The Pirates won the bidding for Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang last week for a little over $5MM and now are in the midst of a 30-day exclusive negotiating window. Kang is an unusual case due to his excellent numbers, the extremely hitter-friendly environment in which he produced those numbers, and the lack of precedent for a position player coming from the Korean Baseball Organization to the big leagues.
Kang was the best overall player in the KBO this season, hitting a ridiculous .356/.459/.739 while manning shortstop for Nexen. That marked a leap forward from his previous season, but at 27, he would likely be able to maintain a very high level of performance if he remained in Korea. Kang finished second in the KBO in homers and third in the league in doubles. He also finished eighth in walks. Even in an extremely offense-heavy league, Kang stood out — his 1.198 OPS was easily better than that of his Nexen teammate Byung-ho Park, who finished second in that category at 1.119.
An international scouting director told MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes this fall, perhaps unsurprisingly, that he feels Kang has above-average raw power. The scouting director added that Kang was an intelligent player with good instincts, suggesting he should be able to make the most of his tools. Ryan Sadowski of Global Sporting Integration told Jeff Todd on the latest edition of the MLBTR Podcast that Kang could hit 20 home runs per season in the Majors.
While it’s unclear whether Kang can stick in the middle infield (more on that below), he played shortstop, indicating that he has at least some positional value. If he were to play middle infield in the big leagues while hitting for even a fraction of the power he demonstrated in Korea, he would be a useful player indeed.
So why didn’t Kang attract a bid significantly above $5MM? First, it’s difficult to put his offensive numbers in context. KBO teams averaged 5.62 runs per game in 2014, and Nexen averaged 6.57, compared to 4.18 in the AL and 3.95 in the NL. The KBO contains a number of marginal former MLB players, such as Eric Thames, Felix Pie and Jorge Cantu, who have posted what appear on the surface to be star-caliber offensive numbers, strongly suggesting that the league isn’t even at the level of Triple-A baseball in the US. Dan Szymborski, who created the ZiPS projection system, tweets that the KBO plays as a hitter-friendly Double-A league, and C.J. Nitkowski of FOX Sports notes that he himself was a Game 1 starter in Korea at age 36, near the end of a career spent bouncing around Triple-A, the big leagues, and Japan. It’s possible Kang’s power won’t be enough in the big-leagues, especially in PNC Park, which suppresses homers and is particularly tough on right-handed batters. Sadowski says that Kang is a “mistake hitter,” comparing him to a No. 7 hitter in the big leagues (although Sadowski still seems to feel Kang is a likely MLB regular overall).
The international scouting director to whom Dierkes spoke said that Kang does not possess plus tools, noting that his raw power is not likely to translate well to the Majors. The director compared Kang to Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who signed a two-year deal with the Athletics prior to the 2013 season but never reached the big leagues. Kang is the better player, the scouting director said, but the two players are similar.
There are also questions about whether Kang can stick at shortstop. He wins praise for his arm and hands, but he isn’t fast and has a relatively thick build, so perhaps third base might make more sense for him. He’ll also have to transition from playing on turf in Korea and will need to work on charging in on grounders, as Sadowski noted.
Kang is an extremely difficult player to evaluate because he’s the first Korean position player to transition from a league that plays very differently from the Majors, or even from NPB in Japan, which has had a relatively large number of players make the leap to the US. Hyun-jin Ryu was the first KBO player to be posted, and Kang, if he signs, will be the first Korean position player to arrive via the posting system.
There have been Korean position players in the big leagues, of course, like Shin-Soo Choo, but Choo signed with the Mariners at 18 and honed his craft in the U.S. minor leagues, not in the KBO. There’s also Ryu, who did play in the KBO, but Ryu is an unusual player who dominated the KBO while playing a completely different position, so his MLB success might not suggest that Kang can follow a similar path. The very different posting fees for each — $25.7MM for Ryu, a bit over $5MM for Kang — suggest teams don’t believe Kang is the talent Ryu was.
Still, Kang’s dominant offensive numbers, positional value and relative youth look awfully tempting. While there’s reason to question Kang’s power numbers in the KBO, there’s also surely something to be said for the fact that he was the best player in the league this year. If he can stick in the middle infield (or maybe even if he can provide solid defense at third base), it’s possible to see him providing enough offensive value to be an asset.
Kang reportedly would like a deal for $5MM-$6MM per season, perhaps for up to four years. The Pirates have until late January to negotiate with him, and their $5MM would be returned if they’re unable to reach a deal.
The Pirates already appear fairly set in their infield, with Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart at first base, Neil Walker at second, Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Josh Harrison at third. Still, it’s easy to see how the Pirates might be able to find at-bats for Kang if he proves he deserves them, and as Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs noted, Kang would certainly improve the Pirates’ depth. Alvarez and Hart are both coming off poor seasons, and Alvarez is playing a new position. Walker is two years from free agency and has had nagging injuries. Mercer just posted 2.0 fWAR in a good age-27 season, but he’s never been a star. And while Harrison’s playing time looks secure after a spectacular 2014 season, the Pirates could move the former super-utility player elsewhere on the diamond if they needed to clear space for Kang at third.
The Pirates haven’t even signed Kang yet and thus haven’t revealed their plans for him, but assuming he signs, they could have him begin in Triple-A, or he could start the season on the big-league bench, filling in around the infield. That the Pirates won the bidding for Kang came as a surprise, not only because they aren’t usually top bidders for big-name players from Asia, but because Kang’s potential role in Pittsburgh wasn’t immediately obvious. If he turns out to be able to help, though, they can clearly find space for him.