Fitting Jung-Ho Kang in Pittsburgh by Jeff Sullivan December 22, 2014 Last Friday, for Fox, I wrote something of a primer article on South Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang. I tried to make sure the timing coincided with an announcement, but instead, it just coincided with the closing of the posting window. We had to wait all weekend to find out which team put in the high bid, and now, Monday, we’ve got our answer: the Pirates won the bidding process for Kang, submitting a figure just north of $5 million. Now those same Pirates have an exclusive negotiating window, following the same process that Japan recently did away with. Reports say Kang is looking for about $5 million a year over four years. The Pirates haven’t said much of anything about this, aside from an acknowledgment of the fact that they’ll be negotiating now. And because of the way this works, there is some possibility that the Pirates simply put in the high bid to block a rival. That’s not very likely. A bid intended to block someone probably would’ve been higher than $5 million, because that’s not actually very much money. The odds of this being a block aren’t 0%, but if we assume that the Pirates are serious about getting Kang locked up, then we’re free to think about the various possibilities. How would Kang fit in in Pittsburgh? If you just glance at it, this is a strange maneuver. The Pirates have Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and he’s been better than you think. There’s Neil Walker at second base, and he’s an above-average regular. Josh Harrison is taking over third base after a breakout 2014, and Pedro Alvarez will be slugging from first, with Corey Hart offering right-handed protection. Obviously, the outfield is more or less full, and the Pirates recently added both Pedro Florimon and Sean Rodriguez. Florimon is a utility glove. Rodriguez is a utility bat. The Pirates don’t appear to have an opening. The Pirates, also, aren’t a team that makes a habit of spending more than they need to. Whatever Kang costs will probably be more than the Pirates would like to invest in a bench player. But I think the move has pretty clear upside, so this could be a pure value play. The Pirates could set themselves up to make a trade. Or they could just set themselves up to be deeper, in the immediate and in the future. On the one hand, the infield right now is full. On the other hand, almost everyone has question marks. Florimon’s never hit. Rodriguez has obvious holes in his game. Alvarez’s bat might be going backward. Walker’s had some problems with his back. At the best of times, Mercer’s simply acceptable. And as good as Harrison just was, previous to 2014 he was almost out of the league. There’s room here for more depth, in the form of a 27-year-old shortstop, and his ultimate contract terms shouldn’t be meaningfully different from those recently agreed to by Zach Duke. Every contract is a risk. Given the Pirates’ budget, they can’t afford to take expensive risks. In Kang, they’ll soon begin negotiating with perhaps the best all-around position player from the KBO. In the absolute worst-case scenario, where Kang does literally nothing in the majors, the Pirates would be out something like Jose Tabata money. That, they can accept. And what if Kang is better than that? What if he’s good enough to be an actual regular? Even if things don’t fit perfectly in 2015, Kang would be signing for multiple years. It’s clear from the winning bid how Kang is perceived, league-wide. If teams believed he were a starter, the bid would’ve been at least triple this. No hitter has ever come over from the KBO, and baseball teams don’t seem to think any are good enough to make an impact. But, some of that is internal scouting. Several teams have seen Kang play. And some of that is simply caution, because Kang is unprecedented. In some ways it’s a blind risk. Ichiro Suzuki’s first contract with the Mariners was for three years and $14 million. This is an opportunity for the Pirates to take advantage of the uncertainly around a pioneer. We’re seeing prices for Cuban players go up, because they’re having more and more success. They’re not the bargain they were, because teams aren’t so skeptical anymore. There are valid reasons to be skeptical of Kang, but, if you’ll allow me: What Kang might be is a legitimate, average defensive shortstop. What Kang might be is powerful, from the right side. The odds of him being both are limited, but if he were certain to be both, he’d cost a fortune. He can be worse and still valuable, and I figure that’s what the Pirates are seeing. There aren’t many opportunities for the Pirates to get ahead of the market. They’re happy to take this risk. Here’s Ben Badler, with an educated opinion: Scouts I spoke with on Kang said he has a chance to be a nice bench bat/utility man. Posting fee reflects that. — Ben Badler (@BenBadler) December 22, 2014 ZiPS has Kang at 230/299/389, 93 OPS+ in Pittsburgh. WAR depends on how the defense shakes out. If -5, it’s 1.5 WAR in 498 PA. — Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) December 22, 2014 The ZiPS figure is practically a guess. We don’t have a lot of data points within the KBO. But if you’d like, you could think about it like this, simplistically: Eric Thames just slugged in the KBO at a level similar to Kang. In the majors, Thames had a 96 wRC+. He posted a WAR of 0, because he was a bad defensive corner outfielder. What if you got Thames-level offense from an infielder with versatility? Funny thing — you might end up with something similar to Sean Rodriguez. Rodriguez is going on 30, being almost exactly two years older than Kang. He has a career 88 wRC+, with decent power but too many strikeouts. He has significant experience at a number of positions. Rodriguez has been worth six wins, or just under two per 600 plate appearances. Rodriguez now might be on the downside of his career. Still, the Pirates are poised to give him a couple million dollars. Kang profiles similar to Rodriguez, but with what I’d say is greater upside. With Sean Rodriguez, you know what you’re getting. With Jung-Ho Kang, maybe you’re getting Rodriguez, or maybe the possible best player from South Korea will rise to the level of better competition. On Kang, the market has spoken. The high bid was about $5 million, and that’s meaningful. No player has yet done what he’s trying to do. A number of teams right now have weaknesses around the infield, and still they didn’t beat the Pirates’ bid. But the market’s always low on the unproven, and Kang is the first of his ilk with a chance to prove. So the Pirates will look to pay him something like Jose Tabata money, or Zach Duke money, and while the immediate fit isn’t obvious, room can be made, tomorrow or a year down the road. Maybe somebody gets hurt or gets worse. Or maybe Kang looks like a fine infielder with right-handed pop. It’s never very hard to find room for that.