JUNG-HO KANG, THIRD BASEMAN
|Born: April 5, 1987
How Acquired: Int’l Free Agent
Country: South Korea
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|Kang was the best hitter in the Korean Baseball Organization. He hit very well starting in 2009 and had a massive season in 2014. The KBO generally is a hitter’s environment and 2014 saw a huge uptick in offense there, but Kang’s numbers were good even in relation to the league. Projecting him as a MLB player, however, was another matter because there was no precedent for a veteran KBO hitter making that move. There also wasn’t a consensus on how he projected. Some observers saw him as a solid hitter with good power for an infielder. Others saw the KBO as the equivalent of a high-offense AA league and were skeptical about whether Kang would hit in the US. Kang had always played short, but most scouts doubted he’d be able to stay there in US pro ball. He doesn’t run well and his range is lacking, although his arm rates as average to very good depending on your source, with most considering it above-average.
The Pirates won the right to negotiate with Kang through the posting process that applied to Japanese players for years and only recently was extended to Korea. They finished on top of the bidding with the eccentric amount of $5,002,015. The news came as something of a surprise, as the Pirates hadn’t previously been associated with Kang. The Pirates concluded the negotiations successfully, with Kang agreeing to a four-year deal with a fifth-year team option. The contract calls for $11M guaranteed, plus $5.5M if the Pirates exercise the option. He’ll become a free agent at the end of the contract.
At age 19, Kang played only briefly for Hyundai.
Kang again saw just a little playing time for Hyundai.
Kang had a good season for Woori. His .726 OPS was a little above the league average of .721.
Still with Woori, Kang had his first big year, although his numbers were partially the result of a league-wide jump in offense to a .787 OPS.
The Woori team became Nexen, for which Kang played the rest of his time in Korea. He had another good season; better, in fact, because the league subsided to .757.
The league OPS dropped back to .727 and Kang’s numbers dropped, too.
Offense in Korea dropped to .698, but Kang went in the other direction with a huge season. He finished second in the league in OPS and third in HRs, and even started stealing bases.
Kang fell off a little, although the league OPS was back up to .737.
Kang had a monster season. Some of it was a league-wide outburst that saw the OPS rise to .807. In fact, Nexen as a team hit 298/382/509. Still, Kang led the league in slugging by 51 points, and was second in OBP and HRs.
Kang’s signing proved to be one of the best off-season moves by any team. He opened the season as a backup and made only six starts in April. As is their wont, though, the Pirates started the season with numerous hitters in severe slumps and there were stretches in which Kang seemed to be the only player hitting anything. He posted an .843 OPS in May, slumped in June, then had a huge month of July with a 1.064 OPS. He kept hitting well the rest of the year, posting a .931 OPS for the second half. He generates impressive bat speed and, according to exit velocity and other measures, was one of the hardest-hitting players in MLB. He hit RHPs better than LHPs, with an .840 OPS against the former and .721 against the latter, but that may be a sample size issue. Kang played all of his games at short and third, making 49 and 54 starts, respectively. With Josh Harrison slumping and then eventually hurt, Kang initially got a lot of starts at third. When Jordy Mercer got hurt shortly after Harrison, though, Kang became the regular at short until Mercer returned. After Harrison and Mercer returned, the Pirates rotated Kang with them and with Aramis Ramirez. Defensive metrics showed Kang to be average or a little below at short, and above-average at third.
Unfortunately, Kang’s season ended on September 17 when the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan slid into him trying to break up a double play. Kang suffered a plateau fracture in his knee and a torn meniscus. (Coghlan didn’t actually “slide” into Kang. Video and photos showed he hit Kang before his own posterior hit the ground and he had his leg up high so that he essentially leg-whipped Kang, hitting him in the knee rather than simply taking Kang’s feet out from under him. Coghlan also wasn’t remotely near second base.) The standard recovery time for Kang’s injury was 6-8 months, but he made swift progress and was expected to return to the team in mid- to late-April.
Kang went through some dramatic ups and downs, unfortunately not all on the field. He recovered very well from the knee surgery and was able to start a rehab in mid-April. The Pirates’ plan was to rest him every few days, as his knee wasn’t expected to return to full strength for another year or so. After struggling through a lengthy rehab, Kang returned to the Pirates at the beginning of May and hit two HRs in his first game. Through June 16, he had a .947 OPS. During a June 17-19 series in Chicago, though, Kang was accused of sexual assault. He continued to play during the police investigation, but went into a slump. From June 17 through August 10, he hit just 178/267/290, and also struggled defensively. From August 13 through the end of the season, though, he hit 307/444/653 despite missing some time with a partially dislocated shoulder. In mid-September, it was reported that the police had been unable to contact the accuser. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Kang was badly distracted for nearly two months, but regained his focus when it appeared that formal charges might not be filed. The investigation does, however, remain open.
For the season, Kang established himself as the Pirates’ top power source. He also showed more patience than in 2015. He again had a reverse platoon split, putting up an OPS of .896 against RHPs and .757 against LHPs. Defensively, his error rate climbed sharply; his fielding percentage at third dropped from .971 to .938. His range doesn’t seem to have been affected. It’s possible that the errors were the result of distraction, a still-shaky knee, or both.
Kang’s legal problems continued in the off-season when he was arrested for DUI in Korea in December. It proved to be his third such arrest, something neither the Pirates nor his Korean team had known. Kang was sentenced in early March to eight months, with the sentence suspended for two years, meaning that if he keeps himself out of trouble for two years he won’t serve time. He was unable, however, to secure a work visa and missed the entire season.
The Pirates didn’t give up on Kang, although they eventually acknowledged that they didn’t expect him to return. Still, they secured him a spot in the Dominican Winter League in the hopes of keeping him as ready to play as possible, but he played so badly there that his team released him. The Pirates also placed him on the restricted list, which meant he didn’t get paid and didn’t count against the 40-man roster. To everybody’s surprise, though, Kang secured a work visa in late April 2018.
After Kang spent some time working out at Pirate City, the Pirates sent him on a minor league rehab and ultimately optioned him in what amounted to an extended rehab. He split his time between short and third, possibly in an indication of the Pirates’ intentions once he returned. Kang seemed to be coming around with the bat, but while he was at Indianapolis he started having trouble with a sore left wrist. He was shut down in late June, but the wrist didn’t respond to rest and he had surgery on it in early August, with a recovery time of 4-6 weeks. That put him beyond the end of the minor league season, so a rehab assignment wasn’t an option, but after a little time in fall instructional league the Pirates called Kang up for the season’s final series. He pinch hit twice and played one game at third.
By the end of the 2018 season, it was unclear whether Kang would return to the Pirates. It quickly did become clear that they would not exercise his 2019 option but would instead try to sign him for a lesser amount. They were able to do this in early November. Kang will turn 32 at the beginning of the 2019 season and, after such a long layoff from major league action, it’s impossible to be certain whether he’ll be able to return to something near the level he was at in his first two seasons with the Pirates. He went into spring training in a competition with Colin Moran for the third base job and won it with the help of a poor spring by Moran.
UPDATE: Kang had an abysmal season, struggling to make contact and quickly losing the third base job to Moran. At the beginning of August, the Pirates designated him for assignment.
|2015: $2,500,000 (additional incentive bonuses apply to all years of contract)
|Signing Bonus: N/A
MiLB Debut: 2015
MLB Debut: 4/8/2015
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2019
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 1/16/2015
Options Remaining: 1 (USED: 2018)
MLB Service Time: 2.003
|January 16, 2015: Signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an international free agent.
November 8, 2018: Signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent (team had declined 2019 option).
August 2, 2019: Designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates.