According to a Naver Sports report out of South Korea, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang has been denied a visa to enter the United States putting his 2017 season and future with the Pirates very much in doubt.
Kang has had a myriad off-the-field troubles. After a Dec. 2 incident in Seoul in which Kang fled the scene of a crash, Kang was convicted of a third DUI this winter in South Korea. The two previous DUIs came before he was signed by the Pirates prior to the 2015 season, and the club claims to have had no knowledge of those incidents. For his most recent DUI, Kang was sentenced to eight months in prison, but Kang has appealed the sentence. He has missed the entire spring due to his legal issues. There was also a sexual assault claim made against Kang last year, alleged to have occurred in a Chicago hotel. But Kang was not charged and Chicago Police said last fall they have not been able to locate his accuser.
Off-the-field, Kang has his troubles and now the Pirates have on-the-field issues at third base.
When they rolled the dice on signing Kang two years ago, there were questions about his ability translate his KBO production and, in particular, his ability to hit major league velocity. As Jeff Sullivan noted last summer, Kang passed the fastball test. And his production translated quite well as he owns a .273/.355/.483 slash line and 131 wRC+ over 229 games. After a serious leg and knee injury suffered after Chris Coghlan slid into him aggressively in September of 2015, Kang answered questions about his health and about to counter-punch against league adjustments with a 133 wRC+ in 2016. He put to rest any doubts about his power with an .258 isolated power mark last season.
Kang also proved to be a capable defender at third base, rating slightly above average, and he even played some shortstop for the Pirates in 2015. In total, Kang produced 3.9 WAR in an injury-shorted 126 and another 2.2 WAR in 103 games last season.
Since the start of the 2015 season, only Starling Marte (7.5 WAR) and Andrew McCutchen (6.5) have been more valuable position players for the Pirates, and on a per-game basis Kang has been the club’s most valuable position player. Now, it looks like he might not be available. The Pirates might be without their top position player.
According to FanGraphs’ depth charts, Kang was projected to produce 2.4 WAR, the third-highest total on the club, over 455 plate appearance. Ranking second on the depth chart at third base is David Freese, who the club signed in March last year as Freese found himself as part of that shrinking middle class of veteran player that has more often struggled to find work. The Pirates signed the 33-year-old to a two-year extension in the middle of last season, perhaps in part due to the uncertainty surrounding Kang.
The issue for the Pirates is FanGraphs’ projection calls for Freese to produce 0.9 WAR in 510 plate appearances this season, forecasting a 98 wRC+ and a .256/.329/.395 slash line. It’s a significant drop-off in production. If forecasting 600 plate appearance production from Kang, it’s a two-win drop off for a team FanGraphs projects to finish with with 82 wins, four games worse than the Mets for the second wild card. Kang’s absence further complicates the club’s wild card picture, which figures to be its most likely entryway to the postseason with the Cubs being the reigning division and World Series champions.
When the Pirates signed Freese to the two-year extension, he was coming off an excellent first half, OPSing .845 last season. However, Freese slumped in the second half, posting a .650 OPS. Freese makes plenty of hard contact enjoying a 21.7% HR/FB ratio last year and a 14.8% mark for his career. But Freese has also been an extreme ground-ball hitter for his career, owning a 2.1 GB/FB ratio, including a career-high 2.98 GB/FB mark last season.
Freese might benefit from getting on the Josh Donaldson swing plan. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle noted this spring that players’ “OPS is in the air.” But Freese does not seem to be interested in over-hauling his swing.
Freese, with his current skill-set, might be a nice short-term insurance policy but he cannot replace star-level production.
The Pirates have other internal options for third base. They could move Josh Harrison to third, keep Freese in a platoon role where they feel he could better maintain his swing over the course of a season, and give promising left-handed hitter Adam Frazier full-time work at second base. But if Kang is not available, however the Pirates choose to juggle their roster pieces, there figures to be a significant loss of production. While the Pirates have an insurance policy in place in Freese, there is usually no plan, no way, to replace star-level production.