David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991. Show More
BRADENTON, Fla. - Jung Ho Kang just wanted a break, his interpreter politely explained, a chance to focus squarely on baseball for what would be the final three weeks of his first spring training with the Pirates, and in the United States, for that matter.
Initially, Kang (pronounced gahng) asked for a few interview-free days, citing the media crush in the wake of his arrival. But after some discussion, he agreed to one more after Tuesday's game against the Astros, then told reporters later in the week that he was shutting it down until Opening Day.
While unusual by MLB standards, it's not hard to see why Kang was hoping to streamline his day-to-day responsibilities. Making the switch from starring in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) to adjusting here does not happen overnight, especially when saddled with huge expectations.
For Kang, however, it's even more complicated than that.
The KBO still relies on a posting system that limits the freedom of a player like Kang, who was under contract to the Nexen Heroes. The Pirates won his negotiating rights by submitting the top bid -- $5,002,015 -- and signed him to a four-year, $11-million contract. That would seem to be a very team-friendly deal for a shortstop who hit 40 homers with a .739 slugging percentage last season.
By comparison, the Japanese professional league (NPB) agreed to a revamped posting system for 2014, one that accepts multiple $20-million bids and lets the player negotiate with numerous clubs. That's how Masahiro Tanaka wound up getting $155 million from the Yankees.
Where will he fit in?
But back to Kang's current situation. Marketed as a power-hitting shortstop, a rare commodity anywhere in the world, Kang now is being groomed as a utility infielder by the Pirates, who already had established players at shortstop, second base and third.
Given the choice, would Kang have signed on for that coming off a career year in the KBO? Probably not, but that's not something a rookie admits, particularly one batting .130 (3-for-23) with nine strikeouts in the Grapefruit League.
"I'm excited that I joined a team with a lot of young players and a good work ethic,'' Kang said through his interpreter, H.K. Kim. "I think I can help the team win and I'm really happy to be part of the culture here.''
Maybe it's better that Kang doesn't have the pressure of being handed a position outright on a team with World Series aspirations. The flip side of that, however, is trying to acclimate to three different jobs at once -- while being blocked from starting at all three.
Last year, Jordy Mercer's .753 OPS in the second half was fourth among all shortstops, Josh Harrison was a revelation (.315 batting average, .347 on-base, .490 slugging) in his first full season and the popular Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native, hit 23 homers.
As much as Kang tries to fit in, that's a pre-existing dynamic he doesn't have any control over. Even for a 10-year MLB veteran, that would be challenging to navigate, and the Pirates insist they aren't going by any clock during this process.
"We've been very open that we believe he will be a regular in the big leagues,'' general manager Neal Huntington said. "And we've also been very open about we're just not sure when or where. The game evolves. Some guys have terrific years, burst on to the scene and exceed your expectations. Some guys have bad years, some guys get hurt.
"Kang's given us every comfort in the world that he'll be able to step in and play a lot. If not, then he'll be able to bounce around the diamond and help keep our starters fresh.''
Looking down the road
Huntington brought up another interesting point, as any forward-thinking GM would do. In looking beyond this season, Kang, 27, shapes up to be an affordable insurance policy if he succeeds. Walker, who will earn $8 million this year, will be a free agent after the 2016 season along with first baseman Pedro Alvarez, a Scott Boras client. Harrison will hit free agency after the 2017 season. That could mean a number of moving parts in the Pirates' infield, with Kang locked in for no more than $3 million during each of his four years.
"If he turns out to be a regular player, it's a great signing for us,'' Huntington said. "If he turns out to be a role player, it's still an OK signing for us. And if we've missed, well, it won't cripple us. But it will hurt us.''
That mind-set is what separated the Pirates from the Mets, a team with an obvious need at shortstop but unwilling to roll the dice on someone like Kang.
Despite his video game KBO numbers last season -- 1.198 OPS, .356 batting average -- the talent gap and ballpark differential make Kang difficult to project over here.
Of the 14 Korean players to precede Kang in the majors since 1994, a dozen have been pitchers. The other two are Hee-Seop Choi -- a first baseman who batted .240 in 363 games stretched over four years -- and Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who has a career slash line of .282/.383/.453 and is about to begin his 11th season.
Hitting is a question mark
Before his arrival, scouts labeled Kang as more of a third baseman in the majors, given the quicker speed of the U.S. game. But after starting at second Friday, Kang has played three infield positions for the Pirates as they continue their evaluation -- on top of the extensive research that went into his signing.
For as long as spring training feels, will it be long enough for Kang to get adjusted to some degree? That didn't seem to be an issue when Kang homered in his Pirates debut on March 3, but he has only two hits since then, including a double.
"This is enough time for me to train and get ready for the regular season,'' Kang said. "It's a good amount of work.''
Regarding his future as a shortstop, Huntington said the Pirates are happy with Mercer and that the jury's still out on whether Kang "will or won't be an above-average defender.'' But the GM added, "He's shown the physical abilities to play the position.''
Right now, Kang's bat seems to be a greater concern. And ultimately, that's a question only he can answer.