He’s coming back. In what is most likely a matter of weeks, the beleaguered Jung Ho Kang will be rejoining the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once he is back with the club, what kind of role will he be in during the rest of 2018?
After being denied a work visa for over a year, Jung Ho Kang was finally granted clearance to return to the United States and his employer, the Pittsburgh Pirates. While the organization and fans will have to wait to see how he does when he makes his return to the parent club, the early returns at Bradenton have been encouraging. Especially consider that his performance was so bad in the Dominican League this past winter that his club, Aguilas Cibaenas, eventually released him. Through 84 at-bats, he slashed .143/.219/.202 with with an incredible 31 strikeouts. Between his subpar stint in the Dominican League and issues getting a visa, it all but appeared that his career in the MLB was over.
With the caveat that the 31 year old Kang is competing against players much younger than him while he plays with Bradenton and the sample size is small, the early returns have been great. He is slashing .412/.565/.941 with three home runs through 17 at-bats. Kang appears to be set to skip a stint with Altoona and move directly to Triple-A Indianapolis. After that, he should be ready to return to Pittsburgh.
But once he returns to the Pittsburgh Pirates, what role will Kang play on the team?
What role should he play going forward?
A quick look at the positions Kang has played so far gives us an idea. So far through five games, Kang has played two at third base, two at shortstop and one as the designated hitter. This makes sense for a number of reasons.
Given that the team acquired Colin Moran over the winter and he has been playing well, the Pirates not going to replace him with Kang, at least in a full time role. The Pirates have limited Moran’s exposure to left handed pitching so far this season, so it is conceivable that they could put the two players in a platoon situation. Kang was the team’s full time third baseman the year before he was placed on the restricted list. However, the fact that he is getting reps at shortstop could be a sign that the team is thinking about the future.
If Kang performs well throughout the rest of the season, the Pirates could decide to exercise the $5.5 team option for 2019. With Jordy Mercer set to become a free agent at the end of the season, Kang represents a fairly cheap internal option to take over the position of the team does not think that Kevin Newman or Cole Tucker is ready to take over the position at the MLB level.
Mercer will not be going anywhere this year, so the team will need to find someone else to take off the roster to make room for Kang. The most likely candidates to lose playing time are Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez. Frazier has been losing playing time in the outfield since the team has elected to move forward with four full time outfielders that rotate playing time. Frazier has options left so he could be sent down to Indianapolis. Rodriguez on the other hand, has been struggling mightily so far this year. If the team elected to designate him for assignment, that would clear up a roster space. The team would be sacrificing Rodriguez’s ability to play multiple positions, but given that his career with the Pirates was almost assuredly over after this season, it might be worth it.
Ultimately, it makes the most sense to insert Kang into a rotation in the field similar to have the team approached Austin Meadows and the three starting outfielders. The team could ease Kang into the fact that he will be facing MLB pitching for the first time in over a year, and also play the match ups with Moran and Mercer. At any rate, the addition of Kang could potentially be better than any player the team would try to acquire at the deadline this year, and he will not cost any prospects. The team is in a win-win situation with Kang in the remaining months of the season: if he plays well, they have a cheap team option to exercise and keep him around in 2019. If he plays poorly, they have a buyout of just $200,000. So while he has been playing well so far against minor leaguers, it remains to be seen how he will do when he returns to the highest level of baseball on the planet. There is certainly reasons to be hopeful, and his bat could be a great power addition in the middle of the season, and a year ago most people assumed his career in the United States was over.