Already blessed with a future that looks plenty bright, there’s a chance the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ future will look even brighter before long. It depends on what will become of their newest acquisition.

If you’re just now joining us, that’s Jung-ho Kang

Kang is a 27-year-old shortstop from South Korea who was posted by the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization last month. The Pirates won his exclusive negotiating rights, and Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio reported Monday that the two sides have a deal:

Because it cost the Pirates about $5 million to win the rights to negotiate with Kang, their four-year investment in him is going to cost them at least $21 million. Not quite dirt cheap, but hardly a lot of money by today’s standards. 

And if all you want to consult is the numbers, it will look like cold-blooded highway robbery.

Kang is coming off a season in which he hit .356 with a 1.198 OPS and 40 home runs. For his career, he’s a .298 hitter with an .886 OPS in seven seasons. At a time when the average major league shortstop is only managing a .678 OPS, such numbers will make you drool if you keep them free of context.

But as we discussed when the Pirates first won Kang‘s rights, you don’t want to take Kang‘s numbers at face value. His major league projection is uncertain. By extension, so is the role he’s cut out for.

One issue is that the current offensive environment in the KBO is the opposite of the current offensive environment in Major League Baseball. While nobody is hitting here, everybody is hitting over there. It’s also noteworthy that the record of hitters successfully making the jump from the KBO to MLB is empty.

Just as important, Kang‘s game doesn‘t come without question marks.

B/R’s Mike Rosenbaum was right to highlight how Kang‘s hitting mechanics could make him vulnerable to good heat, a major concern in light of how velocity-crazy MLB has become. Further, Ben Badler’s scouting report in Baseball America says Kangdoesn’t have the range to play shortstop in the majors.”

So what is it the Pirates see in Kang, you ask?

Good question. Manager Clint Hurdle didn’t exactly tip the organization’s hand when he was asked about Kang on Monday.

“I know that the thought going in was that, if we were able to acquire Jung-ho, it would be to add quality to our team in a number of different ways,” Hurdle told Tom Singer of “We’ll see how it plays out — but I do love the fact we continue to find ways to be creative, to be proactive.”

With the Pirates putting on a good poker face, it’s up to us to get creative in our own right and project how Kang could fit into the organization going forward.

Which leads us to the good news: As easy as it is to downplay Kang‘s star potential, it’s equally easy to spot potential roles for him to play.

Though Kang doesn‘t project to be a star shortstop, one need not be a star to be useful. It could be the Pirates think Kang has enough skills to pass as an everyday shortstop who’s simply good enough.

If so, they might not be wrong. 

Though Kang‘s swing appears to have some holes in it, the consensus is that he has enough raw power to hit 15-20 homers with regular playing time. That kind of power production is rare at shortstop, and Kang could make it all the more valuable if he shows he is indeed capable of playing solid defense.

While Baseball America doesn‘t see that happening, Rosenbaum and’s Keith Law—he sees a shortstop with an above-average arm and “good enough hands” who “gets good reads off the bat”—are more optimistic. If the Pirates see what they see, then it’s possible they have themselves a power-hitting shortstop with a solid glove.

If that’s what Kang is, then there’s not much standing in his way of becoming Pittsburgh’s everyday shortstop.

That’s a role that currently belongs to Jordy Mercer. He’s better than you probably think, but he’s also 28 and likely doesn‘t offer any upside beyond last year’s career-best 2.0 WAR (per FanGraphs) as Pittsburgh’s regular shortstop. A roadblock he is not.

Maybe Kang can take Mercer’s job right away, which could very well be as simple as him showing strong in spring training while Mercer struggles. If that doesn‘t pan out, he’ll have time to position himself for Mercer’s job before top prospect Alen Hanson emerges as a real threat for it.

Regardless of when it happens, Kang hitting and fielding well enough to pass as an everyday shortstop is the best-case scenario for the Pirates. If they get their wish, they’ll be very happy with their $21 million investment.

If not, the more realistic projection for Kang‘s future could still serve them well. 

As FanGraphs‘ Jeff Sullivan highlighted, the realistic projection for Kang‘s future was revealed in the bidding for his negotiating rights: “It’s clear from the winning bid how Kang is perceived, league-wide. If teams believed he were a starter, the bid would’ve been at least triple [Pittsburgh’s $5 million bid].”

This is to say the league really sees Kang as more of a role player. Badler’s scouting report says the same thing, specifically that Kang projects to be an “offensive-oriented utility player” who could play second and third base in addition to shortstop.

That, obviously, is a role that’s not quite as sexy as that of a power-hitting, solid-fielding everyday shortstop. But $21 million over four years is hardly an exorbitant price to pay for a player like that. And with only Justin Sellers and Sean Rodriguez projected as depth behind Mercer at short, Neil Walker at second and Josh Harrison at third, a player like that would also look good on Pittsburgh’s bench.

Compared to Rodriguez and Sellers, Kang also looks like solid insurance in the event Mercer struggles and/or Harrison regresses after his amazing 2014 season. A little further on down the line, he could also work as a solid in-house solution if Walker leaves as a free agent after 2016.

All told, the only way Kang‘s contract is going to hurt the Pirates is if he never does anything in the majors. But even if that happens, it won’t be a crippling blow.

The Pirates have been to the playoffs two years in a row, and FanGraphs projects their 2015 squad to contend for the NL Central title. And because their roster is made up largely of cheap youth with plenty more talented youth waiting in the wingsRosenbaum ranked Pittsburgh’s farm system No. 5 at the end of the MiLB season—it’s no wonder ranked the Pirates at No. 6 in its Future Power Rankings.

Point being: the Pirates don’t need Kang to be a savior. If he does bust, their only regret will be losing $21 million. And though they’re not the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers, even the Pirates can afford to swallow that much money in this day and age.

On the flip side, Pittsburgh’s future will become slightly brighter if its investment in Kang yields a solid utility player. If Kang makes good on his most optimistic outlook and settles in as Pittsburgh’s new everyday shortstop, Pittsburgh’s future will be brightened more than slightly.

In all, the figures of Kang‘s contract haven’t changed anything. The Pirates looked like the right team to take a chance on him when they won his rights, and they still do.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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