A week ago, the news came out that the Pittsburgh Pirates won the bidding for the exclusive negotiating rights with Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang. The rumored cost for Kang will be four years and $20 M, and that doesn’t include the $5 M that the Pirates spent to negotiate with him.
For the last week, one of the big themes I’ve been seeing in discussions about Kang is the anticipation for the other shoe dropping. The thought is that adding Kang (when it eventually happens, and I think it will) is going to result in a trade of someone else to clear a starting spot.
On one hand, this prediction makes sense. Kang is unproven, but that’s not much different than the Pirates going with Gregory Polanco as their starter in right field, or going with Josh Bell at some point in 2016 as their starting first baseman, or any other situation where an unproven prospect gets thrown into a starting role in the majors. The key difference here is that we don’t know how Kang’s numbers will translate over from Korea, and while we don’t know how a prospect’s numbers will translate from Triple-A, we at least have a pretty good idea of what that prospect can do.
The other side of this is that the Pirates don’t really need to clear a spot for Kang. Their infield has some question marks, but it looks set right now. As I wrote last week, they also have plenty of solid backup options to be starters, with Kang being one of them. You could trade away Neil Walker, for example, and Kang could work out, but that makes it more likely that a Michael Martinez or Jayson Nix type player is your late-season replacement when the inevitable injuries hit the team. The Pirates have enough money to pay Kang as a bench player this year, while maintaining everyone in their lineup.
The best approach with Kang is a hybrid of the two scenarios above. They can afford to have him as a bench player this year, and they can probably give him a significant amount of at-bats in that role. Last year the Pirates had 11 players with 290+ plate appearances. It wouldn’t be difficult for Kang to see 300+ plate appearances as a utility infielder and a backup at any of the infield positions if a player gets injured.
This trial year would allow the Pirates to see what they have with Kang. If he turns out to be a guy who could start, then they could make a mid-season change, or make a decision next off-season as to where he will be starting. We saw this happen in 2014 with Josh Harrison. By the middle of the season it was apparent that he was a guy who should be playing everyday, at least until he proved otherwise. A hole opened up at third base due to struggles from Pedro Alvarez, and by the end of the year, Harrison was the starting third baseman.
The idea that all four of the current infielders will work out as planned is very unlikely. There will be injuries and struggles, some of which will be impossible to predict before the season. If Kang does work out, there should be an opportunity for him. If he works out and the Pirates are fortunate enough to have all of their infielders playing well, then they would have a strong bench player for the 2015 season, and could make a decision next off-season as to where Kang will start. That’s when they can decide on who to trade to clear that spot.
Going back to the Polanco/Bell comparisons, one more key difference is need. The Pirates need Polanco in right field because they have no other options (Travis Snider’s second half breakout was nice, but I don’t think he’s a lock to repeat that, and I think Polanco provides more long-term upside). They currently have a hole at first base, and will need Bell for the long-term. Even if Pedro Alvarez works out, he will be gone as a free agent following the 2016 season. This isn’t the case with Kang. The Pirates don’t need him at any infield position in 2015. They might need him in 2016 or later if Neil Walker leaves. But until then, they’ve got an opportunity to see what he can do in the majors before throwing him into the starting mix.