Add Korean shortstop Jung-ho Kang to the list of international free agents hoping to make the jump to the major leagues in 2015.

The 27-year-old Kang is expected to be posted this offseason by the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization, though Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports hears it’s unlikely to happen until after the winter meetings (Dec. 7 through 11).

Regardless, Kang, who batted .356/.459/.739 with a career-high 40 home runs in 117 games for Nexen this past season, will soon become one of the more sought after free agents in a class that’s thin on impact hitters, let alone ones with legitimate power from a middle-infield position.

Kang was drafted by the Hyundai Unicorns in the second round of the 2006 KBO draft and made his professional debut later that year. However, the 19-year-old’s playing time was limited, as he served primarily as a defensive replacement and appeared in only 10 games, and he didn’t help his cause by going 3-for-20 at the plate.

Unfortunately, Kang’s sophomore campaign with the Unicorns the following year was eerily similar to his professional debut, as he went just 2-for-15 and appeared in 20 games, mostly as a defensive replacement.

Kang finally received regular playing time in 2008, though the circumstances surrounding the 21-year-old’s ascent to everyday-player status was interesting, to say the least.

From Steve Sypa of Amazin’ Avenue:

In 2008, the Hyundai Unicorns disbanded, and in its place, the Woori Heroes were born. Issues between Woori Bank, individual team owners (a rarity in Asian sports, in which teams are generally a subsidiary of their corporate sponsors), and the KBO led to Woori breaking the naming deal, leaving the Heroes unable to pay most of their veteran players. The team was forced to trade most of its star players and veterans, paving the way for the 21-year-old Jung-Ho Kang to get regular playing time.

The right-handed hitting Kang made the most of the opportunity and emerged as one of the KBO’s premier young talents, batting .271/.334/.392 with 27 extra-base hits in 116 games. He continued to make strides the following year with a .286/.349/.508 batting line in 133 games, but it was Kang’s improved power (23 home runs, 33 doubles) that really put him on the map.

Kang didn’t show as much power as a 23-year-old in 2010, amassing 12 home runs and 30 doubles in 133 games, but he still managed a career-best .301 batting average to go along with an .848 OPS. Kang’s production regressed even more in 2011; he still hit a very respectable .282, but tallied only nine home runs and 22 doubles in 123 games.

The 2012 season was when everything seemed to click for Kang, as he raked at a .314 clip over 124 games while contributing 25 home runs and 32 doubles. More importantly, Kang demonstrated vastly improved plate discipline by accruing nearly as many walks (71) as strikeouts (78), and he also came out of nowhere with a career-high 21 stolen bases.

Kang failed to build off his success in 2013, batting .291 with a career-worst 109 strikeouts over 126 games, but he still showed good power and speed with 22 home runs, 21 doubles and 15 stolen bases.

And then there’s Kang’s video game numbers from his latest campaign, which basically tell the whole story: .356/.459/.739 with 40 home runs, 36 doubles and 117 RBI.

Yeah—pretty good.

But how will Kang’s robust power and production translate in the majors next season? Luckily, there’s enough video of Kang from the past two years to get a feel for his swing and general offensive strength.

At 6’0”, 210 pounds, Kang’s upright setup at the plate allows him to employ an elongated and distinct leg kick, which is relatively common among power hitters. However, Kang tries to hold his weight on his backside for as long as possible, which in turn forces him to rush his front-foot timing and prevents him from achieving a favorable point of contact. Surprisingly, he does appear to maintain good balance throughout his swing and doesn’t land as violently on his front side as you’d expect.

Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kang struggles against good velocity in the big leagues, as his swing and timing mechanism could make him susceptible to fastballs on the inner half. That being said, Kang does possess above-average bat speed to go along with raw power to all fields, and he should run into his share of pitches even if he fails to hit for average.

Defensively, Kang appears to move well at shortstop, showing good athleticism with at least average range in all directions, and he also plays the position with a sense of creativity that aids him in making difficult plays. Kang’s arm strength is probably a better fit at second base than shortstop, but his smooth transfer and arm stroke allow him to get rid of the ball quickly without sacrificing any accuracy.

C.J. Nitkowski of Fox Sports has some concerns about Kang’s ability to remain at shortstop, but he believes that Kang will able to offset any defensive shortcoming with 15-20 home runs in a given season.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Keith Law (subscription required) also expects Kang’s power to translate in the major leagues:

…I see a swing that will generate legit plus power even once he leaves his hitter-friendly home park in the Yangcheon District of Seoul. Kang has a huge leg kick and gets his lead foot down late, which could create timing issues, but the swing is rotational, and I don’t think the power surge he has had the past three years is strictly a function of the rising level of offense in the KBO

Law also has his doubts about Kang’s long-term future at shortstop, though he says he’d give Kang “every chance to show he can handle the position, especially given the scarcity in the middle infield in this free-agent crop.”

Once Nexen officially posts Kang, teams will be able to bid freely on the 27-year-old to determine negotiating rights. Should Nexen accept the highest bid, which Nitkowski estimates will be somewhere in the $5 million to $8 million range, then Kang will be clear to sign with an MLB team.

Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe believes Kang will get “serious money” this offseason, and names the St. Louis Cardinals as a team that could be interested in Kang’s services. Meanwhile, a report from Global Sporting Integration (via The Korea Times) notes that the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks have all scouted Kang in Korea.

It’s still too early to say which teams stand the best chance of landing Kang this offseason, or for that matter how much they might be willing to pay, but it’s clear there won’t be a shortage of potential suitors for the 27-year-old shortstop.


All stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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