Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Kang and the 2016 Infield Shuffle

Well, Jung-ho Kang is ready for baseball across the big pond, at least in his own mind. In a press conference last night (early AM Wednesday in Korean time) before his flight to Pittsburgh - his contract could be finalized by the end of the week, although he said it wasn't a done deal yet - he expressed lots of confidence in himself.

As quoted in the Yonhap News by writer Yoo Jee-Ho, "Kang said he'd like to play his natural position at shortstop, adding that all he wants is a chance to prove himself. 'If I get an opportunity to play consistently, I think I can play better (than Mercer),' Kang said. 'I think I'll have to talk to the team about my position, but I'd like to play shortstop.'"

He also noted that he'd like to hit against Aroldis Chapman and his three-figure heater, saying "I can only be a great player if I can hit Chapman."

Jung-Ho Kang (USA Today Sports Images)

Kang might sound a bit brash for a guy waiting to take his first North American swings and could probably profit from a lesson in team tact. Still, you can't get too worked up over a player who comes into town brimming with confidence and looking to compete from the opening bell. The question is whether or not Kang's gaudy offensive stats will translate in the show, and where he ends up stationed around the diamond.

Although he is a shortstop by trade, like Neil Walker, Kang is a converted catcher and a fair sized dude for the middle infield at 6'1"/180 pounds. His arm strength is there, but his range has been questioned. He played third for the national team back in 2010, and that may be his landing spot in Pittsburgh, especially if his right-handed power plays at PNC Park and he can become a 20-homer guy. But there are a lot of possibilities.

The Pirate infield is set this year with Pedro and newcomer Corey Hart at first, The Kid manning second, Mercer playing short (Kang's challenge withstanding) and Josh Harrison holding down third.

So Kang is likely to get his feet wet in the MLB in the old Josh Harrison super-sub role, both to allow him to get up to major league speed and acclimate himself to America. But there are a lot of  moving pieces involved with the infield puzzle down the road.

Pirate Infield 2013 - Pedro, Jordy, Neil (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Pedro has one more year of team control after this season, making him likely to be moved before 2016 Opening Day. Neil Walker is probably looking at $9M this year after a big 2014 campaign (.271/23/76), but his declining glovework and balky back may make the Bucs think twice about his future, both at second and in Pittsburgh. If the FO finds middle ground with him on a contract (like Pedro, he's under team control through 2016), it's likely as a first baseman, which would solve a batch of issues in one fell swoop.

With Josh and Jordy, both are under long-term team control. For them, it's a matter of repeating. Both did well with the leather. Josh is the poster boy for regression - his BABIP was 100 points higher in 2014 than in 2013, though his line drive rate also improved, too. But if he falls to league average in balls finding holes, he's a .270-.275 hitter. So his bat, if he hits at that level, makes him likely to move to second if Walker moves off it.

Jordy had an abysmal beginning during the opening weeks of the year, but Clint Hurdle stuck with him and got a solid summer both at the dish and in the field. But he did slump in September, so this is a big season for him to establish himself as the man at shortstop.

Those are issues that will sort themselves out, and the Pirates do have future options, several of which are home-grown. Tony Sanchez and Andrew Lambo have been working at first during the mini-camp, and Josh Bell looms on the horizon. Alen Hanson, though inconsistent, is toolsy enough to have made Dilson Herrera expendable, and he too is perhaps a season away.  JaCoby Jones could be the super utility guy of the future, while Gift Ngoepe and Gustav Nunez fit the mold of defense-first bench middle infielders. And, of course, Kang, who is also touted as being able to play second, so his flexibility was certainly part of his allure to the FO.

There's been the usual cattle call of infielders brought in during the off season, three of whom (Justin Sellers, Pedro Floriman and Jake Elmore) are currently on the 40-man roster. Sean Rodriguez was picked up to serve as this year's Super Josh and could, with Kang, make that trio moot.

One thing is sure. Though the infield will go through some musical chairs in 2016, it's constructed to make those changes with much less disruption than in years past. The Pirate philosophy of versatility is beginning to show some dividends.

No comments: