6:07 PM: The Pirates have officially announced that Kang will return for tomorrow’s game against Cincinnati.
4:53 PM: Pirates third baseman/shortstop Jung Ho Kang is likely set to return to the team this weekend after a near two-year hiatus, according to reports from Rob Biertempfel of the Athletic (Twitter link).
Kang, 31, finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting after a banner 2015 season with the Buccos, but has been mired in a litany of legal and injury troubles since the end of the 2016 campaign. Following that season, the second straight in which Kang flourished offensively for the Pirates, posting a 132 wRC+ despite a BABIP drop of nearly 70 points from the season prior, he was arrested on his third DUI charge in his native Korea, which left him stranded in the country, unable to secure the work visa necessary to play in the U.S. When he finally arrived stateside earlier this season, Kang was hampered by a nagging wrist injury that truncated his rehab and made a return to the Pirates increasingly unlikely, though he had resumed the rehabilitation process in recent weeks.
The five-time KBO All-Star came to the U.S. with little fanfare after the 2014 season, inking a measly four-year, $11MM deal with Pittsburgh in January of 2015. He quickly put questions to rest, slashing .287/.355/.461 across 126 games in his rookie campaign and providing loads of surplus value to a mid-market Pirate club in need of a run-producing threat. Kang’s glove at shortstop graded out mostly average in his half-season of time there, but the team seemed to prefer him at the hot corner, where in 2016 he entrenched himself as one of the league’s top offensive performers at the position, upping his walk totals and making hard contact nearly 40% of the time.
Kang’s future, at this point, is shrouded mostly in doubt – on the one hand, a healthy Kang – whose $5.5MM option is a certain bargain in a context-empty reality – stripped of rust would be a boon to any team’s lineup, at least in the short-term. On the other, his age (32 in April), drunken-driving convictions (as well as an uncharged sexual assault allegation two years ago), and time away from the game will almost certainly keep most GMs at arm’s length, and the $250K buyout in his current deal may make Pittsburgh’s eventual choice an easy one.