Monday, December 22, 2014

Jung-Ho Kang: Bucs Reach Into Korea

The winning bid on the Korean Baseball Organization's (KBO) Nexen Heroes SS Jung-Ho Kang was $5,002,015, as reported by the Yonhap News Agency over the weekend. And - here's the shocker - it was made by the Buccos, the first successful bid they've made for an Asian player in GW's memory.

Jung-Ho Kang via Fansided
Kang will have 30 days to negotiate a deal with the Pirates. If a contract isn't inked, he returns to Nexen and the Pirates get a refund. Jeeho Yoo of the Yonhap News tweeted that "...what (agent) Alan Nero is seeking for Kang (is) $20M for 4 yrs, or $16.5M for 3 yrs, or $12M for 2 yrs." Those aren't really outrageous terms for right handed power from a middle infielder, which is Kang's calling card.

The 27-year-old Kang hit .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers and 117 RBI over 501 PA while winning Korea's MVP award last season, and that's not a rabbit-in-the-hat slash; he's been beating up KBO pitchers for five years. The KBO is a hitter's paradise, akin somewhat to the Pacific Coast League but perhaps not quite so advanced, so those numbers won't be sustainable in the MLB. There are said to be a couple of holes in his swing, and he has a pronounced leg kick.

Scouts don't believe that his glove will play at short either, so he may end up at second or third base. He plays a passive infield on a turf field - he gets away with it more often than not because of a strong arm - and is a converted catcher.

Ben Badler of Baseball America offers this scouting report (behind a subscription wall, reported by CBS Sports) that says in part "scouts were skeptical of Kang's skill set translating into an everyday role in the majors. Kang ...has average raw power (he is 6', 180 lbs), with a chance for 15-20 home runs if he plays every day... He doesn't have the range to play shortstop in the majors, (but) there's enough potential at the plate for him to be an offensive-oriented utility player who starts his U.S. career in the majors."

Dan Szymborski of ESPN noted that "ZiPS has Kang at .230/.299/.389, 93 OPS+ in Pittsburgh, and his WAR depends on how the defense shakes out. If -5, it's 1.5 WAR in 498 PA." So he looks like more of a project than an everyday player, and that's fine.

The Pirates are set in the infield with Josh Harrison at third, Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Neil Walker at second, so the team likely plans to get Kang's feet wet as a utility infielder/bench bat, and the projections seem to agree with that initial notion. He's also an insurance policy, as Walker has had back issues and Harrison has to show that his 2014 performance wasn't fluky. We don't expect him to be a threat to Mercer; Kang's bat may be willing to give Jordy a run, but his leather won't pass muster.

A more interesting scenario is down the road a little way - if in a perfect world Walker is moved in the future to first, the Bucs most muddled spot, that would free the multi-positional Harrison to move to second and leave Kang at third, if he can stand up to MLB pitching. The FO may be looking at him more for 2016 than 2015, betting that his upside with the stick is attainable.

He seems more likely to bump Sean Rodriguez than anyone else on the roster right now. If that's the case, it leads to an interesting decision whether to carry Sean or one of the good-glove middle infielders like Justin Sellers or Pedro Florimon. There is also the possibility that Kang begins his Pirate career at Indy to acclimate himself not only to American ball but American life, culture and Sonic Drive Ins.

But that's jumping the gun a bit. We expect that the Bucs will get a deal done with Kang, and it will be telling to see if the contract's final form is more on Neal Huntington's terms or Alan Nero's. And it's a move that's being made for future team building rather than today. The Bucs are growing up.

There's not much in the way of success stories for Asian infielders (remember Aki?), much less one from the KBO. Kang would become just the second KBO player to join the big leagues, following the LA Dodgers Ryu Hyun-jin.  But the Pirates have a decent record of coaching up players, and they're betting they can coach up Kang to become an eventual everyday player.


WilliamJPellas said...

Agreed that this looks more like a 2016 move than one the front office believes will pay off in 2015. I really like the fact that the Pirates are leaving no stones unturned in what appears to be a truly global search for talent. Interesting that we were just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago, eh?

Lots of possibilities for Kang and his future in Pittsburgh. Of course, they have to sign him first!

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, Will, we'll see how Kang works out. It was interesting that the runnerup posting bid was the Cards; if they saw something, he's prob worth the dice roll. And the greatest concern with the pitching, as you noted, is the health issues. They're aren't very many 200 IP guys in the rotation. And hey, have a Merry Christmas and a Healthy & Happy New year's, my friend!