, and with that reasonably priced club option, he could be retained to play somewhere in the infield next year. The question is going to be whether the utility of the added couple of wins is worth the potential off-field repercussions. The second question is whether Kang will force that issue to be decided at all.





Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

-7.4 UZR/150 at shortstop is acceptable. It’s not far off what Jean Segura put up last season.

Slappytheclown
Member
Slappytheclown

Can the Pirates play him in the miinors at SS for awhile, just to see what they have?Or is that not possible because he isnt’t technically rehapping and may have no more options? Because I know one team looking for a short term SS solution…*Cough LAD*

dcweber99
Member
dcweber99

I think extended spring training is an option. From JHK’s profile: “Manager Clint Hurdle said the organization has no specific timetable for Kang’s (suspension) return. “I don’t have a ballpark figure there,” Hurdle said. “We’re looking forward to having him go through the entire spring training process,”

Dave T
Member
Dave T

I think that the Pirates can option him to the minors. Per Roster Resource, Kang still has all 3 option years left – https://www.rosterresource.com/mlb-pittsburgh-pirates/

The Twins optioned Byung ho-Park to the minors in 2016 after he’d come to the U.S. in a similar manner to Kang, so I think that the Pirates can do the same with Kang.

epoc
Member
epoc

Also, that -7.4 per 150 is in only 426 innings. We shouldn’t be drawing any conclusions at all based on such a small sample. No one should be closing the door on Kang at SS yet, least of all the Pirates.