Earlier today, the Pirates announced that they have officially signed Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang to a four-year deal. The appeal to Kang is clear. He slashed .356/.459/.739 for the Nexen Heroes of the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Korea Baseball Organization with 40 homers across 117 total games in 2014. What wasn’t so clear about the signing is where Kang will fit in with the Pirates. Earlier today, I asked General Manager Neal Huntington about how he anticipates that Kang will be used in Pittsburgh.
“We like the player a lot but we also understand and respect that there’s going to be a significant transition period here, not just on the field, but off the field as well. We want him to transition culturally as well as professionally and as he comes into camp he’ll very much complement our major league team,” Huntington said on the conference call. “We’re looking forward to confirming our belief about his ability at shortstop, he has played some third, and we know he can play some second but right now he’ll come in as a complementary player as he adjusts to major league baseball and the United States in general.”
While there will be an adjustment period for Kang, the Pirates want the infielder to get acclimated to life in the majors right away. That means that Huntington & Co. have no intention of sending Kang down to the minor leagues for seasoning.
Huntington says that Kang is on board with serving in a complementary role in 2015, despite recent comments that he made which suggested that he wanted to start immediately. The Bucs GM chalked that up to something of a miscommunication: any major leaguer, he says, will assert that they are starting caliber if asked. By the same token, Huntington says that Kang respects the hard work that Bucs teammates like Josh Harrison have put in to earn their leading roles.
The Pirates are excited about welcoming Kang into the fold but not everyone in the baseball world is a believer. The KBO boasts notoriously boosted batting lines and many equate the league’s level of competition with Double-A baseball. In Huntington’s mind, that’s not necessarily a fair comparison nor is it an accurate predictor of how well a Korean player can fare in the big leagues. Japan’s NPB has a stronger level of competition but Huntington notes that many Japanese players haven’t been able to hack it in the States, and vice versa.
That skepticism over his level of competition led to a more tepid market than some anticipated at the outset of the offseason. I asked Huntington if he had a sense of how many teams were ultimately in on the bidding process.
“It’s a blind process and on one hand its a bit disconcerting to not know, but on the other hand we don’t really care. We got the player wanted for what we feel is a fair dollar amount that works for him and for us,” Huntington said.
If things work out with Kang, it certainly seems possible that he could displace someone in Pittsburgh’s current infield. Huntington isn’t thinking that far ahead, however.
“This move was made to make us a better team. You can never have enough good players, You can never have enough quality major league players, especially ones that have versatility and can do it from the left side. There’s no set script [that says] if he becomes a good player, we’re going to trade player X or player Y. If things go well, we’re going to have a very talented and deep position player group,” the GM explained.
In an interesting twist, Kang’s Nexen team will be training in Arizona this spring. The Bucs will allow the infielder to work out with his former squad before flying across the country to meet them in Florida.